Creating a Sense of Wonder in Fantasy

There are all kinds of fantasy novels.  If you’re a genre writer, the first one that you might think of is Sword and Sorcery, or perhaps High Fantasy.  Typically, these are fantasies set in some sort of medieval world, much like Tolkien’s, but the authors may have very distinctive voices.

Yet there are lots of other possibilities.  We can have fantasies set in contemporary settings, science fiction fantasies such as Star Wars, fantasies set in historical settings, and complete otherworldly settings that defy categorization.

Whatever brand of fantasy you’re writing, the key emotional need that the reader is coming to have fulfilled is most likely wonder.  In short, the reader wants to experience a sense of wonder, to see something strange and new and grand.

That’s not always the case.  Some people read Tolkienesque fantasies in the hopes of feeling a bit of nostalgia, of renewing the experience that they felt when they first read Tolkien.  This has always seemed a bit odd to me.  I’ve seen readers who want to retreat to worlds where there are elves and dwarves and magic all put together in combinations that they’ve seen a dozen times.  In short, there isn’t any real sense of wonder to that literature anymore.  Instead, it’s something of a safe haven from the real world.  In most such novels, nothing bad really ever happens to the protagonists.

For me, such novels just don’t work.  Part of the joy of reading Lord of the Rings the first time was the sense of wonder that it aroused.  So in order for me to enjoy a fantasy, it has to have more than just a familiar world peopled by familiar character classes, with your mundane conflicts between light and dark.  I yearn for something unexpected.

I long for some strangeness in my fantasy, some terror and beauty and inventions that I’ve never seen before.  Unfortunately, not all authors are able to deliver the goods.  Have you ever read a fantasy novel and found that it wasn’t fantasy at all?  A few years ago, a novel came out that was all the rage.  Critics loved it.  It was beautifully written and had all of the right social messages, but the world was a stock medieval fantasy setting.  There was plenty of swordplay but no wizards, no magic, no inexplicable wonders to the world.  In short, I read it and thought, this could just as well be set in London in 1400.  In fact, it would have been far better if it had been set in the real world.  As it was, the book was more social commentary than anything else.

As a young writer, I had a couple of friends who wrote fantasy in a similar vein, and when they sent the books out to editors, the comment that they got was often, “Lacks magic.”  That’s a catch-all phrase that means, “It lacks a sense of wonder.”  I’ve seen people try to fix such fantasies by adding a magic system—usually a pedestrian one—and that doesn’t really save the novel. It’s not magic that the novel needs, it is wonder!

Here are some approaches that people take to creating a sense of wonder in fantasy:

  • Create a unique and interesting world.  This might be done by imagining a whole new world, including animals and plants; or it might be done by combining some culture from our own world with other fantasy elements.  For example, I might create an entire world based upon magic that works, using an Aztec culture.  Similarly, in creating that world, there may be all sorts of inventions—new legal systems or social systems, changes to basic laws of physics, and so on.
  • Create a magic system unlike anything seen before.  In my Runelords series, I researched every magic system that I could find before I devised my runic magic system.  Yet there are plenty of interesting sources for magic—natural features such as pools or trees might be magical; gods might grant powers to men; and so on.
  • Deal with characters in a way that is realistic and fascinating.  So often when authors attack a fantasy, they create stock archetypes.  If you look a little closer to home, you might well find some interesting models.  For example, you might try basing a character on someone like Gandhi or Hitler—or try someone who has far less notoriety but who somehow intrigues you.

Whatever method you choose to try to arouse a sense of wonder, just remember that your story is never about the system of power, it is more about the right use of power.  Whether your characters get their power by transferring attributes from one to another, as I do in the Runelords, or by biting one another on the neck, as in a vampire novel, ultimately the core of your story will be not “how do I get power?” but “what’s the right thing to do with it?”


I have a story in the Unfettered II anthology, along with Brandon Sanderson, Terry Brooks, and Shawn Speakman. You can learn more or preorder it here.

I also have a story in this Alien Artifacts anthology.

Writers of the Future won the Starburner Award for contribution to Steampunk!

My friend Michael Young has a short story out in a new fantasy anthology you might want to check out, too.

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