#124: Breaking the Fantasy Mold

Hello Story Nurse,

I’ve been writing fantasy for as long as I can remember. I love creating characters, I love building world, and I love the feeling of actually sitting down to write.

But when it comes to actually coming up with a plot, I struggle. I typically come up with a plot about 30K words in, and then… I ignore the plot in order to write vignettes about how the characters interact, examining their quirks and backstories, that sort of thing. I’m about halfway through a project that I absolutely love, and I have probably four words of non-plot for every word of plot. Am I writing the wrong genre? I don’t remember any fantasy books that spend this much time lovingly describing what each character’s childhood was like.

—More of a Therapist than a Plotter (he/him)

Dear More of a Therapist,

I think what’s key here is that you are loving your project. Nothing matters more than that. Your love for it will keep you going through the hardest parts of writing it, and your readers will be able to tell it was written with love, an incredibly potent ingredient that can win a reader over to something they might not expect to like at all.

I can think of quite a number of fantasy authors who have diverged aggressively from what other people thought the fantasy genre was supposed to be. Among the names that come to mind are N.K. Jemisin, Laurell K. Hamilton, Colson Whitehead, Catherynne M. Valente, Jeff VanderMeer, Zen Cho, Stephenie Meyer, Cherie Priest, Naomi Novik, and George R.R. Martin. You may have heard of some of them. Their success stems from their passion, their visions, and their refusal to be put in a box labeled This Is How Fantasy Is. In fact, very few people succeed in the genre by doing just what everyone else has done. Readers do enjoy their familiar tropes, but they also hunger for the thrill of something new.

There will be time later to consider things like how marketable the book is and where to find the readers who will adore it as much as you do. For now, get unstuck from your shoulds and write what’s bringing you joy. There’s no substitute for that feeling and you should feel entirely free to wallow in it.

Happy, happy writing!


Story Nurse

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2 thoughts on “#124: Breaking the Fantasy Mold

  1. For the record, there is actually a huge demand for slice-of-life drama in fantasy settings. Demand *way* outstrips supply.

    I would put “Carry On” by Rainbow Rowell in this category. Also, ”Practical Magic’ by Alice Hoffman, ‘The Night Circus” by Erin Morganstern, and ‘Death: The High Cost of Living’ by Neil Gaiman.

    Practical Magic might be the most iconic in that regard. It’s mostly a story about a friendship between outsiders as they grow up…it just happens that they’re also witches. They never save the world or anything. They just help each other or fight with each other and grow closer together. Even though the Sandra Bullok movie had to cut a lot of it, it kept the spirit of the thing.

    And, actually, Sandman is super weird, because half the stories are typical hero’s journey / Greek tragedy-monster-prophecy stuff, and half are just…Morpheus having complicated friendships and family relationships. My favorite arc is the one where he has to take Delirium on a road trip to “babysit” her and they unexpectedly bond.

    Some of Ursula LeGuin’s short stories don’t really have much plot or adventure; “Solitude” might be my favorite LeGuin story of all time, and its just about an introvert who doesn’t want to go to Earth, even though her world is dying, because she really likes solitude. I mean, that’s the whole conflict right there. It’s the most beautiful story I’ve ever read.

    Nalo Hopkinson also has some phenomenal stories in ‘Falling In Love with Hominids’ that are just about people living and working and playing and loving in fantastic places.

    Hero’s Journies and save-the-world plots are overrated. If you don’t want to write them, you don’t have to!


  2. Yes yes, it depends on your readers. Some want plot, and other don’t need it so much. I sometimes feel plot is a bit of a crutch, as long as it moves along, you don’t notice how so many other parts of writing is lacking. Of course, when your work isn’t as fast paced it places more of a demand on how you write, when the what you write isn’t as prominent


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