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Wednesday 16 November 2011

Writing Fantasy 101 by Paul Collins (part one)

The most popular (read notorious) question authors get asked is: ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ I built a workshop around this theme to satisfy that question. But how to explain where ideas for fantasy novels come from? I pondered this aspect and realised that the 12 point structure of fantasy is as good a place as any to explain how authors writer humongous tomes. Yes, imagination features heavily, but once students answer the fundamental questions as espoused by the 12 points, they’re well on their way to writing their own fantasy novels. I then built a workshop around that particular theme, too.

So this is how it all works:

Fantasy Cycle

"Real Life" Cycle

Our hero's journey proceeds in stages ─ leaping from their Ordinary World out into the unknown. Eventually, they find their way back home again. During the course of the journey, our hero makes friends and meets foes who help or hinder the rite of passage: this refers to a stage in the journey of life, one that’s difficult and often traumatic, but will affect everything that comes after. The most significant rite-of-passage for humans is the transition from childhood\adolescence into adulthood. [Compare the fantasy cycle with the reality cycle that Isobelle Carmody drew for me after a Hero’s Journey workshop I gave.] Many fantasy stories attempt to emulate this journey (think Star Wars with its adolescent hero). This process is universal and happens to us all. We leave home; this is sometimes scary or exciting and can be both. We leave our ordinary world – our comfort zone, the world of our familiar childhood – to venture out into the unknown, referred to in the ‘structure’ as the Special World. In smaller ways, this journey is repeated again and again throughout our lives. This mythic journey is the underlying structure of most successful fantasy plots.

We kick off our fantasy novel in . . .


This is where our story begins, the world in which the character (they’re not a hero yet!) feels comfortable, which is familiar to them. It’s also the world they are usually reluctant to leave. Frodo hates the thought of leaving the shire and is scared to do so, even though he is also excited at the same time. Cinderella’s ordinary life is spent cleaning up after her step-mother and step-sisters. Her special world is the Ball. Harry Potter and the Philospher’s Stone: Harry’s is a life of unhappy drudgery with his aunt, uncle and cousin. His special world is Hogwarts. The Wizard of Oz: Dorothy lives with her uncle and aunt on a farm. Her special world is The Land of Oz. Jelindel, in book #1 of my own series The Jelindel Chronicles, Dragonlinks, is anticipating a feast and playing. Her world is safe and, to her, ‘normal’.

Taking the character from their familiar world to an alien one disorients them and makes them vulnerable and adds to the drama of the situation.


This is a challenge or a problem that the character can’t ignore. They are compelled to leave the ordinary world, to leave comfort and safety behind. In Star Wars, the call is Princess Leia’s holographic message to Obiwan that Luke Skywalker overhears. In Lord of the Rings, the problem that can’t be ignored ─ that can’t be hidden or destroyed ─ is the ring itself. Here Frodo ─ the keeper of the ring ─ is forced onto the first leg of his journey (not knowing where it will end). Cinderella is invited to the ball; Harry gets a flood of letters in the mail. Dorothy’s dog Toto runs off and Dorothy gives chase. Jelindel is driven from her home by assassins and the subsequent fire and must survive on the streets of D'Loom. This is the first call. The second call is when she and her companions are forced to flee D’Loom.


The hero isn’t quite a hero yet (he/she becomes one by going on the journey) and they’re quite rightly scared to leave the known and familiar world, or to leave a lesser evil for what might be a greater one. So they refuse or drag their feet or declare their reluctance or happily sleep in like Bilbo in The Hobbit. Luke in Star Wars refuses and actually goes home but then discovers his family has been murdered. Frodo begs Gandalf for time and expresses reluctance. Our protagonist resists the call. Cinderella says, ‘But I haven’t got anything to wear!’ Harry, with a twist to the theme, doesn’t refuse the call to adventure; the Dursleys do it for him. Dorothy runs away from home because she doesn’t want to grow up. Everything has been destroyed so Jelindel has no reason to refuse. She needs the adventure on some level ─ to come into her own.

Again, this is something that every reader and viewer can relate to. The universal fear of the unknown.


This is one of the most important roles in the story and one that occurs early. A wise old man or woman ─ Merlin, Gandalf, Obiwan, Glinda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz ─ is introduced and offers the hero guidance and help for the journey and often gives them some powerful or magical device (Obiwan gives Luke his father’s light sabre; Cinderella’s fairy godmother sends her to the Ball. Hagrid is Harry’s mentor (Dumbledore is often mistaken as Harry’s mentor). Hagrid tells Harry that he’s a wizard and takes him shopping for supplies. Professor Marvel tells Dorothy she is loved and sends her off to find home. Glinda gives Dorothy the ruby slippers that will later get her home again) Jelindel meets Zimak who teaches her kick-fist. The spells at the Temple of verity also help her. Zimak is also a trickster, an archetype found in fantasy.

The mentor’s main aim is to give our future heroes good advice – which the hero sometimes ignores, to their near peril. This relationship between hero and mentor represents a fundamental and universal relationship in human societies and human history: that between parent and child, teacher and student, the old and the new, the past and the future (and how to bridge them). Often the Mentor may be combined with another role, that of getting the Hero started on his/her journey, of bolstering their courage or simply by putting the fear of God into them at what will happen if they don’t undertake the adventure. The Mentor usually doesn’t complete the journey with the Hero since they must do this on their own, proving themselves by doing so.


This is the first step upon the road the hero must embark upon. It may take the form of setting out on the journey or dealing with the problem in some fashion (though it will turn out not to be a final solution and the problem will usually return but by this time it will be much bigger and more dangerous).

Luke goes with Obiwan to Mos Eisley and Frodo leaves the Shire. Cinderella travels to the Ball in her magical pumpkin carriage Harry passes through the brick wall at Platform 9 ¾ and steps into the wizard world via the Hogwarts Express. Dorothy travels to Oz via a tornado. Jelindel crosses this boundary when she decides to go after the dragonlinks.

The story now enters a new territory. Here, old skills or knowledge may no longer be useful but fundamentals such as loyalty, bravery and integrity will prove to be lifesavers.


The Hero meets difficulties that test his or her strength and commitment. At this point they are usually not huge tests, but they will grow as the journey develops. In the process they will also enlist the help of allies (who may become permanent companions) and they may make enemies. Frodo ─ along with Sam, Pippin and Merry ─ have their first near misses with the dreaded Black Riders and only narrowly escape them. In the process Frodo is strongly tempted to put on the ring, an action that would bring instant doom to him and his companions, but he manages to pass this test. Cinderella’s enemies are her ‘family’, and an unexpected ally is the fairy godmother and prince. Part of her test is not being recognised by her hateful step-mother and step-sisters and in not becoming so caught up in all the wonder and riches of the Ball that she forgets the time. Harry’s news friends are Ron and Hermione; his enemies are Malfoy, Goyle and Crabbe ─ although these are underlings to Harry’s main foe, Lord Voldemort. His tests are many: the sorting hat, moving stairways, Quidditch. Dorothy makes friends with the Scarecrow and Tinman, and later the lion and learns of the Wicked Witch. Jelindel survives various dangers and adversaries, learns more about her companions, becoming friends to some extent, and finds the map to the other links.

This is also the section where we start to learn about the Hero (and their companions and adversaries) by seeing how they deal with the challenges and tests (such as the fights and negotiations in the cantina in Star Wars). This section may take up a large part of the book or the film.

Look out for Part Two of Paul's post next week!

Paul’s many books for young people include series such as The Jelindel Chronicles, The Earthborn Wars, The Quentaris Chronicles and The World of Grrym in collaboration with Danny Willis. His latest book is Mole Hunt, book one in The Maximus Black Files. The trailers are available here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3S-eKDYqpEs and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n4tTn_WXCiw.

Paul has been the recipient of the A Bertram Chandler, Aurealis, William Atheling and Peter McNamara awards and has been shortlisted for many others including the Speech Pathology, Mary Grant Bruce, Ditmar and Chronos awards.

*Paul will be in Tasmania giving writing workshops during April and May 2012. Email him at fordstr@internode.on.net if you would like him to visit your school or library. www.paulcollins.com.au


  1. See Kal Bashir's Hero's Journey at http://www.clickok.co.uk/index4.html ; it's better and deeper than Joseph Campbell's or Christopher Vogler's.

  2. Great article - looking forward to part 2!

  3. This a very awesome read! Thanks for this post. I hope you continue writing some more for your readers.

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