How I write: Fantasy

  • Fantasy has many subgenres, the commonest being epic and urban.
  • Fantasy tropes can be deconstructed and subverted while retaining the power that made them tropes.
  • The reader of a fantasy story will assume anything is possible unless shown it isn’t.
  • Metaphor is misleading as a reader unfamiliar with the story world may take it literally.

Keoni Cabral (CC / Flickr)

Sometimes, the real world just doesn’t do it. The boss’s mood has been black for as long as the sky has been grey and the blank page in front of me remains resolutely white. It needs an injection of ghosts, monsters or magic to reinstate colour.

That’s fantasy.

What is fantasy?

As with any broad genre definition, fantasy has a host of sub-genres. For most people, ‘fantasy’ conjures images of big men with swords battling hordes of inhuman creatures, aided or hindered by spell-weaving magicians. They think of the worlds of JRR Tolkein or if there’s any nudity or bad language, of George RR Martin. That is ‘high’ or ‘epic’ fantasy, which has been hugely popular since Robert E Howard’s Conan the Barbarian smashed his first skull.

I don’t write much of that.


Stuart Rankin

I’ve only written one story set in an alternate fantasy world. Perchance to Dream was set largely in Hades, the Greco-Roman afterlife and I confess, it did have one big man with a spear if not a sword. I don’t think that qualifies it as true epic fantasy as he was a minor character plagiarised from the Iliad, and Homer never described Achilles falling on his arse.

The rest of my fantasy stories fall under ‘urban’ fantasy, in which the supernatural appears in the real world. Like most people who write urban fantasy, I don’t take the words ‘urban’ literally. My characters have encountered the supernatural in the middle of a swamp or under the English Channel. Nor is there any reason for the setting to be contemporary. I once put a necromancer in the middle of Regency London.

The latter was one of several stories I’d classify as ‘dark’ fantasy as much as ‘urban’ fantasy. Dark fantasy overlaps with horror but unlike horror, it needs to have a supernatural element otherwise it is not fantasy at all.

A question I’ve never heard a good answer to is what is the difference between urban fantasy and magical realism. Why are Ben Okri’s The Famished Road and Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude magical realism while Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and Lauren Beukes’s Zoo City  are urban fantasy? The only answer I’ve heard that makes sense to me is ‘because the publisher’s marketing department says so’, proving for the umpteenth time that fiction often refuses to be categorised.

The ghost in the trope of the ghost


Hartwig HKD (CC / Flickr)

As I’m talking about how I write rather than describing the genre as a whole, I’ll stick to my own approach to urban fantasy. I often start by deconstructing a fantasy trope. For example, ghosts have been staples of literature for a very long time. They touch the psyche at a very deep level. If I can work out what that is, I can use it without writing a story that is too derivative of everything else using that trope.

Trying to understand what the fictional ghost really is spawned the idea that became Coldwater Cottage. I stuck to fiction because as Susan Hill, author of The Woman in Black, said in a podcast I pontificated about a few months ago, people who claim to have seen a real ghost usually describe something floating around aimlessly. They don’t do anything interesting enough to base a story around.

There are several descriptions of ghosts that I’ve run across:

  • A victim of injustice who cannot find rest until justice is restored.
  • The perpetrator of an injustice seeking redemption.
  • Someone trying to prevent the recurrence of a tragedy they were at the centre of.

Pedro Moura Pinheiro (CC / Flickr)

All of these ghosts arise from a past event that offended the idea of natural justice. In that sense, there is something comforting about the most disquieting ghosts if its existence proves the existence of natural justice.

Another common factor is that the fictional ghost is a remnant of someone who is now dead. It was that aspect that struck me as being ripe for subversion. Anglophone literature has its roots in Christian beliefs, one of which is that the mortal body contains an immortal soul. When the death of the body released the soul, the breach of justice kept it trapped in the corporeal world.

When I associate the trope with Christianity, I do not mean to say that everyone who writes within that trope is proselytising, or that the idea of the unquiet soul is unique to Christian-based cultures. What I mean is that it is such a pervasive trope in Anglophone literature, not to mention film, that it is a powerful influence on anyone writing within that cultural background.

I asked myself where I could separate the idea of a need to restore natural justice from the idea of a wandering soul. If it wasn’t a soul, I asked myself, what was it? Perhaps extreme emotion leaves an imprint that might interact with other people in the same place, especially if they were connected to whatever caused the emotion in the first place. There was no need for the person who left the imprint to have died. We’re all haunted by our own memories. What if some things leave a memory so powerful that it can haunt someone else?

A ghost belongs in a haunted house, but everyone’s read about one of those before. In keeping with my philosophy that the setting should always be distinctive, I dropped the house into the sea. Apart from making the exploration of the house more interesting, it would explain why no one has ever seen that type of ghost before. You have to add water.


Lotus Carroll (CC / Flickr)

Establish the premises

In fantasy, anything is possible which, paradoxically, is a constraint to writing it. When the reader hits the first sentence, all they know is that familiar limitations may not apply. I need to make it clear how the story world differs from the familiar world very early on. In urban fantasy, the setting often appears to be in the real world so it needs to be clear if the characters are aware of a supernatural element from the outset. In Coldwater Cottage, the protagonist’s belief that he is in the real world leaves him hopelessly unprepared for what is waiting for him. In other stories, which I can’t name without giving away spoilers, the characters’ beliefs in the supernatural mislead them.

As with any genre, the story should orientate the reader to the world the characters inhabit, or believe they inhabit, from the beginning. It’s impossible to develop characters when the reader doesn’t know whether their actions make them ordinary, courageous or foolhardy. At the beginning, the reader is actively looking for who and what is important. As the story progresses, they will be looking more at what is happening and less at where they are, so they will lose their suspension of disbelief if the premises suddenly change.


Anna Fischer (CC / Flickr)

To put it another way, if the protagonist is a regular guy who spends the first thousand words in Edinburgh city centre, he’d better be surprised if he bumps into a dragon the size of a Diplodocus on the Royal Mile. If he was as ignorant of the existence of dragons as the reader and acts accordingly, the reader will stay with him. If it becomes apparent that meeting dragons is an everyday occurrence, the reader will have to pull back and revise their idea of where they thought they were. If the protagonist shares the world with dragons, the reader needs to know from the beginning.

Setting out the premise is more important in fantasy than in most other tropes because if a story has a supernatural element, it is usually pivotal to the story. The limitations of the supernatural are likely to be central to the story’s tension, so the reader needs to know what can or can’t be done supernaturally. A story about a wizard needs to establish the limitations of his magic otherwise the reader won’t understand why he doesn’t solve every problem he has with magic.

Metaphors are dangerous

I have to be careful not to allow imagery to become misleading. If I’m leading a reader through an unfamiliar world, they won’t know what can and can’t be real so they’re likely to take metaphors literally. Imagery helps if it likens an imaginary element to something familiar, but only if it’s clear that’s what is happening.


Aldo Cavini Benedetti (CC / Flickr)

For example, there’s a point in Coldwater Cottage where a SCUBA diver has entered a house on the sea bed. Some strange things have happened, but the diver doesn’t understand what is going on. The reader has the advantage of knowing the diver is in a fantasy story while the diver doesn’t, but they don’t know the terms of the fantasy until the diver encounters them. The diver looks up ‘to see the bubble of air he’d already exhaled spreading across the ceiling like a glass tomb for the mattress’. In a story set unambiguously in the real world, he could have simply looked up and simply seen a mattress in a tomb of bubbles. It would have been much briefer but it would have risked misleading readers wondering if someone had deliberately built a tomb of bubbles for a mattress.

Putting my stories where my mouth is

If you’re trying to evaluate what I’ve said here, the only way to do so is to see what you think of my results. My fantasy stories are:

Full text of Cassandra’s Cargo

Preview of Coldwater Cottage

Preview of Perchance to Dream

Preview of Summer Holidays

Preview of The Redeemed

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Posted in Wednesday Pontification, Writing

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