Some thoughts on the process of writing in one of the genriest of genres.
I’ve wanted to write a work of fantasy since I started writing. And in fact I began my career (in 2nd Grade) with a story called Sorfanzorck where different types of monsters do battle in a world called Sorfanzorck. I tried a few times as I got older to write a bigger and better one (including Sorfanzorck 2), but I always gave up. As I got older and started writing more fiction, I thought up plenty of ideas for novels (fantasy and otherwise), but I didn’t write a complete draft of one until I was *checks notes* 22 years old. It was a family drama, which is a far cry from high fantasy. The next novel I wrote was a fairly subdued literary fiction type deal, and while the supernatural crept into the novella I wrote after that, it was still about a young boy in 1960’s rural Wisconsin.
But, in the meantime, I was delving more and more into fantasy storytelling, as much of my last year or so has been devoted to the Tolkien legendarium and A Song of Ice and Fire + Game of Thrones. In so doing, I found myself thinking up my own fantasy stories, or bits and pieces of them, but I was hesitant to try to put them together into a full story. It felt pointless to do so when there are so many towering achievements in the genre, as well as myriad lesser imitations that have still managed to get published. It was the wrong way to think, but I was feeling like my fantasy world needed to do or say something in a distinct voice.
The push I needed to start writing turned out to be the final season of Thrones, not because it was good, but because it wasn’t. In my frustration with the ways the storytelling faltered, especially in comparison to all of the thoughtful fan theories that had been going around for years, I thought it was time to go for it, even though at that point all I really had were a few general characters, scenes, and concepts to work with. Many people, including the incomparable Dr. Ed Risden, say to write what you want to read, rather than just wishing that story had been written by someone else. Writing a fantasy of my own was a way to engage with my love of and disappointment in Game of Thrones.
My endeavor reinforced the fact that writing fantasy is really challenging, but it also made it clear to me that it is doable and that so many of the mistakes made by certain Emmy-nominated writers are inexcusable. Here are some things I learned in the experience of writing a fantasy novel:
It’s harder than writing other fiction. This is another reason why I was hesitant to start writing; writing a novel is hard enough without having to account for all the world building that goes into writing fantasy. What does this world look like? Who lives there? What technology exists? Are there non-human creatures? Is there magic, and, if so, how does it work? These questions (and many more) have to be answered in order to make the world feel real, and the rules of the world have to be consistent. A strong sense of place is necessary in all fiction, but it’s easier to guide the reader through 2000’s rural Wisconsin than it is to bring them into an imagined world, even if the reader is familiar with some standard fantasy conventions and tropes.
It’s also easier than writing other fiction. Turns out, being able to make things up is easier than following the rules. As I just said, writing fantasy requires the author to establish and follow in-universe rules, but that can be easier than abiding by the rules of this universe. Writing a period piece requires looking up things like what year Ben E. King released “Stand By Me” and what kind of trucks people drove in the 50’s and 60’s. Writing contemporary literary fiction requires a realistic imitation of the world that all your readers are familiar with. But in a fantasy world, I get to decide how the government works, how far it is between here and there, what kind of weapons people use, and how the class system makes people feel. I have to be consistent with those made up things, and consider how the imagined rules impact the characters, but there are times when that can be easier than trying to imitate what the real world is like.
Names, maps, and languages are not just bells and whistles. This is both a routine annoyance and a fundamental part of building a world. What to name your characters and your places, and why? Names and the sounds of names mean something. The language people use changes how they relate to each other and understand their world. It isn’t necessary to invent a language before writing a fantasy novel, but at the same time Tolkien’s approach to world-building is not just an extra move by a gifted philologist. A working system of words help breathe a world into existence. Rather than try to make up names, I used a name generator (which is itself an impressive work – follow that link and check out Emily’s project). Even doing that was not mindless or random. In the future, I’m sure I will change many of the names to increase the consistency, and while doing it this way worked fine, it revealed how a world can be enriched by a good system of language and naming.
So too with places – the actual shape and topography of the world. I haven’t created a map yet, but I will have to at some point. It gets tricky, because things need to happen in specific places, and those places need to be the right distance from each other, and what is next to what will affect what happens where. Again, Tolkien established his maps early, and while “Of Beleriand and Its Realms” is rightly considered the driest chapter of The Silmarillion, it’s still part of an important task in building the world.
Building the world helps tell the story. In describing the interior of a palace-type building, I referred to how the art and architecture represented the historical time period when those parts of the palace were constructed, giving my world history. One of my characters is a high-ranking official, and in her first chapter she brushes off the supplications of a low-level official, and then I thought hey, I want to know what’s up with that guy, so I made him another point of view character. A valuable metal is crucial to life in my world, but in order to make it more than a McGuffin, I considered how its value would impact society, and what would happen if one of the characters discovered it in their lands. World building is hard and takes times, but through it the story reveals itself.
Chekhov’s lore is useful and a ton of fun. Sometimes worldbuilding involves referring in passing to a person place or thing, and the first time its mentioned I might not really know much about that person place or thing. But then, later on, an opportunity will arise to mention that person place or thing again, and this time it feels much more real and much less like a place-holder. It’s important in storytelling to set things up ahead of time, and sometimes this can be done by just referring back to something mentioned earlier. This is also a way that symbols and themes can emerge in telling a story. I didn’t know that fire would be an important symbol in my story, but it just sort of arose naturally as a recurring thing.
It’s surprisingly easy to insert social commentary, but a little subtlety is important. One of the (many) reasons it is ridiculous to deride fantasy as escapist is because so often it reflects or comments on our own lived reality. We can see this in the psychology of characters, but also in their sociological conditions. I found, in constructing a society, that it was a natural thing to invoke our own social issues, both intentionally and without thinking about it. Either way, I found that the more overt it was, it was more likely to jar a reader out of the world and not match with the tone of the story. I also found that it was useful to have multiple characters give a perspective on an issue.
It’s important to consider how to go about making intentional references to social issues, but I also found how easy it is invoke various issues unintentionally. Race and gender are tricky in fantasy, and I’m not going to try to give this a full discussion in one small post right now, but suffice to say that as a white American male it is too easy to fall into the familiar mistakes.
Characters still matter (duh). A fantasy story has the inherent advantages of constructing a captivating world full of intriguing creatures and powers, but I found myself still most drawn to making great characters and having them interact with one another. I wrote my most favorite character ever in this story, and, for the first time, I got a little bit emotional when I killed a character off. It’s easy when writing genre fiction to rely on tropes and archetypes – I don’t have to do as much work to acquaint you with the wise old man as with some rando guy in rural Wisconsin – and it’s okay to use tropes and archetypes to some extent, but it’s even better to write in relation to those existing conventions. It’s become exhausting to mention “subverting expectations” in relation to Thrones, but what made Jaime arguably the best character in the books and in the show (until they made a mess of it) was the way his character subverted the idea of the knight in shining armor.
World building is crucial to fantasy storytelling, but the story becomes something special when compelling characters act within that world and interact with each other.
There’s no internet. It’s fun to write about a world where people hear things via word of mouth. I love the the way this works in ASoIaF + Thrones, and actually the video game Skyrim uses it to nice effect, too. People hear about things going on in the world days after they happen, and probably with some healthy embellishment, and they talk about them with each other (“did you hear,” “they say,” “then I took an arrow in the knee”). It’s a lot more interesting to have your characters talk about something you wrote a few chapters earlier than it is to describe a scene of a bunch of people staring at their phones (if you’re reading this on your phone please finish reading, share a link to my blog, and then put your phone away).
Earned epic moments are fun to write, not just to read. I don’t mind reading and writing little scenes. I enjoy writing dialogue. Many of my favorite things to read are not necessarily plot-driven, and my own longer works often lack drama. But oh man is it fun to write an epic banger of a chapter. We love these moments in fantasy stories that give us chills. I can now confirm they are fun to write, not just read. However, I was reminded of how important it is for these moments to be earned. In this most recent work, one of the first ideas I had was for this dramatic moment in a battle, but it didn’t end up happening until one of the last chapters. So much of the the story went into setting it up, and I had to be patient even though I wanted so much to write it. The moment did not disappoint, and I love what I came up with, and I love the way the rest of the story built towards it.
And, lastly, I feel more sympathy for George. I have taken a fairly moderate stance towards George R.R. Martin’s lack of progress in finishing The Winds of Winter, let alone A Dream of Spring. I understood why it was taking him so long, and recognized he was carrying quite a burden, but I also couldn’t quite wrap my head around why he wouldn’t just freaking go for it and finish the damn thing. My guess is I would be even more frustrated if I wasn’t such a new reader (there are people who have been waiting 23 years for this saga to end). However, now, after trying in earnest to write some fantasy, I understand just a little better the challenge he is facing. I’m already starting to see how much I have to keep track of while trying to construct a coherent narrative, and my world is 1/100 the size of Martin’s. He has the expectations of millions of readers, so he has to get it right, and, well, knowing what “right” is can be quite challenging. You can do it, George!
That’s all for now. Maybe someday you’ll step into the world I’m working on, but for now I’m glad you took the time to read this. Look for another (quite different) post next week.
Forth now, and fear no darkness.
Soli Deo Gloria
~click the number to return to the text~
1 Oh goodness me that is a terrible way to start a blog post. But it’s true.
2 And it was baaaaaaaad. But that’s okay! There was some good in there, and writing is like anything else that requires failures to improve.
3 For the most part, I tried to not think about the last two seasons or engage with Thrones-related content for a few months after the finale. It’s only recently I’ve started thinking back on how bad they were. I really, really enjoyed Lindsay Ellis’ two-part breakdown of the problematic writing.
4 I always type this word “endeavour” without thinking and I want to leave it that way but the squiggly red line is just too much for my OCD brain. That’s an Anglicization we need back.
5 Just wanted to take this opportunity to say I love The Silmarillion and also it is better than The Hobbit and we need to stop scaring people away from it by saying it is challenging and/or boring.
6 Speaking of The Silmarillion, sometimes I just think about Fingolfin calling out the most powerful being in Middle-Earth to fight him and I’m just like man. That’s got to be the most epic moment besides Húrin’s last stand.