writing fantasyTips on Writing Fantasy

Dr Virginia Lowe


"Are you feeling fantastic? An urge to write a fantasy or sf for adults or kids? Fantasy writers, of which Australia has some of the best, are on a roll." (The Australian, May 10, 2002 p.13)



Fantasy is the invention of a complete other world, with quite different physical laws, where it seems anything can happen (but there are always rules - see below). Tolkien is the best known example, or the Moomintrolls (you don't know them? Go to your library and find them at once. They're delightful - by Tove Jansson) or Le Guin's Earthsea or her planet in The Left Hand of Darkness. In fact most of the long fantasy series are of this type.

Carmody's Obernewtyn for instance, and Pullman's His Dark Material. A parallel world to ours into which you can cross - through a wardrobe, or through Platform nine and three quarters, or with a subtle knife. Our world with just one difference: a girl who can fly, the presence of witches, a windsurfer who happens to be a genie, a magic amulet etc. (Then there is the time slip novel, a very popular way of dealing with historical periods, but more with the contrast between our world and theirs - apart from the initial time slip, they usually do not feature fantasy as such.)


A landscape can be based easily on something in our world: a mangrove swamp, rock pools - just imagine people small enough to populate this landscape, then either mentally increase the landscape so that humans could inhabit it, or make your creatures small enough to have adventures that size. The palm of your hand can be a good place to start.

Shut your eyes and feel your left hand with your right (or vice versa). Imagine it is a landscape with hills and valleys, moist and dry places, promontories, plains and deserts. Take your time - this can be like a form of meditation. Describe it. Imagine what sort of people could live in such a world. Then invent a mythology for them - what would they believe in? Your story can take off from there. This can be either in a separate parallel world, or one everyday people could find themselves in. Just changing one item of the quotidian world, the typical "what if?" story.

These work best if you make only one change and no more. What if dolls could speak? What if a person could be cut in half and survive? (Calvino). What if an old house was haunted? What if the there was an infinite library? (Borges). The trick here is to make everything else super-realistic. You want your readers to make a big leap of faith, and believe what you have presented them, so they must have perfect confidence in everything else being just as it is in this real world. If readers feel you have got the geography wrong, or you have a short-sighted person with magnifying glasses, or if you have a spider with six legs - you will lose them, or some of them. The adult "magic realists" fall into this category too - Allende, Carey, Garner.

Anthropomorphism - making non-human things like humans.

This is still very common in children's books, though less in adults'.

(a) The classics such as Beatrix Potter rely on animals being able to talk and think like people, but they still have animal behaviour (look at Peter Rabbit in Mr McGregor's garden or Adam's Watership Down). Sometimes they are even clothed. Or there is Hartnett's recent novel Forest where the feral cats can think and speak only to each other, but otherwise behave exactly as they would.

(b) Then there are the animate toys like Pooh (the AA Milne version not Disney's, thankyou) - they don't have to stick close to animal behaviour, but can have a personality of their own. They might be quite independent, like Pooh and Tigger, or they might only speak when they are spoken for, and move when out of sight of humans (like Robinson's Teddy Robinson).

(c) Animate machines used to be popular for children (Burton's Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel) but are rarely encountered these days. Above all, enjoy your world, you're going to have to live in it for a long time!

© Virginia Lowe


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