Fantasy is an exciting and liberating genre to write in. It’s also an incredibly rewarding genre to read. With fantasy, by definition of the very word, you can do anything and offer everything. There are no limits, no real rules. The world is your oyster, mainly because you are essentially the God of said world.
But, before we get carried away with our own visions of what we as writers want from our world, we also need to consider the fantasy elements readers are looking for. A Chef doesn’t cook for themselves, they cook for others; a methodology that can definitely be applied to authors.
It’s too easy to fall into the trap of becoming engrossed in your own ideas, which is why it so important to step back and think: what do my readers want? When it comes to the best fantasy books, there are a number of fantasy elements that people expect to see; and want to see.
Some Type of Magic
Magic is perhaps the most beloved of tropes and fantasy elements.
It doesn’t have to be some great and powerful source of terror or wonder, though. Magic can have a more ethereal presence; a fleeting thing, something misunderstood or subtle. Or it can be very much in your face and bold.
Consider both works like A Song of Ice and Fire and Stormlight Archives. Both treat magic very, very differently, but both still incorporate this fantasy element nonetheless. Readers of the genre love magic, and they love to see it in all forms. When writing fantasy, you can’t forget to include some element of magic. Treat it as delicately or as brashly as you want, just make sure it is there!
A New and Fleshed Out World
Fantasy is rarely set in the world as we know it. Even if it may look and feel like Earth, something is always amiss. Take, for example, the Mortal Instruments series. Set in the real world, it pulls in fantasy elements to transform it into something totally different. You can also make similar comparisons to Harry Potter; set within our own world but drenched in fantasy elements as well.
By contrast, you can take things to the extreme, as many writers do, and create your very own world in which your stories and characters inhabit. From Azeroth of the Warcraft universe to Joe Abercrombie’s mysterious lands, we’ve all wandered through somebody else’s world at some point in our journey through fictional media. Fantasy as a genre lends itself to world building and the creation of such things. Unlike other genres, you don’t need to stay grounded, you can take your readers anywhere you want.
And that’s what makes this fantasy element something people not expect but crave. Your reader wants to be transported. Fantasy is escapism for so many, and being able to explore a new world is a fantasy element people relish. If you are thinking about writing fantasy, make sure you are prepared to build a new world for both your protagonist/s and readers to explore.
So, I’ve just told you to build a different world, now I’m telling you a fantasy element people want to see is actually realism.
No, I’m not crazy.
Whilst readers love to be enthralled by the fantasy element that is a new world, they can’t connect with it if there is nothing they can relate to within it. Your reader is always looking for something that matches things they know, be it ideals, politics, ethics, personality traits, etc. Without this fantasy element, they cannot engage and they won’t follow your epic fantasy stories.
It seems like a bizarre fantasy element to include, but always make sure there is some form of grounding in your world. That there is a path through which your audience can connect to it, no matter how outlandish the rest of the place may be.
Even the most out there fantasy stories have a connection to something real and tangible. Consider Alice in Wonderland. Despite the utter madness of the world, we still have Alice, a very normal and down-to-earth girl we can understand and move forward with. Thrown into that world without her, it would be very difficult to follow and enjoy.
Community, Society and Culture
What makes a world a world? It’s the people within it, more than anything, that brings a new land to life. When it comes to fantasy elements you must include, few things are more important than establishing unique cultures, societies and communities. Your readers want to indulge themselves in a place that is fully realised, and you can’t have a fantasy realm without people who inhabit it; or at least, some form of intelligent life.
Spend time thinking about how the cultures and societies of your world work, and how they interact with one-another. Think about things like laws and language, ruling class and the hierarchy of communities. What are the social conventions of your world and how do they differ between cultures, people and races? Think about history, about beliefs and religion; even personal values.
It’s an absolute must-have fantasy element.
These cultures can be anything you want them to be. In R.F Kaung’s The Poppy War, for example, one of the established societies has little value for life, while the other is almost entirely set on self-preservation. They can be fantastical extremes or they can replicate real-world examples, that is the beauty of the fantasy genre and the freedom you have to create something totally unique and something entirely your own.
It doesn’t matter if you are writing dark fantasy short stories or full-scale epic sages, make sure you incorporate this fantasy element.
Structure to the Madness
I’ve already covered the fantasy elements of realism and connecting readers, but realism doesn’t provide structure and order, it merely provides a window. While your fantasy can be anything you want it to be, your readers are also looking for definition in that new creation.
Confusion in fiction is so easily brought about, and also incredibly destructive. It’s all too simple to forget exactly how things work, bend the rules and mess with your reader’s heads. This is not something anyone likes. People want to know how things work; we like to make sense of things. Having magic is great, but it’s frustrating when it can just be anything at any point, to suit the needs of the plot or just create an interesting scene for the hell of it.
The fantasy elements your readers are looking for should all be clearly defined and structured. Setting rules in place helps people understand your world and get onboard with it. This includes things like rules for:
How magic is used and harnessed
How life and death works
How time passes and how it is measured
How your world came into being, including gods and history
How characters think and interact
Fail to structure your world properly and you create this unyielding, incomprehensible mess. Your readers don’t want that. They want to be swept away into a world that makes sense and works within its own confines. Build rules and follow them.
Fantasy can indeed be anything, but once you’ve settled on what that anything is, make sure it stays that way.