Every genre brings a unique aspect to editing. Fantasy is no different. From plot types, extensive world building, character arcs, and much more. Clark Chamberlain and Peter Turley look at the three elements each fantasy author must pay attention to in their editing process.
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Clark: Welcome to the Book Editor Show. Today, we’ll walk you through the three most important elements you need to address when editing your fantasy manuscript. If you are ready to move forward in professional editing, stop by thebookeditorshow.com. We can help in every stage of your work, from pre-production, developmental editing, copy editing to proofreading, stop by today and let us know how we can help you build a better book.
I’m Clark Chamberlain, and they say that all characters appear to be anti-heroes when compared to him, and in fact, his pure heart has made him the caretaker of the world’s most complete collection of artifacts that house dark souls. He’s the man you want on any hero’s journey. He’s my friend and co-host, Peter Turley.
Peter, how’s it going today?
Peter: Just great. That’s an interesting point — isn’t it? — how on some characters only come into their own when compared against other characters and sometimes you don’t want to walk into a room in case you make everyone feel like the bad guy.
Clark: That’s right. Exactly. No one can be as heroic when compared to you, Peter; it’s just how it is.
Peter: No. I’m really great. Looking forward to getting into this topic. I just love reading, writing, editing fantasy novels. So this is going to be a really good show. I’m hoping it’s going to go as smoothly as that intro did. Because I was paying attention and that was flawless. I don’t know if you did some warm-up exercise beforehand, but that was impressive.
Clark: I did a lot of — Weebles wobble wobbles but they won’t fall down — just a lot of — murder in the mayhem in the m-
It was a lot of stuff there, I practiced that one for a little bit.
Peter: We could do a short video collection of those. So our listeners could practice them themselves.
Clark: Yes. That would be good. We’re here to help in many different ways.
I also am excited about talking about this today. I found that I really do enjoy fantasy in all different kinds of forms, but getting to work on Writership, the last few submissions have been fantasy, and they’ve just been so much fun to read. Because in those fantasy worlds, the world-building that people come up with and the clever ideas they have, it’s just so much fun. It’s just such a fun thing to play around in.
Peter: I think that’s the point in something, to be remembered when you’re going through an editing fantasy, that it needs to be fun and it needs to be immersive. That’s the greatest appeal.
Every story has an element of fantasy to it and in some way, falls under that category, but when we’re talking specifically about the genre it’s got to be fun and it’s got to be immersive and you’ve got to want to spend time there, really.
Clark: Exactly. The world that leads to something that you really get invested in and you care about characters. That’s why so many people get upset with George R.R. Martin’s characters when he kills them off because they are so deeply invested in those characters, they come to love them; they care about them; they want to know what’s going to happen to them. They’re going to die; that’s what’s going to happen to them. Spoiler alert.
Peter: In case you didn’t know, it has a slight pension for killing amazing characters.
Clark: Yes. He does.
I know my favorites are about to die. There’s no way they’re living through it.
Peter: Enjoy them while they last.
Clark: Yes. But even so; even though he’s killing off characters that are really interesting and fantastic, it’s still a world that I’m excited to go into in book 6, as soon as he gets that done, by the time I’m 80.
Peter: It’s impressive how much we do care when he kills these characters, and that just shows how well-rounded these characters are that you really do care when they die. Because if you don’t care, then maybe you’re doing the character building wrong.
Clark: Exactly. Although this is not specific to the editing conversation we’re having today, character death — I’ll just jump down this rabbit hole, real quick — character death, no matter what, should matter to people when they’re reading it. Because either they feel really great because it’s an awful character that they wanted to see dead, or they feel really awful because it’s a character they wanted to have live.
If you’ve got a in-the-middle character who dies and no one cares anything about it, then — exactly, Peter — you’ve put it together wrong.
Peter: Just as much as we want to spend time with a character… I think that’s the massive appeal of fantasy for me, because you have these worlds and these characters that they feel like familiar places and friends that you want to go and you want to be around, and then you want to cry when they die.
Clark: Last week we were talking about thrillers, and we were talking about how plot… You pay more attention to plot in a thriller than you do necessarily to a character arc that’s developing. This is not true in the fantasy side.
Should we go ahead and jump on in to this and we’ll get started into these three that we want to share today?
Peter: Yes. So today we’re going to talk about what are the three good places to start when you’re looking to edit your fantasy novel. If you tackle these three areas you’re going to be well on your way to having a fully rounded and complete work of fantasy.
We’re going to be talking about world building, characters, and plot. They are the three areas we’re going to look at today and arguably, three of the most important, I would say.
We’ll start with world building.
I think it’s really useful when you sit down to edit to pick one thing to look at at a time. As you get better, you can become more versed in different things and pick up on different things and handle more as you go through it. But it’s always useful to ask yourself a question as you dive into editing in particular, and for world building you’ve really got to ask yourself — do I know my world? Do I know everything about it? — because if you don’t, it’s going to show up later in the story. It may come out in the plot; it might come out in something that doesn’t make sense.
But the whole appeal of fantasy is that these worlds are immersive. They’re a place that the reader wants to visit and not get kicked out of, and if you don’t know your own world, chances are something’s going to go wrong and the reader’s going to be ejected violently from that world at some point. [laughs]
Clark: This can be true whether you’re world building for a single novel or for a series of novels. Although this is in the sci-fi genre, if you’ve had a chance to watch the movie Galaxy Quest, at the beginning of this movie they’re at this convention and you have these people that are so committed to the story, to the world, that they… And they’re always asking of the questions to the people who played the characters — what happened when this, when you were here — because they do pay attention. That’s what you want; you want a reader who’s gotten so engaged into it that they will call you out when you make a mistake and you’ve tripped up in your world.
This is even more important — building kind of a world bible — so that if you’re doing a series, so that if you’re going from one to another that you aren’t changing things just without noticing that you had it one way in book 1 and now in book 2 things have altered so differently.
Peter: Yes. I love that word “world bible” because I think that’s a fantastic tip. If you’re wondering if you’re doing your world building right, then consider how detailed your notes are, or how big your world bible is. Do you even have a world bible? Because that’s the quickest way that you’re going to have a complex and interesting world, but also that you’re going to be… In fact, you’re going to be the expert on this world, because that’s really who you need to be, because, particularly in fantasy, you’re going to be including things like… You’re making a lot of it up; you might not be basing as much on the real world. You might have magic systems, new religions, new political structures.
You need to know the ins and outs of them so that you know what the consequences are when any one of those things changes.
Clark: I’m glad you mentioned that, because I think that we can get into the habit — we say the word “fantasy” and we think magic; we say the word “world building” we thing we need to put together a magic system.
That’s not everything. Exactly what you just said — politics, religion, how the economies work. Like, are they agricultural? Do you have places that have built up cities?
If you’re talking about a fantasy that’s also taking place in modern times. Let’s take a look at the world of Harry Potter and how it interacted with the regular human world. There was a separate secret world, but it had ties and interactions with the prime ministers; they still talk to each other, and in how they interact and how different it is when they had someone of the magic world coming in and interacting with the regular non-magic world.
All of this stuff needs to be paid attention to, especially during the editing process that you’re going through and you’re looking at each of these; have you build this up the right way? Does it matter? Is there something that you’re spending a lot of time on in this particular area? Maybe you’ve spent a ton of time talking about politics in this one place. How does that play with the rest of the story, and is it making sense to the reader and to yourself and how you’re editing, putting it all together?
Peter: Be the expert on your world. But then don’t show us the expert by not telling us all about it. Because the readers will understand that if you’ve done it right, then the world will be believable. I think a good way when starting out with your world building, is to think what if… Like, Harry Potter, what if wizards were real? Just start with a question. Then it snowballs, it has this domino effect. So how would that affect politics? Would their politics intertwine with ours?
If you understand it, you don’t need to do an infodump; you don’t need to tell us exactly how this is going to work. You can just show us through the story that’s going to take place in this world.
I think it’s really useful to, whenever you look at a section of world building, or something about your world, or even if you’re looking through your world bible, to just ask yourself — is this a place that readers want to visit? Even if it’s dystopian, even if it’s not an enjoyable place, or a “good world” just through sheer level of intrigue, is it a place that they want to visit? Is it where you want to spend an hour or two of my night when I open a book and just be transported somewhere else.
Clark: Hank Hudson, looking at that, in the first book, it was one of the things that I wanted to do was not have a lot of information; I wanted it to be a… So if you say Harry Potter, he gets brought into the world that’s very established and they teach him everything. The world of Hank Hudson, there is no person with a letter to say “welcome to this world.” Because we do have these energy lay lines; we have the Egyptian god stuff going on in there, and we’re learning it. We’re learning it together with him and carrying on.
So you don’t have to toss all this stuff out up front. You could have this built over time. But you need to understand where it is that it’s going, so that you don’t make a mistake. That if a character is going to say this is what happens when we do this, they need to either say “I know this is what happens when we do this” or “this is what I believe.” There was a lot of that “this is what I believe” in the first Hank Hudson book, and I really like that. I like that idea of a journey together in how this stuff works out.
Peter: Because it’s that desire to know how these things work out. The fantasy writer, Daniel Arenson, who’s created a — I believe he’s self-published — a really successful line of fantasy novels, and in this world called “Moth” the world’s basically stopped spinning on its axis so one part’s permanently in daylight and one part’s permanently in the dark, so then different cultures and different ways of life have arisen on both sides of this nights dark line.
It can start with just a really interesting concept like that. If you’ve got a unique selling point or a unique premise to your world in the same way in the story itself, then you’ve got a really strong world and you’re off to a really great start.
Clark: So, moving from the world building. Start talking about the characters again. We’ve already mentioned a lot about the importance of making the character, if they were to die, that actually mattered to somebody, to the reader.
Peter: I think when looking at characters, it’s good to ask yourself a couple of questions just to have a… We like chat lists; we want to make things easy, because editing’s hard. That’s no secret. So it’s useful to ask, when you’re looking at characters — are they varied? Are they motivated, and do they grow? Do they change? How well do they develop throughout the novel?
Especially with fantasy, the danger is that it’s a minefield of cliches and tropes and stock characters. That’s also something to use to your advantage, because later we’ll talk more about plots, in plot. But fantasy readers in particular, do expect a certain thing from characters and plots. There’s going to be particular characters that need to be in the story — so that’s the protagonist and antagonist — but then you might have stock characters — the mentor, the sidekick, the love interest — so they need to be there, but you’re in trope territory, really. I think asking those questions — is there a variety of characters? Do I know what each of those character’s motivations are? What do they want in that world? Do they change by the end of it?
Clark: Because again, unlike with the thriller genre, where the character can easily stay static — they don’t need to evolve because maybe you’re’ going to have James Bond is going to be the same guy in every book — you really do want to… This is a journey, whether you’re doing the hero’s journey as the plot structure or not, this is something that the person is going through in a fantasy novel. So you do want to see some kind of growth, whether they’re spiraling down and becoming more consumed by some sort of darkness or that they’re rising above it all and that they’re making that change. This is one of the things to look for when you’re editing for change, when you’re looking at character arc, is, is it making sense? You’ve got them being a particular way the whole way through it. They just hate all sorts of authority all the way through it, and then at the very end, like the last ten pages, all of a sudden they realize the error of their ways and they just make a huge switch right there.
Does that feel true? The answer is no. You have to make these things make sense. This is where you’re selling the person. We talk a lot about this. You want to put them into an immersive artificial, virtual reality here and if they get pulled out of that with something that doesn’t feel real, then that’s one of the things you’ve got to address.
This is one of the things that you’re looking for through these character arcs, is if it’s happening in a natural progression. Have you made the steps along the way that when you got to the end, the reader would say — yes, I look back, and that makes sense.
Peter: It makes me think of being in a dream, like when you’re reading a fantasy novel your mind’s always on the lookout for a sign that this isn’t real. That’s why it is really important. There are differences to the thriller and different things that are required of characters in fantasy.
But starting off with engaging characters is more important here, because the reader is in a more unfamiliar world than perhaps a lot of other genres. Having an interesting, engaging character can ground the reader in some familiar place and give them a haven or a place to anchor within this strange place and having believable engaging characters is how you go about doing that.
Clark: In this way, you’ve all of a sudden put them in a place that doesn’t feel real, that this is the thing that makes them feel real — to connect with that character. That’s why it’s important that you really know who it is that you’re writing to.
It’s easy when you’re writing for middle grade; it’s easy when you’re writing for YA, you’re got an age group there; you’ve got a target. If you’re doing a fantasy that’s going to be for 18 and older, it’s hard to narrow that down. It’s really important when you create that character and you’ve established an age for that character that they feel like the life experiences of a person who is of that age in our day and age, so that we have some more grounded in what we would call our reality here, versus the fantasy world that you’re creating there.
Peter: Yes. And a great way to do that is — what do you desire? What do you want? What would a teenager want? Whether they’re a wizard or whether in a normal world — what do teenagers want? What are they interested in? What do people in power want?
Knowing your character’s motivations and thinking about what would someone in our world in a similar position — what would they want and what would they desire? — and translate that into my world. Then it’s going to make sense and then it’s going to feel more familiar to the reader. Because it’s happening all around us and we’re like — yes, that makes sense — and like you say, you don’t end up with this huge U-turn at the end of the novel that just doesn’t make sense for that character.
Clark: This is again something that you really ought to pay attention to because in the majority of fantasy novels, you’re going to have a large cast of characters that are coming. Even if you just are following one person.
If you’re following this one protagonist through the story, and maybe everything, they’re always in it, you’ve got a cast of characters that are coming in and out of this character’s life. You may go a different direction; you may do the George R.R. Martin and you’re going to follow multiple points of view throughout the story, making sure that you’re not slacking off and you’re actually building each of these characters into a really strong individual person. You’ve got some stock-type characters, they’re filling positions — companion and the mentor and these different types of positions — but you don’t want them to be just a cardboard cut-out, making sure that they’re multidimensional. Multidimensional character means that they care about stuff that’s outside of the plot, know that they actually have their own thoughts and feelings, that they’re upset with things, they like things. They’re a person. You’re creating a real person, versus a character who is one dimensional, single dimensional who just is the court jester and they act just like the court jester would in any kind of stock cut-out character. That’s what you want to avoid.
This is one of the things that sometimes gets confusing. We talk about multidimensional. characters; we talk about single-dimensional characters. We also talk about static characters and we talk about evolving characters.
An evolving character means that they’ve made a change from the beginning to the end. A static character has not, but a static character can still have multidimensional. characteristics; they can still care about things; they just don’t change during the story.
Peter: That’s really well said. I think that’s why we chose these three areas. Because when we get these down, the other stuff can start taking care of itself. When you have this well rounded character that cares about things outside of the plot, and you know what those things are, then when you have a character with strong needs and strong desires, conflict is something that then is inevitable. Because you throw all these characters together that all want different things, conflict is going to arise. So these other things that are necessary to a good story just start taking care of themselves. They’re important to look at, but jumping in and making sure you’ve got these rounded characters is a great way to ensure that the rest happens on its own.
Clark: If you’re having trouble, if you’re ever having trouble through your story, you’re like — I just feel like I’m just running with the plot; I’m just writing the story; it’s just propelling things forward and everything is just about that — it’s the fun thing that you can do, is you can add in one of these things that the character cares about that’s completely outside of it.
You think about Lord of the Rings, that there’s a lot of characters who enjoy smoking a pipe. They talk about the tobacco or they talk about eating; they talk about other things, that are not plot-related, not story-driven. That kind of conversation can add a lot to the realism of each of these characters.
Peter: Like Merry and Pippin having “second breakfasts” and they have that conversation because that’s something they want and something that they enjoy to do. You have this whole scene about it and it kind of paints a picture of how they really have left the Shire. It builds on the mood; it builds on the tension. It reminds us that they’re in danger. All because they wanted something almost trivial.
Clark: Yes. Something that they just cared about that’s outside of getting the ring to where it needs to go. If you’re character is coming across as Terminator robots, that they’re just focused on the mission at hand, that’s the time you’ve got to go back and make them more realistic; make them more real.
Peter: Talking about Lord of the Rings — great example of a quest story. I think the next thing to look at here is the plot of the novel. Because it’s as important as making sure you have those particular types of characters in your novel.
When a reader picks up a fantasy novel, whether they know it or not, they’re going to expect it to be one of several plots. We’ve done a group of shows on the seven basic plots that cover all of those in depth, and there’s plenty of great books on it.
Asking yourself the question — do I know which of these basic plots my story falls into? Does it fall into two? Maybe. But just sitting down and thinking — what plot am I editing in this novel? What needs to happen? What needs to take place?
Once you know that, you can move further in and look at things like the conflict there within the plot, the action within the plot, and is there an inherent suspense within the plot.
Clark: Exactly. It is so important that you identify it. If you haven’t identified it up front, that you’re starting to identify it towards the end, that you’re hitting the right notes. This has a lot to do with pacing; this has a lot to do with reader expectation. That’s another part that we can make familiar in a very unfamiliar world when we’re doing fantasy is that we understand the idea of the story; we understand the idea of the plot, that they’re going after something, that it’s the hero’s journey and what that entails — overcoming the monster — these types of different ones, that we can that familiarity to it and we’ve hit the right pacing — this needs to happen here; this is where we need to meet the mentor; this is where we need to have… The hero steps up and everything falls apart — and all these types of moments, and then that can feel familiar to the reader, and even in the most weird fantasy world that you’ve created, there is a familiarity there that they can feel at home in, because they’ve experienced this story before even this one is unique.
Peter: It’s almost like a metaphorical Yellow Brick Road that leads the way through the story in a scary and strange place. It’s — don’t worry because this is the way that we need to go.
Clark: Yes. This is what’s going to happen next.
There’s nothing wrong with trying to come up and create something different or combine things together, but it’s important that you understand what you’re doing. Again, these are established rules of storytelling and narrative and if you’re going to break it, you need to understand why you’re doing it and what it is that you’re creating, and does that work. Is there anyone else who’s written a story that combines these different plot elements together? And did it work for them? Was it well received?
These are questions in the editing process that you need to start asking yourself — are you trying to do something that’s going to be commercial? Or is this something that you’re just sharing out with your friends and family, something that’s only for yourself? — these are things that you want to look at. Because that idea of really pushing an envelope and being very artistic and trying all this stuff out and you want it to be commercial — you may find that to be very difficult.
Peter: Like we said with characters, fantasy is riddled with cliches and tropes and you really need to be aware of what they are so that you can adhere to them enough for it to be familiar and enjoyable and then break away from them enough to be original and unique. The plot that you’re writing or editing for is something you can look at in the editing process. Having these basic plots really helps make sure you tick those boxes. Perhaps not necessary when you sit down to write it, but you can then wonder — is this plot congruent with the characters I’ve created? Do they match up to the plot? Is it too complex for the characters that I have? Have I got too many characters in it, and I’ve ended up with too many subplots?
Making sure that plot and character works together in this way really adds a level of cohesion to the whole immersion of the story.
Clark: That’s the important part about understanding this and why you should take time. There’s fantastic books out there on plot. You could go back through; you can listen to the ones that we’ve had — I’ve just pulled this up, so… We’ve got Overcoming — that might be very specific for fantasy — Overcoming the monster; the quest; the voyage and return. Those ones are some of the most basics that you’re going to see out there. We’ve talked about different types of plots to use, including The Hero’s Journey in past episodes.
Of course, there’s just a ton of fantastic books on this.
— I’ve got it over there somewhere — There’s 4 to 5 Master Characters. But there’s one on master plots that’s also available, that you can take a look and see. Because you’ll be amazed at the story you’ve written and you think it is completely new and unique and you probably have just written a plot that already exists.
Peter: [laughs] Guilty of that.
Clark: That’s nothing wrong with that; that’s OK. Because we’re all storytellers; we’ve been telling stories for thousands and thousands of years. Of course we’ve developed ones that work and we’ve gotten rid of the ones that don’t. So when you find that plot again, this is just a good checklist that you can go through it and see if you’re making it work right.
Peter: With the world building, I think you’re not going to go too far wrong if you’re looking at it and think in regards to plots, is there a compelling premise? If your one-sentence pitch or your one-paragraph pitch, if that works as a premise then you’re on your way to having a really solid and smoothly oiled plot. And does it reach a satisfying conclusion?
Clark: I think that’s all the time we’ve got today. I think we covered this really well though, and these are going to help you out in any situation. Peter, do you have anything to add here at the end?
Peter: Just that just like every one of our shows, that they reach a satisfying conclusion.
Clark: I’m glad.
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Also, if you’re an editor who would like to be a guest on our show, please drop us a line at thebookeditorshow.com. I’m Clark Chamberlain and for my co-host Peter Turley, keep writing, keep learning and build a better book.