The PROTAGONIST. Often a simple, unassuming person at least somewhat content in their everyday life, is given a quest. A journey must be made—both physical and psychological. Leaving the familiar, they cross the threshold into a new and dangerous world, where they will be tested time and again. Allies and enemies abound. The stakes are high. Will they prevail?
All fantasy is based on some form of this opening paragraph. Not coincidentally, it is also the “formula” for our oldest myths.
Fantasy is driven by a handful of tropes. It looks familiar. It unfolds for us in a way that hits us in our gut, because it is our oldest form of storytelling. And it is beloved, for that reason and many others. As are its greatest imaginations: J.R.R. Tolkien. Anne McCaffrey. C.S. Lewis. Marion Zimmer Bradley. George R.R. Martin. Ursula K. Le Guin. Dan Parkinson. J. K. Rowling.
Fantasy is large in scope. It gives us new worlds. It often breeds trilogies, or sometimes dozens of books. It lends itself well to long-form narrative, as demonstrated by Game of Thrones, and hours (and hours) of screen-time (The Hobbit/Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter).
Fantasy is, of all genres, our clearest moral barometer. It is based on a past that seems so far removed from modern life, yet is intimately familiar to us. It is in our DNA. It is where we came from. Its politics are not our politics, its culture not our culture, and yet it serves to remind us of our own challenges, our own areas in need of improvement.
Fantasy remains one of the most popular genres, and it shows no signs of slowing. The Harry Potter franchise lives on in stage plays and the Fantastic Beasts films, and as I type this we are not far away from the much-anticipated final season of HBO’s Game of Thrones. More and more television series are situated in a fantasy setting—even History’s Vikings has magic and fantasy elements.
There are abundant opportunities if you can write good Fantasy. I am writing a spec pilot script and outlining a season for television based on my fantasy novel, as well as finishing the novel’s sequel. The following is based on years of workshops I have taught on this rewarding but challenging genre.
It’s time to cross the threshold. It’s time to take the journey. Are you ready?
Fantasy traffics in the Macro and the Micro. It is about the Big and the Small. It is about the Community and the Individual. It is about the Evil and the Good. It has a clear Three-Act structure. Using Joseph’s Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, they are the Separation, the Initiation, and the Return.
Fantasy also uses other triads:
Fantasy gives us new pantheons, new lands, new races of beings. Fantasy readers reward those who can give these worlds the necessary details to make them real (including maps, family crests, genealogies) and still maintain a driving narrative.
Fantasy operates on a handful of tropes, mostly situated in something that looks like our own Middle Ages. There are knights, castles, princesses, dragons or other kinds of monsters, sometimes elements of magic, and quests. As I said in the Prologue, the tropes of the Fantasy genre are also the tropes of Mythology.
Chances are, if you want to write, or are writing, in the Fantasy genre, you’re a fan and have read many of the authors I’ve mentioned. Now it’s time to read them (and watch Fantasy films and TV) with a critical eye. I’ve been doing this all my life. The Hobbit was the first book I ever bought, through Scholastic, in the 1970s. I still have it.
Although space does not allow me to go over everything I’ve learned, here are some of the major features:
Fantasy is at its best when all of the, well, fantastical elements are grounded in a detailed world that the reader/viewer can immerse themselves in.
That means research. The good news is, we have come a long way since I was checking books and VHS tapes out of the library 35 years ago. There are online documentaries, video games, and YouTube channels about everything from Middle Ages diets to building a period castle. Dungeons and Dragons, which I started playing in 1980 in friends’ basements (think Stranger Things) I now play electronically.
For inspiration, I also collect and paint miniatures. Museums and Renaissance festivals are another terrific source for research. You can SMELL and TASTE and HEAR inspiration all around.
It’s a wonderful challenge to create entire worlds. From political and economic systems, to pantheons of gods and goddesses, to unique monsters and races of beings—all while grounding in the familiar tropes of those who’ve gone before—you have a chance to work in detail and fill your world with the textures and nuances that will make it come alive.
I say responsibility because politics and religion provoke strong responses. The Character Continuum I write about in a previous Stage 32 blog post can help. Having all points of view represented ensures that your Scope is big enough and that you will have plenty of opportunities for organic conflict.
Once you’ve created your world, decide how much of it to share and when. Start small. Introduce them to one or two areas and slowly, surely expand outward. Once you create the rules of governance and economic structures, be consistent. Again, concrete realities become the needed familiar for your audience to comfortably take your fantastic journey. This is also the time to define any conventions—Is it a magical world? If so, how does that operate?
In a 2017 Paste interview, Shawn Ryan and Eric Kripke, creators of the TV show Timeless (and many others), said this about world-building: “The audience doesn’t know much about [the] people yet. We had to do some laying pipe for the world, the rules and stakes and all of those things that genre world-building require[s]. … We were then able to focus on the heart and emotion of the people.”
As with any writing, but especially genre, audiences have expectations. In the case of Fantasy, they’ve seen and read the best, so those expectations are high. Before you write in this genre, think about why people love it…
Questions like these, and the answers you come up with, will contribute in substantial ways to the stories you create.
I know this is harsh, but think about it—if you are just replicating what someone else has done, there isn’t any point. It’s like a cover of a classic song that sounds EXACTLY like the original.
So how do you bring something new to a genre whose tropes are numerous and strong?
In my Fantasy novel, I combined two archetypes, the jester and the knight, into a single character. It had never been done and it’s been a rich playground for looking at the physical/psychological aspects of the hero and working with the history of the court jester to find new expressions of the functions it serves.
I don’t use a lot of magic. It can make creators lazy, allowing them to kill off major characters knowing they can bring them back; using Deus ex Machina (God out of the machine)—the fix that (sometimes literally) comes down out of the sky, solving all the problems; and it sometimes lacks rules and consistency.
Ground your Fantasy in as much Reality as possible. Historical research, clear rules in your world-building, and working out fantastical problems with realistic solutions are essential.
Epilogue: With the heart of a warrior and the wings of a dragon go forth!
In the end, Fantasy is like all other storytelling—people relate best to characters in struggle, on a path of growth. So keep your problems simple and the stakes sky-high.
Frodo Baggins is a simple guy with a straightforward task—drop a ring in the top of a fiery mountain or everything he knows and loves will end.
How he gets there—the people and creatures he encounters, the obstacles he faces, the inner crises he must overcome, the new places he sees and different cultural customs he learns—is what makes Tolkien’s story truly great.
I wish you Greatness in your Fantasy-writing as well.
Other Stage 32 Posts by Joey Madia:
How Blogging [& Networking] on Stage 32 Landed Me Jobs
Preparing For Auditions: 7 [Guided] Script Approaches that Land You the Job
Seven [Less Talked About] Pre-Production Essentials for the Beginning Director
7 Steps for Writing Escape Room Narratives (And How to Find Opportunities to Write Them)
Joey Madia spent 25 years in the theatre as a playwright, actor, director, and teacher.
Today he is focused on screenwriting, developing an audio drama series,
writing story lines for immersive theatre-based Escape Rooms, and creating Historical
Education programming with a focus on the Golden Age of Piracy and the life of Che Guevara.
Joey is the Artistic Director of Seven Stories Theatre Company and Creative director of
New Mystics Enterprises, a multimedia production company. He is also the author of two
novels and 17 produced plays.
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