How Not to Mess Up Your Fantasy Novel

I get it. One reason that you’re writing fantasy is that you don’t want to be constrained by rules. If you wanted things like physics, payroll taxes, and the orcs and dragons not existing, you’d write in a different genre. 

Fantasy gives us freedom. It’s one of the reasons we love it…but it doesn’t give total freedom. There are right ways and wrong ways to write good fantasy. There are even common pitfalls created by the genre that can tempt us into making rookie mistakes. 

To help you avoid those tricks and traps, here are the 15 most important ways to not mess up your fantasy novel.

1. Avoid Infodumps

Yes, you will need to explain the rules and society of your fantasy world if you want your readers to be interested in it. No, you shouldn’t do it all at once. Those long paragraphs of history, geography, biology, and magical theory were fine back in the day, but the genre has moved on. Sprinkle the information out in short bursts throughout the novel.

Bottom line: a new reader isn’t as interested in your world as you are. You have to earn that interest. These infodumps do the opposite, and if you start with one, you’re violating the next rule…

2. Do Not Start Slow

Although many good fantasy books start with a slow burn, one of the worst things you can do as a new author is to start slow. Your first paragraph earns you the reader sticking with you for the first page. The first page earns you the first chapter. The first chapter earns you the rest of the book. 

Start instead with some kind of action. Whether you’re in media res, or suffering the impact of something that happened just before your opening, or a simple heated conversation: deliver intrigue, peril, and questions from the very first line. 

3. Cut the Side Stories

This can be heartbreaking, and you love the side quests, side characters, and various “spur lines” of your plot rails. These are fun to write, and in some cases writing them is a vital plot of your process for discovering your world and characters, but they can’t stay for the final draft. Cut them. You can even use them for short stories or online content you deliver as bonuses for avid fans, but they will detract from your main story.

There’s a saying among writers: “kill your darlings”. It means you must be ruthless in keeping only those scenes, plots, situations, and even characters who directly serve the plot. This is hard to do, especially in fantasy where early giants kept weird, sentimental, worldbuilding scenes (lookin’ at you, Tom Bombadil!), but it’s vital to making it in the modern fantasy genre. 

4. Don’t Introduce Too Many Characters at Once

Fantasy, especially epic fantasy, is known (maybe infamous) for large casts and switching point of view from chapter to chapter. That’s fine, and as Song of Ice and Fire taught us, can create amazing, sweeping dramas. But if you introduce too many, too early, your readers don’t get a chance to form an emotional attachment to any of them. 

It’s better to have a small cast your readers care deeply about, then trickle in other characters as the story progresses. How these new arrivals interact with the characters your readers know amplifies their attachment to the new ones. Over several chapters, you can have your full ensemble. 

5. Never Start Two Names With the Same Letter

Names in fantasy tend to be…well, um, weird. That’s fine, and an expected aspect of the genre. Even those long names with extra vowels or consonants are fine, especially if your fantasy realm has multiple species. Most readers will see the shape of the name, and identify it with the character without fully pronouncing it in their minds. 

Because of this, though, readers will almost automatically conflate your characters named Tomassis and Tiadamas, let alone something like Goryon and Geryon. The “same letter” rule might be erring on the side of caution, but at the very least make names that begin the same end very differently. Nid the barkeep and Neramandus III, King of the Southern Realm won’t be too hard to keep apart. 

6. Be Careful With Voice Styles

If you’re using multiple points of view, it’s important to make sure the different point of view characters tell their side of the story with different voices. However, it’s easy to overdo this (lookin’ at you, Hodor). Although some masters of the genre pull this off quite well, as a newcomer it’s important not to confuse and disorient readers with vastly different voices. 

Thick accents, verb tense shifts, and similar “brute force” methods cause confusion instead of building character. Besides, it’s lazy. You’re a good enough writer to portray those different voices with subtler, less jarring techniques. 

7. Limit Your Magic

Many fantasy writers run into issues with their magic systems because they forget to include limitations, repercussions, and consequences of using magic. In a world that has (a) magic and (b) no drawbacks to using it, there are too many ways the antagonists could deploy this limitless magic and foil your protagonist’s plans. 

Every use of magic should have a consequence, whether that’s expending resources, alerting enemies to the spellcaster’s presence, incurring a karmic burden, or whatever else you can imagine. This builds tension, which is the core of any story, including fantasy. 

8. Don’t Give Everything Away

This is akin to #1 with an important difference, but often the same cause. Unlike crime and romance writers, authors of fantasy build vast and complex worlds in their imagination. This often leaves us excited to tell the readers all about it. Look at the differences between Lord of the Rings and Silmarillion to see the upside and the downside of this. 

Leave some aspects to mysteries that inform the plot and get revealed only after the readers – vicariously through the characters – earn the information. Leave other aspects to your own notes, influencing characters and events without ever being spelled out on the page. 

9. Be Careful With the Tropes

Tropes aren’t automatically bad — in fact some of them define the difference between fantasy and sci-fi, or fantasy and mystery. But some tropes have been used so much they’ve become cliches, and including too many in one book can make the whole effort fail. 

There’s tension here. Readers expect some tropes from fantasy, but also get turned off by them because they’re predictable. The best solution is to take tropes and give them a unique twist. Apply irony, reversals, even satire or humor, and make what would have been cliche instead new, exciting, and yours. 

10. Stop Planning Every Detail

More than any other genre, fantasy requires a lot of planning and structure. You’re creating an entire world. What’s more, it’s a world with rules that differ from our own. Without some planning, you’re likely to break those rules and leave your readers unhappy. But you can take it too far. 

You don’t need to plan out as much as you might think. It can leave you with wooden flow, and close off opportunities that occur to you as the story progresses. That plan is a great place to start, but some of the best characters and scenes flow from diversions you never think of at the outlining stage. 

11. Don’t Go Too Deep With Fantasy Jargon

It can be fun to use fantasy-style names, events, kingdoms, and other jargon, but the readers can only take so much before the story is no longer worth the effort. One thing we like about fantasy is that it takes us away from the normal world, letting us explore locations, people, and events that are impossible…but if we ask the reader to come too far away, they become disoriented. 

Often it’s best to treat this the way you do characters. Trickle it in over the course of chapters, rather than delivering it all in the first few scenes. This lets your readers immerse themselves in your fantasy like easing into a hot bath.

12. Bad Dialogue

There’s a temptation when writing fantasy to keep characters speaking in a faux-Shakespearean, formal cadence. A few authors do this very well, but most of the time this reads stilted and wooden. Keep conversations between characters conversational and emotionally laden, with each spoken line revealing character, giving important information, or pushing the story forward. 

On the flip side of this coin, think carefully about informal language. Every fantasy world will have people who use slang, but if you insert modern speech, slang, and jargon it can be jarring. See also: metaphors that call upon things that exist in the modern world, but not in the world of your story. 

13. Don’t Rewind On the Second Chapter

Yes, this has been done a lot. You build tension and introduce the world in a thrilling in media res situation that gets your readers turning the pages with abandon…only to do a brake-squealing, tire-burning, record-scratching switch to the “real” story once that first chapter is over. You call back to the events that brought on that scene, ten years in the past. Or you reveal that action happened a generation ago, and the book is really about its repercussions. 

It’s been done a lot. It’s been done well. As of this writing, most readers are tired of it. If you think you have what it takes to pull this off, well, go for it. Just don’t say we didn’t warn you. 

14. Real World Stereotypes

This is less common than it used to be, but still happens far more often than we might think. A lot of classic fantasy stock characters can come off as sexist, racist, or xenophobic. Even The Princess Bride, by modern standards, has a terribly passive (and kind of stupid) female lead, and makes some not-so-subtle ethnic jokes along the way. 

To take things further, there’s a movement in fantasy writing and roleplaying games that moves away from orcs, goblins, and other species that are fundamentally, irrevocably evil (and thus killable by the dozen without remorse or conscience). Some of that has roots in humanity’s less enlightened, more racist, past.

There’s no easy solution here. Just be careful, and treat your characters with the same respect you do your friends and coworkers. 

15.Avoid Miracles

Magic is part of many fantasy worlds, and that’s good. Miracles should not be part of any fantasy story. Here’s the difference. Magic is a tool, with rules and drawbacks, that the characters can employ to reach their goals and further the story. Miracles break the rules to save your protagonist’s rear end when the stakes and opposition are above their weight class. Use magic, never miracles. 

Miracles don’t have to just be magic-based. For example, if all hope is lost before the Captain of the Guard shows up with a dozen elite knights to rescue your protagonist, you’d better have set up that relationship well ahead of time to make it a payoff instead of a miracle. 

Okay, Then

With luck, we’ve caught you before you’ve committed a few thousand words to one of these mistakes. If we’re too late, the good news is you’re not. You can always jump in there and rewrite your way around it.

Just remember: a lot of authors look at lists of common mistakes in their genre, and tell themselves they’re an exception — that they know exactly how to thread the needle and break the rule without breaking their book. 

Listen. No matter how much you think that’s so…the number of authors who think that and are wrong vastly outnumber those who think so and are right. The odds aren’t in your favor here, so please seriously consider keeping that in.