Genre Tips: How to Write Fantasy

Genre is an important consideration for any writer. Not only can identifying your story’s genre (and perhaps subgenre) help you create cohesion and resonance amongst your plot, character arcs, and theme, it will also be a crucial piece of information when it comes time to market your story to readers. Today, I’m opening a five-part series examining major fiction genres, beginning with, “How to write fantasy?”

Last fall, I asked you to tell me what topics you’d most like to see featured here on the site. One that was repeatedly mentioned was that of genre tips. I haven’t written much about genre before, in part because most of the tips and techniques I teach here are not genre-specific and can be directly applied or modified to fit any type of story. Also, I do not consider myself a genre expert. There are some genres I read hardly at all (such as horror) that I can’t comment on. There are other genres (such as romance) that are so specialized that their guidelines are often much more specific than for other genres. And there are, simply, many genres (such as mystery) that, although I may read or watch them, I do not personally write them and therefore don’t have a great depth of experience or knowledge about their inner workings.

That said, because genre is an inevitably important topic for writers to consider and because so many of you asked for my take, I thought it would be fun to go on a whirlwind tour of five major genres: Fantasy, Romance, Historical, Mystery, and Literary. In each installment, I will be looking at unique considerations for the Big Three—plot, character, and theme—as well as any other particular pitfalls or pointers I’ve gleaned from my own experience with these stories.

5 Tips for How to Write Fantasy

We begin with one of my personal favorite genres: fantasy. Three out of five of my published novels have some element of fantasy, and the WIP I am working on at the moment is my second full-blown fantasy. The genre is broad with many subgenres but always includes some fantastical element—something magical or foreign that does not exist in reality. This fantastical element may be inserted into our own world (as in subgenres I’ve personally explored, such as portal fantasydieselpunk, or gaslamp fantasy). Or, more strictly, the entire world and premise may be based on a fantasy world. Classically, this fantasy world is often medieval in nature, but in recent decades fantasy worlds have become much more diverse in source inspiration.

Fantasy is a milieu genre, which means the genre trappings can provide the backdrop to many types of stories. For example, beats of a romance or mystery can take place within fantasy milieu. More traditionally, fantasy is known for its epic stories of quests and conquests in the style of myths and legends or archetypal journeys (such as the Hero’s Journey). In this post, I will be primarily talking about this more traditional type of epic fantasy. Other fantasy subgenres will draw upon classic fantasy tropes, but will blend them with those of other genres.

Beginnings in Fantasy: Do You Need a Prologue?

Back in the day, it seemed like a prologue was almost a required trope for a fantasy novel. Mostly these prologues were used to explain some of the world lore or perhaps ancient backstory, in order to get readers up to speed with the rules and history of the story. I feel like we’re not seeing quite as many prologues these days, and on the whole I count this as a good thing, since fantasy stories often seemed particularly prone to all the pitfalls of a prologue.

The most common pitfall is the prologue functioning as a prettified (and sometimes not-so-prettified) info dump. In a huge fantasy story, sometimes there is no good way around this. But usually there are much more artful ways to share information. One thing to keep in mind is that the readership of fantasy has evolved greatly over the past 70 years or so. This is now a mainstream genre with highly familiar tropes. Readers understand they are entering a new world, and they know how to pick up cues about the setting and the world as they follow the characters around. They won’t need to have everything spelled out for them in the very beginning; doing so can, in fact, harm your story’s subtext.

That said, many successful prologues exist to hook readers into the story, rather than to exercise the author’s self-indulgence or insecurity about the world details. The same rules apply to prologues as to the beginning of any story, but the chief thing to keep in mind is that whenever you include a prologue, you are asking readers to begin your story twice, since they will have to start all over with the story’s “real” scenario in the first chapter. Just make sure you’ve hooked them in both the prologue and the first chapter.

For Example: The prologues in Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles function solely as hooks, showing readers the mysterious and compelling contrast between the teenage protagonist in the main part of the book and the legend he grows into.

Settings in Fantasy: Know Your Story World and Magic System

As a milieu genre, fantasy is all about the setting. When reading these stories, readers get to enjoy seeing something new (or at least familiar elements rearranged in unexpected ways). This is also what draws many writers to the genre. Certainly, it was what drew me. My first love was historical fiction, but I grew frustrated with the confines of “the facts” and moved over to fantasy where I could retain a historical aesthetic without the constraints.

However, just because the possibilities for your fantasy world are endless doesn’t mean you’re free to do anything. The best fantasy settings firmly ground themselves within their own realities. You may not be limited, but your story should be. Your fantasy’s geography, culture, and magic system (if appropriate) must all feel just as concrete to readers as would a well-researched story about, say, Paris or Tetzcoco. Don’t kid yourself: research for a fantasy story can be just as extensive as for a historical story.

More than that, fantasy settings and magic systems must be carefully planned to create a seamless aesthetic. Magic systems, in particular, often create symbolism, whether intentional or not, so consider what the final use of magic in your story’s Climax says about your story’s theme. Everything should pull together to create a seamless big picture.

Two fast tips for planning your fantasy world:

1. Use Patricia C. Wrede’s amazingly extensive “Fantasy World-Building Questions” to make sure you’re thinking through every part of your world.

2. To help with the research load later on, keep a running log of tidbits you run onto in your non-fantasy reading. For example, as an avid reader of history, I will often come across an anecdote or fact about historical life that I might be able to use later on to make my fantasy world feel more realistic and dimensional.

For Example: No modern writer is more well-known for his incredible worldbuilding than fantasy maestro Brandon Sanderson. The Climax of his Mistborn series couldn’t have happened at all without the existence of the world’s particular type of metal-based magic—making the overall effect feel seamless and integral.

Story Structure in Fantasy: Watch Your Timing and Keep Tabs on What Happens Between Beats

One of the main questions I received about genre in general was: How does genre affect story structure? The short answer is it doesn’t. Classic story structure offers nothing more than the general shape of a story arc; the timing and the essence of the basic plot points can be applied to any genre. However, each genre then tightens itself up with even more specific beats.

New book coming in March!

In fantasy, perhaps more than any other type of story, those beats are often most aligned to that of the classic Hero’s Journey—or other archetypal journeys (such as the Maiden, Queen, King, Crone, and Mage.) I’ve talked about these beats extensively in my series on archetypal character arcs and in my upcoming book Writing Archetypal Character Arcs (coming in March!). These beats are not exclusive to the fantasy genre, but they are played out most literally in fantasy, since this genre often purposefully brings the symbolism of these archetypes to life on the page (e.g., a Dragon antagonist might be a literal dragon in a fantasy story).

One other major concept to be aware of when it comes to story structure in fantasy is the timing of the beats. Because fantasy stories are notoriously long, the timing of the story’s major structural turning points (which ideally divide the story into eight equal parts) doesn’t have to be as precise as in shorter stories. However, the potential pitfall here is that the extreme length between structural turning points, resulting from the long word count, can become tedious for readers.

Structuring Your Novel IPPY Award 165

Structuring Your Novel (Amazon affiliate link)

The rule here is simple: Just make sure the plot is actually moving (i.e., the story is changing) in each scene and chapter.

Far too many fantasies fill their word counts with characters moving about and perhaps even fighting, but nothing happens because nothing changes. A good way to trim your word count and/or tighten up structural timing is to examine each scene for whether or not it is progressing either the plot or the character’s arc in a meaningful way.

For Example: Several well-known fantasy stories come to mind as negative examples of stories that strained readers’ patience (or at least mine) with their uneven structural timing and lack of plot-moving events. I won’t list them all, since I don’t generally like calling out negative examples, but I did offer an extensive structural breakdown of one (ironically the sequel to one of my all-time favorite fantasy novels) here. You can find structural breakdowns of Fantasy Books and Fantasy Movies in the Story Structure Database.

Learn how to write fantasy stories by studying popular books and movies in the genre.

Characters in Fantasy: Choose Your Protagonist and Your Antagonist Carefully

Protagonists in fantasy are traditionally heroic, but can run the gamut as in any genre. Depending on the story’s stakes, the antagonist is usually a big bad, wielding a tremendous amount of tyrannical or even apocalyptic power. Characters are often purposefully archetypal in some way, but their humanity should never be taken for granted.

When I’m searching for a new fantasy to read, one of the first things I check is how dimensional the characters seem. Because fantasy is a genre that’s all about setting, some writers get sucked into the shiny glitziness of their world but end up with cardboard stock characters. As a reader, I am always turned off by this. I want to see characters of deep humanity moving through this exciting new world.

Less obvious but sneakily just as important is the antagonist. Antagonists can make or break the logic of a story’s plot. If the antagonist’s motive fails to make sense or support the scope of the stakes, the story will stutter, sometimes fatally. Choose your antagonist with care. You can start by examining what archetypal antagonist fits your protagonist’s arc. From there, make sure your antagonist’s motivation makes sense at every step of the plot. If the antagonist isn’t personally present with the protagonist for much of the conflict, you’ll want to make sure “antagonistic proxies” show up in a way that supports and does not diverge from the main conflict with the main antagonist.

For Example: One of my all-time favorite fantasy novels, Anthony Ryan’s Blood Song, earns that status mostly on the back of its incredibly well-realized protagonist. The book is somewhat unusual in the genre for focusing solely on its protagonist’s POV, but thanks to the depth of the character, it works stunningly.

Theme in Fantasy: Symbolism Is of Extra Importance

These days, fantasy has become so mainstream we accept its tropes as part of our own reality. However, the roots of fantasy are deeply symbolic. Seminal fantasy stories such as The Lord of the Rings drew directly from mythology and history to create fables that symbolized humanity’s actual structures. Other stories, such as The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, took this principle even further as deliberate allegories.

One of the most magnificent features of fantasy is its ability to access this potent symbolism—I call it a “hotline to the subconscious.” Not every fantasy story will necessarily dial up this hotline on purpose, but because the genre itself exists as a sort of “metaphor” for real life, it’s capacity for symbolism is almost unavoidable. If you can wield this power consciously, you can significantly up your story’s potential.

Writing Your Story’s Theme (Amazon affiliate link)

At its simplest, what this entails is simply choosing every piece of your story with intention: its setting, its historical influences, its magic system, its protagonist/antagonist/supporting cast and their respective character arcs, its imagery, etc. In short, everything. Make sure they are all part of a seamless whole.

For Example: The magic system you create should directly interact with the protagonist’s personal arc, as in the Harry Potter stories, in which the love and friendship Harry cultivates throughout the series becomes crucial to the magic needed to defeat the antagonist in the end.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 (2010), Warner Bros.

You can then take it all up a notch by purposefully choosing the metaphor you wish to convey through your story and crafting everything in the story to support that symbolism.

For Example: If the thematic premise you wish to explore is that of humans’ self-destructive relationship to nature, you might create a story such Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, in which every element is chosen for its deeper symbolism in relation to this premise.

Princess Mononoke (1997), Studio Ghibli.


What started as an often reviled genre “just for geeks” has become one of the most popular genres of our time. It combines its endless potential for imagination and innovation with deep roots in archetype and myth, creating the possibility for both exciting adventure and profound resonance. I hope these quick tips prove helpful as you spin fantasies of your own!

Stay Tuned: Next week, we’ll talk about how to write romance!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Do you write (or perhaps just enjoy reading) fantasy? Do you have any further thoughts on how to write fantasy? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. Grace Dvorachek says

    I have a question about my recently-finished novel… it has medieval vibes, but it’s a fictional country, so it wouldn’t be considered historical fiction. But since there aren’t any mythical creatures or magic in it, I’m not sure that it could be called fantasy, either. Is there a way to figure that out?

    • Check out historical fantasy under the fantasy sub-genres.

    • I would call it a low-magic fantasy. Fantasy doesn’t inherently mean that there’s magical elements, just that it’s in a world other than our own.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Definitely still fantasy. If it doesn’t happen in reality, it’s speculative fiction of some sort and if it has a historical vibe (versus a futuristic vibe), it’s more likely to be fantasy than sci fi. As Todd mentioned, historical fantasy might be a good fit–although many of those stories happen within our actual history but with fantasy elements inserted (such as His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novak).

    • Check if it’s a Ruritanian Romance, such as “The Princess Bride”. Those are adventure stories that take place in fictional countries in our world. In TPB: Humperdink is prince of “Florin” which is at war with “Gildur,” and they know about Spaniards, Australians, Sicilians, and have rules that you should “never get involved in a land war in Asia.”

      Readers generally expect magic in a fantasy at the very least. Note that A Song of Ice and Fire is considered “low fantasy,” but you still have dragons and walkers and magic.

      I wonder if you might not call it a folktale, which don’t require magic specifically. One of the early covers of TPB had a tagline that said it was “a hot fairy tale.”

      “Adventures in Made-Up-Landia “? might be a series marker or such.

    • Is it historically accurate?

  2. I write gene hybrids such as science fantasy, which differ from sub-genres. I enjoy writing about worlds in which science and fantasy work, or advanced science seems like magic, or extreme paranormal abilities appear magical. But the most fun is blending them all.

    • Teresa Patcheson says

      I identify with your ideas, Todd, as I, too, write science/fantasy hybrids. The challenges are unique in making that work, especially if one’s medieval style world has to deal with invaders from the stars, lol!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, the best thing about speculative fiction is that the possibilities are limitless!

  3. Good morning! So grateful for this series. Just attended a workshop that was supposed to be about writing mysteries but turned out to be Writing 101 (character development and plotting – nothing specific to mystery writing). One good thing – the presenter mentioned your website as a good place to learn about character arcs!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Mystery is probably my weakest genre of the five mentioned, but hopefully I can still bring something helpful to the post.

  4. I’m writing a fantasy poem. Wondering what special guidelines may apply to that.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’m not a poet myself, so I’m afraid I’m not able to offer my info on that.

    • Gary Lee Webb says

      Something you can do to make your poetry different (thus special) is the alliterative poem. JRR Tolkien wrote some of those, and they were part of mediaeval literature. Stress every second or third syllable in a line (it does not need to be consistent) and begin at least the first three stressed syllables with the *same* consonant sound within a given line.

      Mind you, poets back then were happy to come close. So you could also just have an assonant poem, not a rhyming poem (Shakespeare wrote several of those).

      Here are a few lines from King Sheave (J.R.R. Tolkein) to provide an example of alliterative verse.

      “The ship came shining to the shore driven
      and strode upon the strand, till its stem rested
      on sand and shingle. The sun went down.
      The clouds overcame the cold heavens.
      In fear and wonder to the fallow water

      I do suggest you read some of Tolkien’s poetry for inspiration (unless your Norse is good enough to read the Eddas — mine is not!!). I particularly like “The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son” but not everybody realizes that the H is pronounced like the CH in loch or German ach. 🙂

      • Gary Lee Webb says

        Disclaimer — I do not consider myself a poet (only two poems published), so *do* take anything I say with some salt.

    • Remember flagon rhymes with dragon, and chalice with palace and you’re well on your way! 😉 Sorry, my inner Danny Kay got the better of me.

  5. Teresa Patcheson says

    Thank you for an overview of the fantasy genre that touches on the most salient points. I personally admire Brian Sanderson’s Stormlight Chronicles for its fabulous and original world building.
    In my own fantasy saga, I concentrate on my protagonist’s transformation into an archetypal hero, as he discovers he is the son of a God of Death. I like to explore the humanity (or lack thereof) of my characters and development is key. The challenge is enormous, however. I am grateful for your writing tips in your newsletter, K. M. Weiland.

  6. First, this is a fantastic summary of a genre I deeply love. It was helpful to get this fly-over look at the genre while I’m in a season of desconstructing and reevalutating how to approach the stories I want to tell.

    Second, is it March yet? I’ve been WAITING for this book!!!

  7. Dahna Danli says

    I’m thrilled to see this topic. I’m editing my first book for publication and will use this to tighten elements. I love to read fantasy and sci-fi and have for many (30+) years.I cut my teeth on Issac Asimov, Stephen R. Donaldson, Tad Williams, and Ursula K. Le Guin. Like others have mentioned, I also write a sci-fi fantasy combination but with a heavy lean toward fantasy. A long ago fantasy author I have been enjoying lately is Anne McCaffrey. She has several series I enjoy. Again, thank you for this. You always have great information and suggestions.

  8. James B Robar says

    I’m struggling with the new gender neutral fad. I am apposed to it since God made them male and female. The terms for male and female have been in existence since the world was formed. I don’t intend to change to this new fad in any of my novels. What are your thoughts?

  9. Gary Lee Webb says

    Great to see the announcement for your “upcoming book Writing Archetypal Character Arcs (coming in March!)”. Yes, I did read all of the posts covering the material therein, but sometimes it is much better to have it in one easily found place (I’ll be ordering it in paperback).

    As a (usually) fantasy writer, I very much appreciated this week’s post.
    The more I can improve, the better. Having your words percolate through my subconscious will help me be a better author. I regularly try to help verbal presenters, but the same advice applies to both verbal and written: the best thing you can do is practice, practice, practice until what you have been taught becomes second nature. Restudying, rehearing, and relearning that which you were instructed ia a big part of that.

    Thank you for making that easier.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Thanks! I’m so happy to finally be releasing this book. It has been such a passion project for me.

  10. Colleen F Janik says

    As a fan of Lord of the Rings, and the Chronicles of Narnia, I do have a slight interest in fantasy. I can see that a gifted writer would have the ability to pull in some of us who aren’t willing to step through that fantasy door one hundred percent. I also love the Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland. I think it would be an interesting challenge to see how many of us would wonder into your fantasy world.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      These days, fantasy is a highly specialized genre that isn’t always accessible to readers who aren’t acclimatized to the genre. However, I do tend to think some of the best examples of fantasy remain those that are so archetypal they can reach even those who might not otherwise be interested in the tropes.

  11. Thank you for doing this Katie. It’s as if you were reading my mind. There’s a lot of writing advice out there that is more directly applicable to thrillers and romance books. I write fantasy and had to chuckle when you talked about writing historical fiction. I definitely considered historical fiction. I don’t know that I’d say fantasy requires as much research as historical fiction (mess up the number of buttons on French Marshal’s vest and people are going to through the flag on you), but there is no comparison in terms of the amount of world building that’s required.
    I have a follow up question. I agree that you do not necessarily need a prolog in fantasy. But, I’m starting book two in what’s planned to be a two book series. I’m wondering if a synopsis of the previous story would be a good idea as this story starts about a month (which is 20 days in Tlalluum) after the first story. I feel like I’ve seen this before, but not often. What do you think?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Personally, I like it when fantasy books in a series offer a “What Came Before.” Sometimes a reader can be years between the readings, and it’s easy to forget the intricacies of what happened in the previous book.

  12. I suppose part of me thinks that any fiction is fantasy in a way because we make up the characters – but I get your point about genres.
    I have written what I consider a full-on fantasy for Y/A which has been put in moth balls for a while.
    I would appreciate some advice on my current WIP which is set in a real place, but has a couple of women with ‘special’ talents i.e one is considered a wise woman (witch) and the other two have special abilities. Would this be considered fantasy? And what are the pitfalls of using a ‘real’ setting i.e. a particular named place.
    As with others commenting here I can never thank you enough for all the advice you offer so generously.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I agree with you! I’ve often that historical fiction is particularly fantastical in its own way.

      Sounds like perhaps this would fit in the paranormal genre. I would class this as living under the wider umbrella of fantasy, but there are *so many* subgenres, it can be tricky to find the exact fit. For instance, I didn’t even know I was writing “gaslamp fantasy” (or that such a thing technically existed) until I’d finished writing my book Wayfarer and was researching keywords for its publication.

  13. Emily Shore says

    I couldn’t help but give a little chuckle at the many fantasy stories serve as negative examples where the plot does not move along and it’s filled with the characters just moving about their day. The sad part is that some of the biggest fantasy and paranormal fantasy bestsellers out there fit into this trope. And I still don’t understand it where people want to read just about the characters interacting with one another but little conflict or plot progress aside from sexual tension and introducing readers to the characters and what they eat every day and where they wander around in the castle etc.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, I’ve stopped reading several fantasy authors who were once my favorites, just because their books keep exemplifying more and more of the negatives of the genre.

  14. Hi KM! Thanks for some tips specifically focused on the fantasy genre! I’m planning to read some fantasy books from my library, and to pay special attention to characterization and how magic is integrated into theme.
    I have the opposite problem of the long epic saga with indeterminate plot beats. The seed of my inspiration tends to come form shorter forms such as fables, fairy tales, the short stories of writers like Kafka and Borges, and my own dreams and nightmares. Would you have any advice around filling out fantasy writing that comes from these types of inspirations?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      As a matter of fact, one of the epiphanies I had that finally helped me get back into writing after a four-year bout of writer’s block was realizing that I wanted to tell a new idea in more of a fairy tale style than the customary epic fantasy style. I just splurged on a lovely volume of Grimm’s Fairy Tales and another of Celtic Folk Tales for “research” purposes. 😉

      For me, the main difference is keeping the causality of the magic (or whatever fantasy element) much simpler. In a fairy tale, no one knows where the witch or the fairy or the devil gets their power–they just have it–which lets the story get on with the development of the magic’s impact on the characters.

  15. Couple of notes:
    If I use a prologue my intention is to hook readers. My cyberpunk manuscript has a 132-word prologue, written in present tense, in which one of the POV characters is determined to find out who murdered her uncle and see justice done.
    Years ago a friend of mine came up with the idea of a novel titled “Sequel” with a prologue that simply stated, “Once upon a time they lived happily ever after.” Every so often I wonder what form that novel would take. Maybe someday….

    Another thing that struck me is the mention of how long fantasy novels tend to be these days. Someone loaned me a book from a series by Robin Hobbs. A six-hundred page book. Story structure would put the ‘call to adventure’ at around page 100. Which it did. But those hundred pages were a drag to wade through. I stopped reading on page 101 and returned the book.

    Anyway, great article. I shall now sally forth to “How the Antagonist Functions in Different Types of Character Arcs.”

  16. I’m so glad you said that about prologues – I always find you just start to get into the story and like the character when the prologue ends and chapter one then begins with a whole new character and often a new time period and frankly a rather different world and you’re left thinking, but what about ‘so and so’ (the prologue character), what happened to them?

  17. The one prologue I have in the five manuscripts I’ve worked on over the past several years is 132 words long. Chapter 1 starts off with a different POV character (the protagonist), but the POV character in the Prolog meets up with and hires the protagonist to solve the murder. Basically, the Prolog is the Hook.
    Roger Zelazny’s “Amber” Series ended up with 20+ pages of prolog just to fill in the back story from the previous books. Needless to say, I stopped buying those books.

  18. Andrea Daniene Rhyner says

    I love this post ! It’s sometimes challenging the specific genre beats and other tips. I’d really love to see one on Sci-fi, specifically apocalyptic fiction! (pretty please, and thank you).

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