Writing a novel you can be proud of is a difficult task, made more difficult when you lack the tools to overcome the challenge. I will be talking about the fantasy genre, giving you some ideas and tips, as well as useful tools you can use to construct your story, characters and world. This will be a series of posts and in this one, we will be talking about world types, naming methods and magical systems.
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A few months ago, I created a video called The Detective-Story Writing Toolkit and that took off. My students then addressed one major concern and that was the video being too niche, as I could have addressed the mystery genre as a whole. Of course, creating a toolkit for an entire genre takes time and would be a lengthy article, but I was up for it.
I then asked which genre I should first talk about. Well, you can see the title of this blog post. If there are any genres or subjects you wish me to discuss or share your knowledge on, let me know in the comments below.
Now, let's really begin!
Fantasy World Types:
The first element of the fantasy story we need to discuss is the world type, the setting in which your story will take place. Various types might suit your story. Perhaps you have an ambience in mind or plans to create in-depth lore, so some types of worlds will fit your story better than others.
Let’s talk about the first world type, classic medieval fantasy.
Classic Medieval Fantasy
The first world type is the one we are all familiar with. It is the type we have seen in novels like The Once and Future King, The Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, The Inheritance Cycle and many others. Medieval fantasy is what we picture when we think of magic, dragons, wizards, knights and warlocks.
These fantasy novels are special in the hearts of many not just because they are the novels they have read today, but because of the fairy tales that they were told when they were young.
There is an essence of old magic coupled with nostalgia that cements the idea that the greatest fantasy novels we have read today are the ones set in times when people rode horses, delved into dark caves and laid siege to menacing castles in an effort to fight evil. These are the stories that taught us that evil cannot prevail as long as there is strength in the hearts of good people.
It’s a classic world type for a reason and I could spend a lot of time gushing over its importance in fiction, not just the fantasy genre alone. However, let me talk about the benefits of this world type.
Firstly, it is familiar. One can understand the limits of the technology of the time. It’s not too difficult to explain what a sword is, or what armour is, and the effectiveness of both. The times were simpler, the tools were simpler. The pictures the reader imagines come easily.
Secondly, there is plenty of groundwork made in this world type, thanks to fairy tales and other classic fantasy fiction. Whenever you are stuck in a situation, you can call on inspiration from other works to help you forward. It could be the magical creature you use when the protagonists need a dangerous encounter or it could be the ancient artefact that your characters revere.
Thirdly, it is easier to write when creating a world from scratch. The structure of civilisation, the politics of kings and queens, is a lot simpler than the structure and politics we see today. When drawing a map, establishing character affiliations, or devising the day-to-day life in your fantasy world, the amount of historical accuracy or information you need to provide is very little. You are free to shape a world and talk about only the things you want your reader to imagine.
Next, we have modern fantasy worlds. To put it simply, these are fantasy worlds set in the times we live in, give or take a few decades. It is the time of skyscrapers, technology and progress. As such, escapism is at an all-time high. People seek a different world, a different atmosphere. Thus, the trope of the main character living in a modern world and suddenly pulled into one a lot more magical came about.
It’s been used in books, movies and series. I used it when I wrote my first book.
With that said, these world types come in three varieties.
First, this fantastical world has a modern twist, where life is modern and magical. Phones are powered by ancient runes, amazing creatures are a part of day-to-day life. Skyscrapers still exist, but they lack the logical structure that our buildings have and instead are these gravity-defying shapes. Whatever it may be, these are worlds where magic in its various forms are known to the world and are a part of everyday life.
The second type, magic is not known to the world and only a select few know about its existence. These few are of some magical breed that allows them to see and manipulate this hidden part of the world, or they do their best to keep this magical society hidden from the average, non-magical people.
The third type, just like the second, but magical dimensions are a part of the story. Perhaps the characters step into a wardrobe that transports them to this world, or they enter it when they sleep, or perhaps they do a fantastic ritual and tear open a hole in reality so they can slip into another. These types of worlds offer an easy explanation for why the non-magical people could be so oblivious.
With that said, there are various reasons why modern fantasy worlds are so big today.
It underlines the sense of escapism, yes, but it also offers various scenarios and settings that make modern fantasy interesting. You could have magical conflicts in modern situations, the contradiction being comedic or scary, depending on the atmosphere you want to establish.
Of course, you might just enjoy the feeling of a modern world with a fantasy twist.
Made From Scratch
Now, although it is rare amongst fantasy fiction, you can create an entire world, or universe, from scratch. That means that everything that is used in your world comes from your imagination.
You could create an entire history, including various stories over different ages, you could take elements from all forms of fantasy fiction to make your world more unique. Of course, this delves into a more surreal idea of a fantasy world, but that’s not to say it doesn’t work.
If you have read Alice in Wonderland or better yet, any of the works of Terry Pratchett, you know that you can create an interesting and enjoyable world with surreal themes. These worlds are incredibly freeing to write as logic no longer plays a factor. With other fantasy genres, limits are placed on magic and other elements to make the story more believable, but when you have a world that reads like a fever dream, there are no limits.
The believability of a surreal world is in its unbelievability, isn’t that wonderful?
As for creating a world map, one where you can track the progress of your characters or craft a nifty visual for your readers at the start of your book, there are several methods you can use.
If you are the artistic type or you wish to have a more hands-on approach to creating a world map, you have to settle with traditional mediums and art software. From there, it is all about drawing the map, marking the locations, naming them and on a separate notepad keeping track of what goes on there and the significance of that location in your world and story.
However, if you want to create a world map with ease, there are two services I can recommend. First is World Anvil, a widely talked about service, but that’s for a good reason. It has the tools you need to create your fantasy world and even plot your story. There are more premium services such as Inkarnate, if you feel Word Anvil doesn’t have what you are looking for.
World and Character Names:
After some time, you will have a map, but a new problem. One that becomes tedious and bothersome the longer work at it; the names. Naming characters is tough, especially if you have a wide array of characters in your world and next you have the names of places to keep track of as well. If you are working in a medieval fantasy or a world you made from scratch, you don’t want to resort to the common names that everyone knows.
After all, Tolkien used a lot of names you never heard of, right?
Luckily, there are several methods for naming your characters and places.
Fantasy Name Generator
Of course, I need to talk about Fantasy Name Generators. It is the most widely used naming tool for naming characters, besides baby-name websites. Fantasy Name Generator is an ever-growing project with names for just about everything common in fiction today, from people to places, to different genres.
Need a name for a werewolf clan? An alien race invading earth? A small bakery outside the castle? Well, FNG has all that you need.
I have used it a lot more when writing short stories because it helps me find a name quickly. However, when I find myself stumped while writing a novel, I take my time as I browse the options, I write down various names which appeal to me. If I am using real names, I then research the meaning, say it to myself so I can get some sort of connotation from it. I narrow the list down until I have my name, but often enough it will be a name from Fantasy Name Generator.
Making Names Up (A Shot in the Dark)
The classic method most fantasy writers story with is simply making up names. Stringing sounds together until they sound like they fit the character. There isn’t much more explanation than that.
Of course, there is the added step of putting that name into a search browser and seeing if it isn’t already taken. You don’t want to accidentally use a name that already exists, or even uses a word that means something totally wrong. That’s why I call this method ‘a shot in the dark.’ You never know. The results are you having a name or you learn a new word.
Sometimes, I like to make use of the Asterix & Obelix naming method. I take a word in English and try to make a name that sounds like it, but is spelt differently. A method I do when I am creating a more comedic character or story.
For example, let’s say I have a character who works with rocks, geology. I would then look up rock names and see what I can use to make a name. Such as Basalt and Lapis Lazuli, then I have Dr Basil T. Lazuli or Bazilt Lazule. After some experimentation, I have a name that works or makes me chuckle.
Drawing Inspiration from Other Cultures
For more specific naming ideas, you might want to compare your fictional cultures with real ones. Most cultures will have naming cultures, so having naming cultures for your different societies or your world as a whole would not be a bad idea.
Basically, you will pick a sound, a syllable or two, and use them often when naming characters from that specific culture. When you’re short on ideas, looking at real cultures will help you find the patterns, the sounds that are often used. With additional research, you will find that most naming conventions are established by factors other than the language itself.
For example, a naming convention could be used when describing someone of a higher or lower class, it might have something to do with the family profession, a time period, the gender of the person and so on.
You could go super in-depth with your fictional naming conventions or you could approach it simply.
You could do tons of research, you could craft an entire language of sounds and symbols, you could build a deep lore system, all these elements working together to help you construct the perfect, unique name.
Or you could use names that we use today, like John, Sam or Judy.
There isn’t a better method. You choose the one that appeals to you, write down options and narrow it down until you have the one you are looking for. At the end of the day, it will be the one that sounds right, the one you feel fits the character. That’s all there is to it.
Crafting a Magical System:
Now, let’s end off on a subject every fantasy author likes to dwell on, especially the ones who like to create deep, immersive worlds; crafting a magical system.
Before we get into the different magical systems one can use and how to go about developing them for your story, let me ask you a very important question…
Do You Want/Need a Magical System?
A lot of great fantasy novels limit their ‘magical system’ to just monstrous creatures. You can create a world where mortal men have either guns, swords, or just their wits to defend themselves. With such a barebones approach to magic, you can create a more gritty story, because there is a harsh limit on what a character can do.
Limits, as we will discuss, is the most important thing to set in place.
If you feel that magic is not necessary to the plot, then perhaps placing such a stern limit on the unbelievable would suit your novel well. You can focus more on character interactions, devising more realistic scenarios rather than ones that depend on the powers of characters and the scope of your magical system.
However, if you want to have a magical system or it’s a core part of your story, let’s start with the first type of magic!
Individual Inner Powers (Superheroes)
The most common magical system in more modern literature is what I call Individual Inner Powers. It’s a system where only certain characters have powers and not everyone in the world has the same potential power as another. That means there might be non-magic users, some characters will be more powerful than others and each character might have different powers.
It’s much like the superheroes we read in comics. Amazing individuals with unique abilities. These abilities are then used in specific ways to give them an edge, perhaps they have certain weaknesses. That's all really up to your imagination.
Another trope associated with this magical system is that it takes time for the characters to get used to their power and through practice, they begin to truly harness them. Occasionally, during emotional highs, these characters will shatter their limits. I like these moments because if done right, the emotions are amplified by the magic, rather than the magic amplified by the emotions.
It’s a magical system limited by randomness and creativity. Not everyone will have cool powers and fewer still will reach their limits.
Rituals and Training (Magic Through Education)
The next magical system is much like a lost art rather than something you are born with. It’s a magical system where everyone has the potential to do magic, they just require the knowledge and skill to pull it off.
It’s a magical system balanced out by its complexity, with much of the knowledge being restricted, hidden or lost to time. Thus, few individuals pursue it and even fewer still reach greatness in their magical education and perform amazing feats. It’s a magical system where everyone can perform a certain feat by following the right steps.
Of course, this is a system that works well in medieval fantasy, but you can also use it in a modern setting. While most prefer to swing swords and shoot arrows, some like to light a fire with the snap of their fingers or turn invisible when they stumble into a dangerous situation.
Magical MacGuffins (Objects with Stranger Properties)
Next, we have objects of power. These are artefacts that are imbued with magical properties that allow the possessor to perform magic. It’s a lesser-used form of a magical system when used on its own, but still a magical system nonetheless. Usually these are important when it comes to the plot, hence why I call them the Magical MacGuffins
The obvious limitation is that a character needs to possess this object, be it a magic staff, ring or 70s hoodie, in order to use magic. Some artefacts are more powerful than others, which is why to defeat someone possessing a greater object of power, a character needs to be creative in how they use theirs or separate the opponent from their object.
It’s a quirky magical system, so if you are going for a quirky story, be sure to consider it.
All of the Above
Finally, we have the most common magical system, which is all-of-the-above. You have characters with special powers, characters who have no power but can perform some magic if they know how or if they possess magical artefacts.
In short, it’s a magical system where anything goes and the only limit is your imagination. This might sound cheesy, but really it’s a great responsibility.
This is a magical system that is easy to screw up. It can take any story and destroy it. It can turn your characters into bland messes, it can destroy any tension in serious moments; it can kill your novel. You need to have limits in place, so by having an anything-goes magical system, you open yourself up to the biggest failure in most fantasy novels; losing the reader’s interest.
A reader is only interested in a story with development and you can’t have development without conflicts, without stakes. The reader needs to know that something can be lost and something can be gained from each encounter. Yet, if you introduce a magical system that can twist and turn into anything for the story's sake, you take away that conflict’s tension; you take away its purpose.
Limits need to be set. Constantly emphasise that fact in your story and hit those limits whenever possible. It will tell the reader that there are times, plenty of times even when the character can’t rely on the magic in their world. The characters need to use their smarts, their personality, or any skills they might have to overcome those obstacles.
Do this with your story and the magical system will really shine. It will be an interesting element to your story, rather than a cheap tool used to progress the story.
How to Find Your Magical System
Now that you know the types of magical systems, the next question is which one fits your story.
Well, that once more comes down to what works with your story. How do you want your characters to act, to live, in your fantasy world? Is magic part of their daily lives or is it a tool only used when necessary. If magic and magical creatures are a big part of your world, then maybe using the All-of-the-Above or the Rituals-and-Training magical system will work for you.
It gives you room to develop and shape your world.
If it isn’t such a big part of your world, then perhaps the Inner-Powers or Magical-MacGuffins system will suit your story better. It’s present, but not intrusive. Called upon in the tense moments, sure, but it takes a backseat when the characters can use their cunning, their intelligence or even their physical strength.
One of these systems should appeal to you. If you still can’t decide, ask a friend or family member with who you can talk about your project. Their perspective might help you decide.
And if that fails…
Steal it. If your story is similar in style or ambience to another story you enjoy, just steal the magical system they use. Well, when I say steal, I mean use their system to inspire your own. You will take the structure, add your own quirks, funny spell names or types of powers until you have something that is your own.
End of Part 1
Well, we’ve covered a lot of material, but we’re not done yet. There are two more parts to come out in this fantasy-tool kit series.
I hope you enjoyed this first part. It took a lot of time to put together, but I think it covers just about everything you need to know. Of course, I could linger on every point a lot longer, but then I would just be writing a book. This covers the foundation of these fantasy elements and you can use this information to help you craft your fantasy world and story.
After all, I can’t tell you what to write. These toolkits contain ideas and tips, options and paths for you to consider. I wish you all the best with your choices!
However, if you are looking for a writing tutor or some extra guidance in any way, I recommend checking out my Writer's Workshop! All members receive lifetime access to all my writing courses and higher tier members receive writing reviews and professional advice on improving one's novel. If you want to write the story of your dreams, be sure to check it out!
In the next part, I will be discussing magical creatures, races, deities, fantasy world structure and lore. If you have anything you wish to add to the subject I discussed in this article, let me know in the comments.
Thank you and as always,
Good day, goodnight and happy writing!