How to write epic fantasy for the 21st century


19 April 2024
Top tips for writing epic fantasy that appeals to modern readers from author James Logan

Epic fantasy is hot property these days.

The commercial and critical success of the Lord of the Rings films marked a shift in the public perception of fantasy. Suddenly it was no longer the domain of teenage boys rolling dice in basements, but something that could be enjoyed by everyone. Fantasy was in danger of becoming respectable. Twenty years later and fantasy is mainstream, with Netflix and Amazon spending huge amounts of money on series like Shadow and Bone, Rings of Power and Wheel of Time. Epic fantasy books are more in demand than ever and dominating bestseller lists.

So how do you write epic fantasy that will appeal to readers today, and what will help your book stand out in an increasingly crowded field?

One thing I’ve learned from fifteen years of working in SFF publishing is that trends come and go, and everything moves in cycles. I grew up reading sprawling epics that focused on the classic trope of the hero’s journey, with a clear demarcation between good and evil. By the mid Aughts, this black and white vision was increasingly turning to shades of grey, with gritty narratives featuring anti-heroes making morally questionable choices, and the line between opposing forces much harder to discern. ‘Grimdark’ enjoyed a decade of prominence, before finally receding as readers – wearied by years of political strife and a global pandemic – hankered for something more comfortable, filled with heart and hope, and more romance than violence. Thus we can partly explain the explosion of cosy fantasy and romantasy, as well as readers returning to the classic high fantasy tropes where the heroes always win.

Cycles, as I said.

With this in mind, it’s important to have an understanding of where your novel fits into the fantasy landscape. While I wouldn’t advocate writing to a specific trend – dragon romantasy might be hot right now, but it might not be in two years when your book is published – it’s beneficial to be familiar with the wider subgenre you’re writing in. What are the common tropes that readers seem to enjoy, and how might you put a fresh spin on them?

In this age of TikTok and Instagram, where books are often presented and marketed by the vibes and tropes they contain, it’s easy to think about your own work solely in these terms, at the expense of character and plot. This is a mistake. Character and plot are the heart of any work of fiction, and are what keep readers gripped by a book and invested in a series.

A setting with a distinctive worldbuilding element that directly affects the story can also set it apart from countless other more formulaic worlds. Jay Kristoff is very good at this – his Nevernight series is set in a trinary star system, so it’s very rarely night-time. How can you be an assassin in a world where it’s never dark? The series builds from this fundamental premise.

You don’t necessarily need such a major story-defining element in your worldbuilding, but you do need authenticity and a distinct feel. The starting point for my Last Legacy series was setting each book in a different city or part of the world, to keep things fresh for myself and entertaining for the reader. Before I wrote a single world, I spent months hashing out the details of the cities, figuring out their political systems, cultures and landmarks, and asking myself what made each one distinctive and gave them their individual character.

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Increasingly, readers are looking for diversity and representation. For example, patriarchal, medieval worlds feature heavily in classic epic fantasy, but often feel dated now. Readers expect to see women with agency and in positions of power, and want to explore settings that offer more than a traditional view of medieval Europe with the serial numbers filed off. Besides, it’s your fantasy world. You can be influenced by history but you don’t have to be bound by it. Take advantage of the freedom fantasy offers you.

It's one thing to create a rich and varied world, but presenting that world to the reader effectively is an entirely different skill. One mistake inexperienced writers often make is to overload the reader with too much large-scale detail in the first chapters. Their excitement to share the world they’ve created leads to them throwing names and places and historical events at the reader in the belief that this gives a setting authenticity and scope. But often these details lack meaningful context and can confuse the reader. Be sparing with details. Reveal the world gradually and remember that small, offhand notes – such as a reference to a city being known for a famous type of wine - can do a lot of heavy lifting in creating a living, breathing world that the reader wants to lose themselves in.

A standard piece of advice is to write what you know, but I think it’s better to write what you enjoy. For The Silverblood Promise, I wanted to write a pacy, gripping fantasy adventure filled with all my favourite things – swordfights, magic, monsters, witty banter, mysterious artefacts and lost civilisations. If you write the kind of thing you enjoy with passion and conviction, then chances are other readers will enjoy it too.

Good luck!

The Silverblood Promise by James Logan is published by Arcadia on 25th April. It will be published in hardback, ebook and audiobook.



Read more advice on building your fantasy world from author Ian Green