Hannah Engel and Creative Writing

Writing Fantasy Fiction

I consider my first work of fiction to be a story I wrote when I was nine years old. It was about snakes, woodland creatures and an enigmatic raccoon, and was only very loosely based on the original textbook assignment. It marked the first time I remember taking a story idea and making it my own.

Most of my early writing was fanfiction. For those of you who don’t know, fanfiction is basically taking a universe created by someone else (like Star Wars, Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter) and writing your own stories in that universe.

I wrote many (many) “fanfics”, read other people’s stories, and posted my completed works online where they were complimented and critiqued.

I didn’t know it at the time, but this form of writing and critiquing turned out to be great practice, and once I realized how much of these borrowed universes I was creating on my own, I decided it was time to start telling my own stories.


I think everyone has a story sitting around in their brain waiting to be dusted off. The trick is finding a story that excites you enough that you want to know more about it.

If you see something odd in the world around you (like a funny-looking tree or an oddly-placed vending machine) and think ‘I wonder how that happened’, then you’re off to a great start. Just one concept can develop into a story if you’re curious enough to explore.

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After you have an idea that excites you, the next step is to find the plot.

In my opinion, stories should really center around characters more than plot, but plot is still important, and I’ll tell you why: a solid plot is sometimes the only thing that keeps you from running off to another story the minute the fancy takes you.

I spent years of my early writing career bouncing from one story to the next, and I have literally hundreds of partially finished stories and plot ideas that will probably never see the light of day.

Eventually I settled on a story I didn’t want to give up on, but it was probably because I finally had a solid plot.

The next step in writing is usually an outline — but I don’t like outlines. They prevent me from making things up as I go and randomly changing my mind. Still, I know outlines are useful for keeping your thoughts in order, so I do have a separate file for any story I write with miscellaneous thoughts, plot points and usually a very loose outline of the progression of events. I find if I have much more structure than this, I get bored of my story before I even begin writing it.

To write a good story, you not only need to come up with characters you enjoy writing, you have to create people you love.

You’ll know you’ve written a character you truly care about if you start hearing their voice in your head, or they begin doing things you didn’t tell them to do.

That may sound silly, but it’s really true. Characters doing their own thing does happen, but what that really means is that you know their personality so well, that you know what they will and won’t do without even thinking about it.

Obviously, there needs to be a protagonist and a villain in a fantasy story, but there are many other roles that are just as important: secondary villains, best friends, supportive and not-so-supportive people, family, love interests, and (my personal favorite) scoundrels. 

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No matter how big a role each character plays, everyone needs a name, an appearance, a motivation, a personality and, most especially, flaws.

One temptation in fantasy fiction is to make your characters too perfect. For instance: the perfect, independent princess who’s worst flaw is that she’s stubborn; the perfect hero, with raven hair, blue eyes and a brooding past; or the perfect friend who knows exactly what to say all the time.

Perfection gives you flat people. Characters have life when they most resemble real people — and I don’t know a single girl who’s greatest flaw is that she’s stubborn.

Appearance is a good place to start. Don’t be afraid of things like crooked teeth, big feet and small eyes. These things give people life and make us think of other human beings we know. But appearance alone isn’t good enough. You can still wind up with a vivacious girl (with crooked teeth) who always rises above the fact that she’s “plain” in order to prove that she’s stronger and smarter than those pretty girls who… you get the idea.

What will really give your character life is to give them real, genuine flaws. The sort that make you cringe, the sort that make you want to shake your character until their teeth rattle. Like the girl who never stands up for herself, the boy who always looks down on people who aren’t as smart as him, or the best friend who frequently blurts out insensitive things.

Flaws make you want to read more about a person because they allow you to relate. Real people aren’t perfect, and everyone has ugly faults. Characters should be no different.

There are times you may write your character doing something that you really wish you could take back. But resist the temptation to do so. Whatever you had them do, it will probably help define your character’s personality, and the fact that they can’t undo what they’ve done, but wish they could, is exactly what will make your reader love them.


You may have heard that writing fantasy fun is because your world can be whatever you want it to be. It can be made up of pink mountains, sophisticated monsters, magic lawnmowers and exotic cuisine. It can have wild heroes, clever villains, brilliant landscapes, rugged streets, flying machines, castles in the sky, clockwork dragons, teenaged wizards, flocks of fairies, woodland elves, universities of magic, epic battles, potions, spells, towers, goblins…

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If you’re beginning to think this sounds like too much, then you’re absolutely right. Creating a fantasy world is fun, and it’s true that it can be anything you want it to be, but it can’t be everything at once, or you’ll drive yourself crazy.

No matter what story I’m writing, I have to know what kind of fantasy it is. Is it an epic fantasy? Is it based in our world? Is it folklore? Is it reality fantasy? There are many different choices, but knowing your theme is the best place to start. After you establish a theme, there are certain things people will expect from your story.

Epic fantasy probably means elves, castles, and a careful structuring of your own world. If it’s based in our world, then you may have portals, dimensions, or some fantastical being that doesn’t belong. Folklore will include a lot of research; you’ll need to know your legends, myths and even Shakespeare, Grimm and Andrew Lang. If you’re placing reality in fantasy, then you may have dragons drinking tea or a fairy driving a convertible.

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You can always use your imagination whenever you get in a bind, but remember that you must abide by your own rules once you’ve made them. You need an answer for everything, even if you never pose the question in your story. Where does magic come from? Why are these two countries at war? Who’s in charge of this school? What is the point of all these portals?

Rules will help place boundaries around your world, but there is still a lot of freedom in creating fantasy. After all, until you’ve made a law outlawing dancing trees, the trees always have the potential to dance.


Whether you decide to get your story published, share it with your friends and family, or just keep it to yourself, don’t ever stop writing if you love it.

Trust me, if you’ve written one story, then you have several hundred rattling around in your head. The next time you notice something unusual in the real world, just allow yourself consider: “What’s the story there? What’s that person thinking?”

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One of my favorite things about writing fantasy is that, if everything has the potential to be extraordinary, then your imagination will always lend amazing power to ordinary things. 

The people you meet, the things you see, the dreams you have or the things you do are all filled with adventure, and if you are in the habit of looking for the magical properties of your desk chair, then life becomes way more fun.

{ written by hannah engel }


  1. I love, love, love this post Hannah! So very inspiring, plus it's great to see into the mind of another writer. Thanks so much for sharing this!

    PS I hope I got the pictures into the right places for you - I wasn't entirely sure!

  2. That is terribly brilliant, luv! It made me laugh, and nod vigorously... and often. ;D Not that you have time, what with novel-writing and cashier-ing, but if ever you had the time and the whimsey, you could write one awesome blog.

    I must go write a story about magical lawn mowers now.

  3. I would want to be the one who has the artist of the book written for me to color, I love to color!

  4. this was incredibly inspirational. while i've never been one to think i could write any sort of fiction or fantasy, now you've got me thinking i should start!

    awesome, awesome post.

  5. Incredible article! :) I have a few characters who've been kicking around my head since jr. high...I love them, they're practically family, and after reading this, I think it's time they came out to play again. THanks for the inspiration!

  6. hannah, i wish i could swim around in your head just for a day! your writing is fantastic and i'd love to read some of your stories, i think. my brain definitely does not just have characters floating around in them; i think i'm much to self-absorbed for all of that... but i wish it did!

  7. I think this is a great post. I could just sit and look at the pictures forever, which I know wasn't the point, but still. They are lovely. :)

  8. Love this post Hannah and like Sarah and Ayla - I'd love to read more of what you write! :) I have stories in my head too - but they seem rather bland on paper. Thanks for sharing your perspective! :)

  9. Thank you so much everyone! I'm really glad you enjoyed it, I had a lot of fun writing it. Thanks Lauren! Also, the places you put the pictures are perfect, exactly where I would have put them. :)


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