How to Write a Fantasy Novel - Notes from a Published Author

In this authonomy writing tips article author Raymond E Feist gives his advice on writing fantasy novels. For more writing tips and advice on how to get published check out our writing tips section.

Raymond E. Feist is one of the world’s leading fantasy writers. His Riftwar and Serpentwar sagas have been global bestsellers for years. Born and raised in Southern California, Raymond E. Feist was educated at the University of California, San Diego, where he graduated with honours in Communication Arts. He is the author of the bestselling and critically acclaimed Riftwar Saga.

What is it that draws you to the Fantasy genre?

It’s as close as I can get to the old “Boys Adventure” genre, or real historical novels, my first two loves as a kid.

In essence, both Fantasy and Sci-Fi tend to be escapist in that they manage to draw their readers completely into a totally different world.

What elements does a novel (or series) have to have in order to achieve this?

Ironically, it must be believable. Any system of story telling is predicated on certain expectations by the reader; you can’t have a murder mystery without a murder, or a western without a cowboy or cavalry trooper or outlaw. There must be an internal self-consistency to the rules of the fantasy world. Science fiction is fantasy limited to the known realities of science, so that’s a tighter circle within which to work, but even then if you look at the classics, you’ll find social commentary and adventure tropes rampant.

How much information do you keep on each character? There must be a lot to keep track of considering you’ve created an entire universe.

Not really. I may be lucky, but I tend to remember most things about my characters that are significant (though I have made one or two continuity fluffs within the last twenty seven years). It’s just something I do and really don’t think about.

How do you manage to cover such a massive time span in your books? Have you created something like a timeline to help you out with this?

That is another thing I have going for me without a lot of thought. It’s simply a case of knowing how far down the timeline the next book is and who gets older and who doesn’t.

How do you manage to cover such a massive time span in your books? Have you created something like a timeline to help you out with this?

That is another thing I have going for me without a lot of thought. It’s simply a case of knowing how far down the timeline the next book is and who gets older and who doesn’t.

How did you create or conceive the magical system in Midkemia?

I didn’t. That was the product of a gaming experience at University, and the system itself was created by friends – I was the guy who came up with the rules for thieves. I did, however, later rewrite the rules for Lesser Path Magicians.

But gaming realities are not effective literary ones, so much liberty has been taken with this stuff since its creation. In literature, it’s mostly a magician waves his hand or her wand, and things happen.

How do you go about structuring a particular novel?

For me, the end is the most important part; a goal toward which to move. That keeps me more or less in line. Otherwise, it’s an adventure for me, as well, for often I’m not entirely sure how those characters are going to get there.

Why do you think a lot of fantasy novels use the Medievalist form?

Western/Northern European is our common foundation culture in the UK and US. It’s changing, and we’re now hearing other voices with other roots, but for the most part, it’s come to be what we as readers of the genre expect. Asian and other settings are now becoming more commonplace, and my world of Kelewan was designed specifically to be non-European, but in the end, for heroic fantasy, the Medievalist European trope is preferred. Once you get out of the heroic, though, you tend to see a great deal more diversity.

Have you ever considered delving into the world of Sci-Fi?

Yes, to the terror of my publisher who would much prefer if I stuck with fantasy. I have two notions, an alternate history/time travel one, and a galaxy spanning old style high adventure idea. Maybe some day.

What authors do you look up to in your genre?

It’s tough to say without stepping on toes, so I avoid naming names of contemporaries. Let it suffice that there are a lot of very talented men and women out there right now, doing solid work for their loyal fans. We did recently suffer the loss of two really gifted storytellers in Jim Rigney (Robert Jordan) and Phillip Jose Farmer, one cut down far too young and one at the end of a long and glorious career. Both had well deserved fame and followings.

How do you create likeable heroes?

You find a common human trait the reader can at least understand, if not identify with; even my “anti-heroes” had to have that quality, else the reader just doesn’t care what happens to him or her.

What’s the key to holding your readers’ attention?

Give the reader a character in which to be interested then drop the character into a mess and see if they can somehow get out of it.

You’ve chosen to collaborate with authors like Janny Wurts, Bill Forstchen and Joel Rosenberg. What does this add to the finished novel, do you find you disagree on certain aspects and how is a co-authorship divided up?

Collaboration gives you another author’s sensibilities and priorities; it’s as close as you can get to looking inside someone else’s head to see how he/she does it. It can be very difficult, or great fun, or both at times. Each of us had a different system in details, but in general with Janny and Bill we just swapped chapters back and forth. With Joel and Steve Stirling, they wrote complete first drafts and I went back to do rewite. After having done six books (three with Janny) I think I prefer the back and forth, but either way is OK.

Are you ever tempted to team up with another Fantasy author and have your universes collide in a sort of epic show down? Do you think it would work?

It’s an attractive idea along the lines of DC and Marvel Comics crossovers, or any other number of fans “what if?” kinds of wonderings, “What if the Rebel Alliance in Star Wars ran into the Klingons?” “What if Battlestar Galactica’s fleet arrived around Middle Earth?” sorts of nonsense. Fun nonsense, though.

I’d much rather borrow characters, which is what we did with my book with Joel, much as A. Bertram Chandler borrowed Dominic Flandery from Poul Anderson for one of his Commodore Grimes novels. I’d love to borrow Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser from Fritz Leiber’s estate and run them with Jimmy the Hand in a story, for instance.

You have written from the female perspective before: how difficult is it to master that voice?

I’m getting better at it, but I think it’s historically easier for women to write convincing male characters than it is for men to write female characters. It’s because women read so much more stuff staring men while they’re growing up, though that is certainly changed in the last twenty five years. The only male writer I knew years back who did it effortlessly was Ted Sturgeon, but he was a very gentle soul who looked into people in a way most of us can’t. It’s one of the main reasons I asked Janny to collaborate on the Empire series. I wanted the protagonist to be a strong woman; I just had this feeling if it was Lord Mara instead of Lady Mara it would be just another adventure novel. I think that series has levels of complexity I’ve never achieved by myself, and that’s mostly due to Janny.

What led up to your first book being published? How did you get your first big break?

I did it as a bit of a lark at first, writing. Then when friends were more than enthusiastic, more than the polite “how quaint,” kinds of comments, but really “you have to get this published,” I started bearing down. My first break was my friends; for a while I was out of work and they pitched in so I could finish the book – they put their money where their mouths were; you don’t get more concrete support than that. My second big break was in landing Harold Matson as my agent; he was a giant in the industry. He got it to Adrian Zackheim at Doubleday who loved the concept and helped me finish it as a novel.

What advice would you give unpublished Fantasy authors?

You have to keep writing. Young authors especially are impatient. They expect to do it all the first bash out, and it rarely works like that. Mostly it’s because writing is the most common of the arts as far as familiarity with tools; if you’ve passed your upper forms in Literature, you’re supposed to be able to write. Well, you can, a shopping list, a report to your boss, a letter to your mum, but if you want to write a book, that’s a different thing. You may play the piano, so you practise, but if you want to play Chopin at Carnegie Hall, you practise.