If you need a comprehensive guide on how to write military fantasy, this article is for you. Below we’ve included 7 top tips to help you write a military fantasy novel.
1) Combining two genres
Military fiction in general is a specific fiction subgenre that focuses on military stories, which often happen before or during a certain war where the military gets involved. It is easily combined with the fantasy genre with changing the setting of the story from the real world to a fantasy world, because plots in fantasy often revolve around wars among different kingdoms and factions with that fantasy world.
With that said, for a fantasy novel to be a military fantasy, there are certain elements of both genres that need to be included for the novel to work and belong in that specific genre. Mainly, fantasy worlds are often based on two elements: a period of history from our world in terms of societal development, and a magic system (containing magical humans, magical creatures, and magical artefacts).
These worlds often have kingdoms (or other types of fiefdoms, city-states, monarchies, empires, etc.,) and these kingdoms do have armies. The story may or may not revolve around the kingdoms going to war.
So, while the military is present in such a world, there are other requirements that must be met, in terms of the story, for the military fantasy genre label to apply.
2) Creating a fantasy world
As previously mentioned, the two basic elements that must be met for a fantasy world is the setting being a time period that is historic from our own world combined with a system of magic. While you can deviate from this and create a futuristic fantasy world too, you will have to keep the events happening in a single world. If the inhabitants of your world can easily go into space and visit different planets, you will have created a space fantasy.
The second element, the magic system, contains: magical humans and other species, magical animals, magical artefacts, and also, magical locations. For example, a bottomless lake, a sea impossible to cross, a plain shrouded in perpetual darkness, and the like. In other words, even the world itself has magical properties.
Make sure to research the time period you choose for the world carefully, as well as the culture of the people within that time period, because for example, the culture of the western countries in a certain century was different than the countries in the east.
The magic system also, cannot be “magic works because it’s magic” – it needs to make sense to a certain extent. Magic needs to have limits. For example, the magical species of human (or human-like creations with sentience and speech), should either have one of the three:
- Magic that can be used for almost anything (except for example bringing the dead back to life).
- Several magical abilities but not too many (for example, a person can be telepathic, empathic, and have foresight, but they will not have healing powers. A healer can have a basic healing power accompanied with a few other abilities they can use). In such a world, people with more than the determined amount of abilities will be special and either revered or despised.
- A single magical ability – and if a person has two, the same applies: they are special and either revered or despised for it.
The same limitations and rules apply to the world and the magical artefacts. The world’s magical locations will not have multiple magical attributes or effects, only one, and the magical artefacts should not have more than magical effect.
3) The fantasy world’s backstory
The fantasy world should have at least one great war that happened once upon a time. In fact, there can be multiple wars of great proportions with cataclysmic consequences – especially if the cataclysmic consequences change the landscape and leave a lasting impression on the geography of the world. Of course, do not go beyond 5 great wars if you are going for multiple great wars – if you do, you will make the worldbuilding less credible and more difficult to believe in.
Of course, minor skirmishes between the kingdoms (fiefdoms, city-states, etc.,) can be many. Despite the historic time period (historic only in comparison to our modern world), the history of your world can and should be long and span thousands of years, and the more thousands, the better. If you delve into millennia, however, then you need the presence of a magic system that is used in the people’s daily life to a great extent and so, technological advances are not really needed.
Minor and major skirmishes, along with great wars, give you the opportunity to create legendary heroes, legendary landmarks, and enrich the culture of the people inhabiting your world.
Keep your focus on one to two continents as a whole, with the land beyond being either unknown or, perhaps it is known/sighted, but difficult and too far too reach.
For example, let’s say that there is a continent in the West that is not very big and has been overpopulated. Healing magic has kept deaths of diseases and plagues at bay and the population is in the millions, too many for the continent to sustain.
There might be land in the distant East but the Sea of Eternal Turmoil, or simply the Turmoil Sea, prevents any sailors from reaching it because of huge waves that never cease. One day a great ship is built, the protagonist, who is a knight in a King’s army, or the heir, or even both, is sent on it to explore the new land, with more ships to come if the land is good for colonization, which the knight must determine.
With that, you have war as well as new land on the horizon (because surely there will be natives whom the knight and the King will have to oppress to colonize the land). As such, the setting itself becomes perfect for a military fantasy.
4) The fantasy world’s social system and politics
The social system of your world can be whatever you want it to be – feudal, imperial, democratic, autocratic, etc., as long as it is researched well enough and developed in a way that offers something new, especially because of the magic that is present in the population. For example, what will be the status of a person adept at magic in your world? What is the background of the magical people? How did they come to have magic powers – is it inherited or acquired differently? What is the life of a peasant and what is the life of royalty? Do you have a presence of merchants in your world or not?
Moreover, is the land divided into kingdoms, empires, or city states, fiefdoms, and so forth? The great thing about fantasy is that you can have all of them coexisting in the same world. Additionally, each kingdom or city state will have its own system and way of life, and even two city states can have different rules and regulations for the people.
Then you have the politics – both the inner politics of each entity (kingdom, city state, etc.,), and the political relations between the entities as well. For example, a kingdom and a city state might be allies against an alliance of a fiefdom, an empire, and another kingdom. Ideally, the allies will be trading goods between themselves, and that will have a certain effect on the economy of each entity.
And perhaps the world is currently in a state of fragile peace because a certain fiefdom went to war with another city state recently, and all the major players got involved, but most of the entities (or countries, to use a more modern word), are ready for war.
Note: this kind of “cold war” state is not needed in epic fantasy, but must be a given in a military one. For a military fantasy, war must be on the horizon.
5) Creating a fantasy world military
You can analyze a lot of contemporary and past military forces to determine which type of military you want to create for your world. Also, each entity (city state, kingdom, empire, etc.,) should have its own military style – that will make each entity more unique and easier to remember for the reader.
But, because you are creating a fantasy world – where magic usually dominates or is present in some way – you need to figure out how the use of magic by the military changes the structure of the military type you have chosen.
Is there going to be a special task force of soldiers who can use magic vs soldiers who cannot use magic? If magic is revered in the world, then do all major positions go to people who can use magic? Are positions given to each individual based on the powers they possess? For example, will a healer be a medic on a team going into battle?
If magic-users are somehow able to create super soldiers, are they kept away from the fighting so that instead of dying in battle, they create more and more super soldiers to be used in the battles?
The way the military forces of each entity will work is going to directly depend on the magic system and of the way that magic is used in the world, and the more unique spins you can give to the use of magic, the better.
6) The protagonist’s position
Who is the protagonist in your story? First and foremost, he needs to either be in the military or be on the edge of it. If there are any battles to happen during the course of the story, he either has to participate in them (at least as a soldier), or he should be leading his or her own battalion or a force.
Is the protagonist a magic user? Regardless of the answer, what is the agency he has in the story, and why is he the protagonist? Fantasy novels often have multiple protagonists and we follow multiple characters in the course of one novel.
If that is your plan, then the one who is involved in the military needs to be the one to drive the main plot forward, and needs to be the one major protagonist. You can have other major characters whose point of view we’re going to follow (through their own point of view chapters), and they might be away from the fighting.
But, the main plot needs to be military in nature (i.e. the protagonist has to get involved in a war, or, he could be working on trying to prevent it from happening, but end up in it anyway). And because of that, his position in the military, regardless of whether or not he has magic, needs to be determined so that he will have a say – agency – in the events of the plot of the novel.
7) The main plot of the novel
As previously mentioned, a military fantasy needs to revolve around war as the main plot. It might be that you begin with your protagonist training to be a soldier at a training camp, but if that is the case, then the actual war (i.e. battles, skirmishes, clashes of armed forces) is happening in another location of the kingdom, perhaps the border, or in certain towns, so the protagonist must get from the training camp to the frontlines as soon as possible.
Another case could be that the protagonist starts out by living in times of peace, but political tensions are high, and many entities (kingdoms and city states) are itching for war. So, the protagonist might need to cause the war or prevent it (depending on which way you want to go).
In yet another example, maybe war has been going on for many years, decades even, and the protagonist, nearly dying in a battle in the beginning of the novel, is going to try to end the war once and for all.