Secrets of writing Fantasy

When we started writing on our series BLACK FOREST WITCH, we discovered a lot of secrets about the Fantasy genre. We would like to share the three biggest discoveries with you.

What is Fantasy, really? Nowadays, when we think of the term, Orcs, Elves and Dragons come to mind. But this amazing genre can be so much more. Our story had none of those ingredients, so we became curious. What distinguishes it from other genres? Our goal is not to get an A in genre theory, but a better feeling about stories and what they actually mean. We also want to tell you why we love it and why we think it’s still relevant today.

1. How the genre works

Fantasy is one of the three main genres of speculative fiction:

  1. Science-Fiction
  2. Horror
  3. Fantasy

All three of them deal with the imaginary. While Science-Fiction and Horror are very specific forms, people regard Fantasy as being much broader. They often confuse it with the genre family itself. To make matters worse, in Germany we have a different name for »speculative fiction«. We call it »Phantastik«. A circumstance that’s not easy to explain (other than that there are different definitions by different people).

George MacDonald published the first Fantasy Novel »Phantastes« in 1858. Back then, the novelty of his story must have been quite clear:

In a fantasy story, the main character jumps from a real world to an imaginary world. In this new world, he has to overcome his weakness. Only then he’s able to return. Back home, he lives a better life due to this experience.

Subsequent stories picked up this idea and ingrained it in the collective unconscious. Before, there had always been fantastical elements in different narratives. Consider ancient mythology or fairy tales – from Greek Gods to Cinderella. But it’s this contrast between real and imaginary that makes it a new genre.

Today we call this specific story structure Portal Fantasy. It’s named after the portal the main character uses to get to the other world. Now, you might ask: What about all those stories, that don’t have a portal from the real to the fantastical? What about all those stories that are simply set in a different world?

2. Fantasy means Fiction

There are three basic forms that differ from each other. Let’s call them the main categories of Fantasy Fiction:

  • High Fantasy
  • Portal Fantasy
  • Low Fantasy

High Fantasy stories only play out in fantastical worlds. On the other end of the spectrum, Low Fantasy settings are more or less realistic, with some fantastical aspects like magic thrown into the mix.

Since MacDonald the genre really took off. Countless writers created a multitude of worlds, universes and multiverses. The most well-known story is J.R.R. Tolkien’s »The Lord of the Rings«. At its core, this novel is a myth story, an adventure. It follows the classical hero’s journey. The sole reason people see it as the epitome of this genre in general today, is the incredible detail Tolkien put into his worldbuilding. And that makes it the most important example of this fascinating genre.

The biggest part of Fantasy – Worldbuilding
Thinking about Worldbuilding

Low Fantasy is still very underrated. Unlike Tolkien’s work, our series BLACK FOREST WITCH is set in a rather realistic world. More precisely, it’s Historical Fantasy (a common subgenre), The story is set during the Great Migration Period of Antiquity, when Germanic tribes like the Alemanni ruled the land between the Rhine and the Black Forest. It draws from real-world events. Some of the details come from research, but a lot was lost in history. Especially the culture of the different peoples is unknown, so it had to be made up. And everything about witchcraft for example is Fiction in its purest form.

3. Why it’s still important

Fantasy means innovation. You don’t need Dragons in your story world. You are allowed to invent your own creatures. It doesn’t even have to be one world. But everything you create, even if it seems to be a minute detail, has to have a reason to be there.

Whether you write a Social Story that’s much closer to real life, like Hans Weingartner’s FREE RAINER, or a full-blown Adventure like DRAGONHEART – in the end, there’s always a contrast in the mind of the viewer. Every fantastic story deals with imagined circumstances, so you are always presenting a what-if-scenario. The only question is, how far this scenario stretches the imagination. We always see stories in relation to our own reality. Due to this contrast, it tells us so much about the real world and our own experiences in it.

Everything you write has to have a meaning. Otherwise you’ll leave the audience confused. That’s what makes it so hard for you as a writer, but much more valuable for the audience. These stories hold up a mirror to us and we can recognize ourselves, if we just take a good look.

Great Fantasy classics

Here is a collection of classics from all three varieties that we recommend for you:

High Fantasy

  • The Lord of the Rings
  • A Game of Thrones
  • A Wizard of Earthsea
  • Conan the Barbarian
  • The Sword of Shannara
  • The Colour of Magic
  • The City of lost Children

Portal Fantasy

  • Labyrinth
  • Hook
  • Alice in Wonderland
  • The Wizard of Oz
  • The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
  • The Neverending Story
  • Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

Low Fantasy

  • Highlander
  • Ghost
  • Big Fish
  • American Gods
  • Momo
  • Le Pacte des Loups
  • Hero

More about this topic

We really like to go in-depth. Are you interested in reading more? If you’ve read all this way and you’re still not satisfied, check out what other people write about the genre as well:

We tried our best to create a believable and yet fascinating world with our TV series. One that we hope you’d like to revisit again and again. There were a lot of challenges on the way, but also a lot of excitement. Tell us what you think, become a sponsor and help us with the production of the whole pilot episode.

Sven Eric Maier
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