Do you need some tips on how to write a high fantasy novel? This post is for you. Read on to learn about the key things to do!
1. Create another world
High fantasy is always set in another world. While there are some exceptions, and even Tolkien has said that Middle Earth is our earth in a different time, Middle Earth is in no way similar to our world.
While you do not really need to be good at making maps, it would immensely help you to create one. You will need to determine everything from the topography to the geography, the type of flora the world is home to, the presence of forests, valleys, mountains, lakes, rivers, the locations of the towns, the settled areas, unsettled areas, and the distances between those areas and how long the people would have to travel to get from one place to another.
Additionally, the other world is always – or always needs to be – magical in some way, for example, forests that are homes to trees that try to kill passersby, lakes that serve as portals between one place and another, oceans that are perpetually calm, or areas of the world under constant storms.
Speaking of storms, while the weather in such a world can be similar to ours, you can also consider having magical weather conditions – like mists that fall at night that cause people to lose their way, or rain that washes away people’s memory. These weather events can be common, or they can be events that happen once a month, a year, or once in three, seven, nine years.
2. Determine the world’s time period
Most high fantasy novels are set in a medieval time period, prior to any kind of industrialization. This means that people usually travel by horse and carriage, fight with swords instead of guns, and wear breeches, blouses, tunics, smallclothes, and dresses. They mostly use cloaks as outerwear, instead of jackets or coats. There would be no jeans, briefs, boxers, bras, and no zippers on any garments.
However – a fantasy world can also be more technologically advanced, if you so wish. But, it is worth to note that any steam powered technology will catapult the novel into steampunk territory. If you choose to go further forward in time in a space era, then you would be writing space fantasy instead of high fantasy. A hallmark of high fantasy is a magical world set in a time period that would go no further than the pre-industrialization era of our world.
Most often, feudalism is the social system you would be aiming for, with countries ruled by kings, queens, emperors or empresses, dukes and lords and so forth. Alternatively, you can go for a social system based more on Ancient Rome, with a sprawling empire, or Ancient Greece, with City States instead of whole kingdoms, and you can also choose a certain type of government (e.g. theocracy, meritocracy, democracy, and so on).
The world’s time period and the world’s technology will determine the daily lives of the characters. This would include what they eat, what their houses and dwellings look like, what products they buy on what markets, if they grow any produce in their gardens, and what they use for transportation and communication.
3. Create magical animals
Once you have the world, you need to consider what kind of animals will live in such a world. While you do have our world’s fauna as a base, you should add magical fauna as well.
There are many mythical animals that you can use, like dragons, unicorns, and so forth, but you can also use your own imagination – for example, maybe your world has giant eagles or birds that harm or befriend the people in it, or maybe you have dragons (who might or might not be sentient beings).
Consider playing around with size – animals from our own world either blown to a gigantic size (imagine giant ants dwelling in a mountain full of tunnels), or dwindled to a small one (for example, elephants the size of big dogs), or even chimera (animals that have body parts combined from different animal species, like griffins).
Another option to consider is extinct animals from our world – like saber-toothed tigers, mammoths, even dinosaurs or dinosaur-like species.
4. Have magical sentient beings
After the animals, come the people, and the world’s people can come in many shapes, forms, and sizes. You can have mermaids that dwell in the oceans and the seas, you can have elves, trolls, dryads, forest, mountain, water, and air spirits, you can have non-magical humans, or magical humans (witches, wizards, sorcerers and sorceresses).
Determine what magical attributes and powers each type of sentient beings would have, as well as in what numbers these magical races are present in the world. Additionally, determine which parts of the world they dwell in, how long they have lived in that area, and how often they travel or do not travel.
When it comes to the daily lives of those magical races, you need to determine that as well. If the mermaids live in the oceans, what do they eat, what is their society like, and what is their relationship with the other magical races in the world? The same applies to any race you create, be it non-magical humans, magical humans, trolls, elves, and faeries.
5. Create the rules of magic
The magic in the world should still have rules, or, in other words, limitations. For example, if your world has healers that can cure any illness, there should be illnesses that the healers cannot cure. If the world has sorcerers that can travel instantly from one place to another (through magical teleportation for example), they need to have certain limits to their power (perhaps in distance, or perhaps they cannot instantly travel somewhere where they have never been to).
You also need to have rules in place about what the magic is and how it works, if there can be any deviations from how any magic works, and what would the repercussions of such a deviation be. For example, if a healer brings back a dead person, which was considered impossible, is it a true resurrection, or did they bring back a zombie?
Moreover, how does magic affect the world? Is magic a common occurrence in the world and its people, or is magic rare and witches/wizards or other magic users are not easy to come by? If magic is a common occurrence, then there should be varying levels of power (i.e. some people would be less powerful in terms of magical strength, while others would be more powerful).
If magic is not a common occurrence, then what happens to the people who can use magic? In such a world, they would be hot commodities and their services would be highly coveted. They could be rich and powerful, or they could be feared and oppressed by the other, non-magical humans or races, or they could be even both at the same time.
6. Add magical artefacts
There are two types of magical artefacts that you can add to your world, and this will depend directly on how rare or common the magic in your world is. If magic is rare, then the magical artefacts in the world should be just as rare and even mythical in nature. The actual shape of such rare artefacts is not important – it can be a stone, a ring, a crown, a sword. What is important is what these artefacts would do, which should be something grand and epic, like changing day into night, rewinding time, causing winter and summer to switch, or even banish magic from the world (or bring it back if the magic is gone from the world already).
On the other hand, if the magic in the world is more common, then you can have different kind of magical artefacts that even people without any magic could use. For example, stones that would light the way for those who carry them, or expensive clothes that would repair themselves when torn, fabrics that change color, even masks that would change the appearance of a person when worn.
The more common magical artefacts can be further divided into artefacts that would be affordable for the general population, and items that would be afforded only by the very rich.
7. Give the world a history and myths
The world that your story takes place in needs to feel real to the reader. You need to know the backstory of that world, from the moment of its creation (through an event like the Big Bang), through its history and its ages, all the way to the present day when the story would take place.
Consider how many nations have lived in your world, what happened to them, if multiple civilizations had risen and fallen in the centuries prior to your story, if there were any Dark Ages or Golden Ages, not just for the countries or kingdoms where your story takes place, but the world overall.
Beyond the history, or, together with the history, create the world’s myths and the world’s religion. Is it a monotheistic religion, or a polytheistic one? What kind of gods to the people of the world pray to? Each magical race should have its own beliefs and religion.
Additionally, each magical race should have its own myths, legends, as well as legendary heroes, and prophecies. The difference between the religion and the myth is that the religion will be represented by priests/priestesses and it will be present in the rites of the people who inhabit the world and in their speech as well. The mythical elements (legends, people, animals), will be things that people would not believe are real.
It’s worth noting that when writing the novel, you should not focus on including all the backstory of the world in the writing – in fact, you need to include just enough information for the reader to feel that the world is real, without overwhelming the narration of the novel with detailed descriptions.
8. Develop a world-changing story with a hero’s victory
High fantasy usually has two types of stories. The first type is a return of a Dark Age led by a Dark Lord who took over the world once upon a time and bathed it in darkness and death. Impossible to kill, he was defeated or sealed away, and now, he has returned and begun to take over the world again. Since he is impossible to kill, he can only be defeated by a chosen hero, who may or may not be willing to try and defeat said Dark Lord. As a subtype, this story can also come in the form of the threat of such a return, with the hero having to work to keep the Dark Lord sealed away or destroy him for good.
The other type of fantasy story is more related to magic. It can be about the waning of magic in the world, with it becoming rarer and rarer unless a prophesized hero finds a way to prevent the disappearance of magic altogether, usually by defeating a dark entity, which may or may have not come from a past dark age. Or, it can be about the return of magic, with magic being rare in the beginning of the story but becomes more and more present in the novel by the end of the story. The return of magic can bring back dark creatures, dark forces, and a dangerous enemy, the main villain the hero would have to defeat.
The way the Dark Lord or villain is defeated, however, should be done through an impossible heroic act instead of any kind of brute force. The main villain or antagonist in High Fantasy is usually a dark and powerful being (rather than, for example, a King who wants to rule over the world, although such a King could be a vessel for such a Dark Lord), impossible to kill, and the main hero should be the only person capable of destroying him, not through physical combat, but through another type of heroic act, like destroying an artefact, or casting a powerful spell the hero spent the whole novel trying to find.