How to Write Fantasy and Historical Fiction

Alas, it is nearly time for NaNoWriMo, and I am a busy science major. Alas and alack! Although I do not have the time to participate in National Novel Writing Month, I do have the time to write several thousand words on where to start. You may see some of my qualifications in the writing section.

So you want to write a book? Presumably you are also amazing and want to write fantasy or historical fiction because you loved it before you learned you could make buckets of money publishing the stuff. Because, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but there’s a very good chance you  won’t publish it, and only your family and very closest friends will ever be aware that you tried. Before you begin, then, you must be positive that you’re writing this because you enjoy it, not only because you are possibly the only one who will ever enjoy it, but also because if you don’t enjoy your writing, even if you already have a contract, you’ll get stuck in the part where your characters are battling through some very boring wilderness. All right already, let’s begin.

Know who your main character is.

Unlike other people, I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary to know the entire plot of the story before you begin. I do think that you must have a well-defined idea about who your main character is, or at least be able to treat them as though they can make decisions for themselves. I will clarify. Imagine yourself as your main character, complete with at least some background story, and think of what you would do with that background in that situation. It’s a little hard to understand until you’ve tried. Your main character is something like your dog. You could probably predict what your dog(or cat) would do in any situation, but your pet may occasionally surprise you. If your character has a well-developed personality, occasionally the writer will realize that the character is about to do something totally radical and which the writer never intended. My advice in such a situation is to follow the character and see what happens.

Now, many fantasy writers like to write themselves into a character. This is incredibly natural. Just make sure that you see your own faults and include the background story. The main character must have realistic faults. While the writer may enjoy writing about a brilliant, struggling writer, most of us don’t enjoy reading about how under-appreciated you are, nor are you likely to sound as brilliant as you think you are.  While you might not need a background story to know yourself, the audience does, and, like it or not, no character will ever be exactly like you.

Resist the urge to add filler characters.

Every main character who is added must have the same depth of personality as the protagonist, including the villain. No one will believe you if the antagonist does not have motivations other than just being evil. Every character added must have some purpose. This tends to discourage large groups. I know that Tolkien did it in the Lord of the Rings, but if you’ve read the books, you know that each character has his own personality and wishes. There are some cases where the writer can write about large groups without giving them many individual personalities (as Tolkien did in The Hobbit), but the writer still has to work here, because in such cases as those, the entire group has a communal personality, and to make it believable, you’ll still have to give three or four characters distinguishing characteristics (Thorin Oakenshield, Fili, Kili, and Bomber served this purpose in The Hobbit.)

Start the story with a bang.

Unless the writer is absolutely phenomenal, and even if he is, (I’m looking at you, Sir Walter Scott, R.L. Stevenson, and Daniel Defoe.) few readers are willing to sit through lots of boring exposition. According to my theatre book, exposition (the part were you set up what the story is about), has two elements: setting and character. The setting can usually be described in a phrase such as “Revolutionary War,” “The Prairie,” “Medieval Castle.” Just describe what one place looks like (smoke, darkness, screaming in the night) and you can describe as you go through the rest of the story. Avoid describing the character. It’s enough that your readers know one salient fact (soldier in New York) which they can probably pick up from the setting. The reader will pick up the rest from the behavior of the main character. Get to the point of attack as soon as possible, within the first scene, if you can.

Give the main character something to worry about.

This is called the point of attack or major dramatic question. The main character needs something concrete, something life-changing to battle with, even if he has to battle himself. Make sure to pick something that can’t be resolved until the story is almost over, but please, if you value your story, do not make an epic quest the focal point of your story if you can help it. There are several reasons for this. 1. Most writers have never been camping and don’t even know what sitting out in the cold, sweaty, sticky, pouring rain feels like. You’ve got to know misery to write it. 2.Unless there are significant monsters, secondary problems, and character development the characters will encounter on their quest, the audience will find themselves wondering why the epic quest had to take five months. There’s got to be a reason for the epic quest–besides the writer being out of ideas. Make sure the reader is clear on the problem. (“The British troops captured General Washington!”)

Be mean to the main character.

Keep piling up the problems, real problems. Keep it interesting. Make it impossible for the main character to dig his way out except by some very clever work on the part of the author. (Tolkien did this when he cornered our heroes a Helms Deep and then sent in some very unique backup.) No one ever said a story was bad because the main character had too many enemies. Remember Sinbad the Sailor?

Pull the story to the breaking point.

The writer must bring the story to the point where if the protagonists fail, the antagonists will win. This is called the climax and whatever happens will resolve the point of attack and answer the major dramatic question. I warn you though, don’t be over-dramatic. The fact that the British army is in New York probably doesn’t mean the war is lost. The fact that the main character is about to be hanged as a spy may mean that the story is about to be over–the story isn’t over if the major dramatic question was whether the British army would win the war and not whether the hero would survive. To write this part, the writer should be very clear on what the major dramatic question really was.

Give your story a clever ending.

The protagonist must win by blood and sweat alone. Reinforcements should never break through the walls and save everyone. The writer can always have unexplained bad things happen to his protagonist, but unexplained good things should never happen. We’re all ready to accept that the villain has exceptional forces and the hero is very unfortunate, but if we let chance solve the protagonist’s problems, the readers will wonder why they rooted for the protagonist, if he would have won anyway by blind chance. Convenient circumstances of this sort are called Deus ex Machina (God out of a Machine) and were all the rage back in Ancient Greece, where, in my opinion, they were a little short on good writers. Even in fantasy with magic, doing the magic, or achieving the magic, has to be a challenge. Again, if we could vanquish all evil with a flick of the finger, why didn’t we do that at the beginning? There are two exceptions to the rule that the writer can never have lucky chances. One exception is where the protagonist knows that reinforcements are coming and needs only to  hold back the enemy until they get there. The other exception is where the protagonist creates a solution to the problem in the pages leading up the the climax, even though the reader may not understand what is going on until the climax. (The Illusionist has a brilliant example of this.)

Tie up the loose ends.

Presumably, your reader will want to know for whom the cryptic stranger from chapter 11 was working. If you have left important mysteries about your main characters, their sidekicks, or the villains, you should seriously consider cleaning them up, or working the climax so that it cleans things up for you. Long explanations do not belong at the end; they are far too much like lucky chances. Work in explanations in the pages leading up the the climax or leave the question unanswered with the promise that the character is still trying to find the answer, or doesn’t care anymore. (If we wanted to know who the sidekick’s father was, the writer should have explained it in the pages leading up to the climax or the writer should send him off on a journey to figure it out at the end.)  The writer can end the story immediately after the climax is resolved, if he’s done, or he can cut to a scene some time later where the reader can see things going back to normal.

Now then, some final words. Read a lot, especially old classics; they will help. Research if you are shooting for accuracy anywhere. Budget time to write. Don’t get discouraged if you have to spend weeks wrestling with a particular problem. Above all, enjoy it, and don’t spend too much time trying to write a great work of fiction. If one can write well and is reasonably creative, that will come of itself.

This has merely been a post on how to develop a story. Advice on integrating  proper grammar, methods of description, and a general guide to “what-not-to-do-in-fantasy-and-historical-fiction” will follow some time in the next month.

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