Tag Archives: how to write fantasy

‘My Fantasy Tool Kit’ (2014)

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There are people who don’t like fantasy; but what they really don’t like is bad fantasy, and there’s always more than enough of that to go around.

A lot of the problem is simple to see: the writers just haven’t made their fictional characters seem real.


There’s really no point in writing unoriginal fantasy featuring cardboard characters who talk and think and act like everybody else’s cardboard characters.

If you’re doing that, you haven’t created a fantasy.

You’ve created a college campus.

‘Literary Crimes: Anachronisms’ (2016)

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Sorta like this King Tut cell phone…

Can a novel set in ancient times–antediluvian times, in fact–be ruined by having its characters frequently spout 21st-century Democrat cliches?

Uh… yeah. Even if it’s only me that thinks so.


I keep saying “Christian fiction” has to be at least as good as, and preferably better than, ordinary secular fiction. But I read so much “Christian” stuff that isn’t, I’m beginning to think no one believes me.

Book Review: ‘Shards of Faith’ by Allison Reid

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I found myself, as I was reading, thinking, “I like this!” I still thought so by the time I’d finished it.

We know author Allison Reid as “Weavingword,” a friend of this blog, and Shards of Faith is a “companion book” to the three books of her Wind Rider Chronicles. Somewhere between a novella and a novel, with a length of some 45,000 words, Shards of Faith takes us back in time to events preceding the main story line. It’s sort of a side trip, focused on Broguean the Bard, who last appeared as a minor character in Book 3, Visions of Light and Shadow.

In Visions Broguean is middle-aged, an entertainer who makes the rounds of taverns, not someone whom most people would take seriously–except it becomes evident that he is hiding behind a carefully constructed facade, and has a secret. In Shards we find out what that secret is.

Broguean has revoked his monk’s vows and left the monastery–run by a corrupt and evil abbot, and a prior who goes on to become the chief villain in the trilogy so far–to become a bard and a heavy drinker. He has abandoned a heritage which seems too high for him: he believes himself to be unworthy of it.

But the leaders of the faithful clergy have not forgotten whom he really is, and wind up recruiting him as a secret agent in their battle against evil men aligned with dark supernatural forces; and the job turns out to be vastly more dangerous than any of them bargained for. In the course of his adventures, Broguean has to come to terms with the conflict between what he is and what he ought to be–and that’s what makes this book special.

Once upon a time an author would have included all this in the main body of the story, via flashbacks, dialogue, etc. That can get messy. The companion book is a way to impart this information without interrupting the flow of the main story. The only problem with it is that if you read it as a stand-alone book, you won’t be reading it in context.

Ms. Reid has come a long way in her mastery of characterization; meanwhile, as usual, her quasi-medieval setting is authentic and convincing. There’s still an awful lot we don’t know about the main story–like, for instance, why the bad guys are calling monsters into the world, what they hope to gain from its destruction–but we hope that will be remedied in the next installment or two.

I like stories in which ordinary, believable people–not superheroes!–are called upon to do extraordinary things: because they have to, there’s no getting out of it, and they make do with the resources that God provides for them, sustained by their faith in His Word. Need I mention that every heroic act in all of human history so far has been performed by a real person, not a superhero?

Even when you’ve got a hero on the scene, even when you’ve got King Arthur, he can’t accomplish much without the help of unnamed, unsung men and women who share his vision, fight for it, work for it, and sacrifice for it. There’s way too much fantasy whose authors don’t get this: but Allison Reid does.


‘Do I See It as I Write It?’

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My wife says reading one of my books is like watching a movie. She wants to know, “Do you see it as you write it?”


My books are fantasies about people and places that never existed, so in a literal sense I can’t “see” any of it–I have to imagine it. That might be the toughest thing about writing fantasy in particular and fiction in general: first you try to see what isn’t there, and then you try to make the reader see it. If that sounds easy, well, it ain’t.

The artist, Kirk DouPonce, uses live models for the characters on my books’ covers. I can’t do that. The most I can do is try, in my mind, to cast known actors and actresses as characters in my story. When that works, it works very well.

Try it sometime.

Making Fantasy Real (Sort Of)

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(As long as my head’s still full of Novocain, I might as well just keep on writing.)

The girl in the boat is named Gurun. She originated as the central character in a dream I had one night. I made her a character in my books; and then cover artist Kirk DouPonce brought her to life. Almost alarmingly so! He painted her exactly as I saw her, first in a dream, then in my mind’s eye as I wrote about her. I don’t know how he does that.

People ask me how real the world of my fantasy novels is to me, its creator. “Unknowable” was wondering about that today. Well, Gurun seems real to me; and she was also real to Kirk.

I have to be able to “see” it and “hear” it as if it were a movie playing in my head; that if I don’t, I can’t write it. In that sense it’s real to me. While I’m writing it, I have to be, as it were, in the scene I’m writing about. As if I were standing there in person, watching and listening. I don’t imagine this comes to any writer except with many years of practice and literally by the grace of God: it is a gift of God, so I can’t brag about it. I’m grateful He has allowed me to do this!

I can hardly wait to see what ideas He’ll give me for the next book.

So yes, in a way, it is like really being there. I lose track of the time, once I really get going.

And then I close the legal pad and put down my pen, and I’m back in New Jersey.

Writing Believable Fantasy

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If fantasy writers heeded the advice, “Write what you know,” we’d all be out of business. But it does raise a tricky question: How can you write believable stories about imaginary people living in an imaginary world? Which, of course, is just what a fantasy writer does.

People who don’t like fantasy usually say the reason they don’t like it is because it’s so full of rubbish. The rubbish is the stuff in the story that they can’t believe in. And speaking for myself, that would include needlessly complicated names, names that sound like popular pain relief products, and unbearably predictable stock characters–the invincible female warrior, the crusty but benign wizard, buxom tavern wenches, lusty barbarians, know-it-all elves… enough already!

And then there’s the fantasy which anyone can see is a thinly-veiled exercise in self-glorification, in which the writer’s personal stand-in is the hero and all the other characters are just thrown in to make him look good. This is even worse than know-it-all elves with names like Mylanta and Feenamint.

So how can anyone write a fantasy that the reader will be able to believe in as he’s reading it? (If he continues to believe in it after he’s done reading, that’s a problem beyond the scope of this little essay.)

Without writing a book about it, I think the fantasy writer needs to do something that good writers do no matter what kind of fiction they write.

Watch what people do and listen to what they say. And above all, be interested in them!

Character is the key. If your fictional characters act and think and speak and feel like real people, they will draw the reader into your imaginary world.

If they’re one or two-dimensional nothings, because the writer is always interested first and only in himself, and not in other people, your imaginary world will suck no matter what else you do with it, fill it with castles, monsters, and fantastic beings as you will.

It’s not just fantasy writers who have to pay attention to what other people are like, and try to do them justice, even if they’re fictional.

It’s all writers in all genres, all the time. The writer who can’t be bothered to look into another human heart, and feel at least some kinship with it, has nothing worthwhile to say.

A Bold Literary Stroke

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(Note: I try to steer clear of “news” on Sunday, as a way of observing the Sabbath. And also as a way of hanging on to my sanity.)

In his epic fantasy, The Worm Ouroboros, E. R. Eddison wrote in a unique and probably inimitable literary style and wrapped up the story in a brilliant, unexpected stroke that takes one’s breath away.

The story opens with the lords of Demonland, on the planet Mercury, holding a sumptuous wingding at one of their highly decorative palaces. In the midst of the festivities, a servant announces a visitor: “Sire, it is an ambassador from Witchland and his train. He craveth present audience.”

The ambassador’s message is so flagrantly insulting that it starts a major war. After many heroic exertions, and coming within an inch of losing the war, the Demons finally win, conquering the Witches root and branch–total victory.

Gathered to celebrate their triumph, they play host to a princess who is a special favorite of the gods, and whom they rescued from the Witches during the war. She tells them she has the power to appeal to the gods on their behalf, that they shall now be rewarded by having their greatest wish granted.

Well, the Demons have a problem: having wiped out Witchland, there’s nothing left for them to do, and they’re bored–bored to the point of desperation. Voicing their discontent, they can’t quite bring themselves to say what it is they really wish for. But the princess knows.

And suddenly the servant barges into the throne room with an astonishing announcement: “Sire, it is an ambassador from Witchland and his train. He craveth present audience.”

Well, who saw that coming?

It was a touch that made the book immortal, and very few writers would dare to do the same.

For those of you who wish to become fantasy writers, there is a lesson here: when you’re tempted to stop–don’t! Crash through the wall and let your imagination have its way.

And never, never end a chapter with a sentence like, “And then nothing much happened for the next four chapters.”

There’s not much point in writing a fantasy novel if you’re not going to be bold.

The Enigma of Tom Bombadil

I don’t know about you, but I like a little mystery mixed in with my fantasy. And this is what J.R.R. Tolkien provided when he plugged the character of Tom Bombadil into The Fellowship of the Ring.

Who or what is Bombadil? He lives in the Old Forest, where he is the Master, sharing his cabin with Goldberry, “daughter of the river.” We don’t exactly know what she is, either: only that Tom must keep her supplied with water lilies. We meet them when Tom saves the hobbits from being devoured by Old Man Willow, another enigmatic being whose nature is never clearly defined for us.

The chapters featuring these characters (“The Old Forest,” “In the House of Tom Bombadil,” and “Fog on the Barrow Downs”) are, I think, my very favorite section in the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy–and it’s because they’ve kept me guessing for all these years and I still haven’t guessed right.

Bombadil is “the Eldest” in all of Middle-Earth. He’s not a man, an Elf, a hobbit, or anything else: he is the only one of his kind. When he commands, everything in and around the Old Forest, except for the weather itself, has to obey him. And yet he’s almost a ridiculous figure, with his nonsense-songs, his funny clothes, etc. But the One Ring has no power over him–none whatsoever. Which can’t be said of any other creature.

The bottom line is, we don’t know what he is, we can’t find out by reading The Silmarillion or any other Tolkien book, and Tolkien himself never, never reveals the secret.

That is very, very cool! And it adds an indefinable spice to Tolkien’s fantasy. Just as there are things in our own world that we have never understood, so it is in Middle-Earth.

There are a lot of writers who wouldn’t dare to do this; but Tolkien was off in his own imagination and he didn’t care what anybody thought of it.

I admire him for this; but I haven’t tried to imitate him. Just as there is only one Tom Bombadil, there was only one Tolkien.


Don’t Let Real-World Politics into Your Fantasy

Today is primary election day in my home state. As usual, by the time our primary rolls around, the issue has already been decided.

I’m trying to spend most of the day outside, working on The Silver Trumpet, my new Bell Mountain book. Notice it is not called The Silver Trump. Because nothing knocks the stuffing out of a fantasy more than an incursion of our world’s news and politics.

Readers in some future generation will find it irrelevant, and will probably have no idea what you’re talking about, nor will they care. Readers in the present time will find it annoying, and feel imposed upon.

Don’t go to the trouble of creating a quasi-medieval setting for your story, only to torpedo the whole thing by having one of your knights or wizards gabbling about “diversity” or “climate change.” If you want to write it as a satire, in which some royal wannabe stirs up the peasants by telling them that the nobles “didn’t build that” castle, yatta-yatta, well, tally-ho and good luck. Your satire might even be funny. But fifty years from now, all it’s going to get out of a reader is a big fat “Huh?”

Not that fantasy ought to be irrelevant. It should focus on big issues like love, loyalty, sacrifice, etc., that will still be big issues a hundred years from now–not fleeting, ephemeral concerns like who’s gonna use what bathroom. Those matter in the here and now, and we have to deal with them. But I pray they will someday become as truly trivial as they deserve to be.

Let the stuff that deserves to pass away, pass away. I’ll do my level best to keep it out of the world of Bell Mountain.


What’s It Like to Write?

My doctor asked me about this because he was interested. He got me interested, too. How can I explain what I actually do, and what it’s like to do it?

My task is a simple one. I make up a world that doesn’t exist and persuade readers to imagine they are there. I invent fictitious characters and get readers to respond to them as if they were real people.  I make up events, based on real events I’ve found in the Bible or studied in history, and persuade readers that these events occurred.

Well, all right–not really! No one actually believes the stories that I write. But they can believe them for a little while: like the way you can let go when you’re watching a movie, and let the audio and the visuals just carry you along.

I try to make reading my book to be like watching a movie, to make the experience for the reader as effortless as possible. To do this, I choose every word based on how it interacts with other words and makes the sentence flow. Too much of that can be annoying; not enough, and it reminds the reader that he’s only reading words on a page. I know I’ve succeeded when a reader tells me, “Reading your books is like watching movies.”

For the story to work, I have to get myself into a frame of mind that’s not always easy to achieve. Sometimes it can only be achieved while I’m asleep. You’d be surprised how many scenes and incidents in my books started out as dreams. Some of the characters, too. Sometimes it can be achieved when I’m doing something else. The whole climax to The Fugitive Prince came to me as I was walking down the street to the Chinese restaurant. Just pow! There it was. All I had to do was write it.

This is a little hard to explain, but I feel–not ideate, but feel–that I have actually been to the world of Obann and seen it with my own eyes. How else can I write about it? If I don’t see it, I won’t be able to make the reader see it. I’ve been to Lintum Forest, with my feet rustling in the leaves. I’ve been in the labyrinth of tunnels under Obann City. Again, not really. But I don’t see how you can write fantasy at all, without ramping up your imagination to a certain high level–although I have read, alas, all too many fantasies in which no imagination was employed at all.

I may return to this subject later, if any of you out there are interested. I hope it’s good weather tomorrow, so I can take up my legal pad, out there with the birds and breezes, and ask the Lord to give me more of the story, and to help me tell it.

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