How to develop an original fantasy idea

Copyright © 2012 Jerry Dunne

In this post, I show you how I developed an original fantasy idea for novels for the middle child reader, though the techniques work just as well for fantasy aimed at older readers.  Because of the general shortness of blog posts, I won’t have time to go into too much detail. The points I emphasise here are basic guidelines to show you how to build on your own original fantasy idea. I am also writing on the understanding that the reader already has some familiarity with the craftsmanship of fiction.

Definition of fantasy

A fantasy world is not only a world set in some mythological past involving princes, wizards, dragons, giant talking bears, goblins and so on.  Fantasy has a much broader definition. It is anything not physically possible within the boundaries of reality or science fiction. A science fiction world is one that is possible within the theoretical boundary of science. Fantasy may include science fiction and certainly to a large degree will include the laws of human nature and the laws of physics from the real world.

Chatter and squeal racing

The fantasy idea that I created for two of my novels Here Comes The Rooster! and On George’s Day is the world of chatter and squeal racing. Chatter and squeal racing itself is a sport. A chatterer is a monkey jockey and a squealer a racing pig. As athletes, monkey jockeys share the same ambitions and peculiarities as their human counterparts. Squealers are tall, muscular, fleet-footed racing pigs, as different to an ordinary pig as a racing horse is to a Shetland pony. Chatter and Squeal Racing takes part on racing tracks just like horse racing. The tracks have grandstand buildings with restaurants and shops inside, including the Tote. Chatter and squeal race days are filled with the same variety of folks as you find at a horse track.

The idea came to me early one morning with the sun shining in through my bedroom window. I’d just woken up, and suddenly, before my eyes appeared a vision of monkey jockeys dressed in colourful jockey silks riding muscular racing pigs around a track just like a horse track. I was viewing this spectacle on a bend of the track, watching them charging past, the chatterers shouting, urging on their rides, the squealers snorting and panting, every face set with sharp focus and gritty determination on the task ahead just like real-world jockeys and horses. More than anything, it was this determination on the competitors faces that made me think I was onto something here. At the same time, into my head came these words, ‘chatter and squeal racing’.

It was a real inspiration right out of the blue.

But this sudden inspiration was only the very beginning of this fantasy world. A lot of work lay ahead in bringing it to fruition.

Use whatever in the real world mirrors your own fantasy world

Because it’s an original idea you cannot simply turn to novels for help and guidance. You have to search and experiment, commit yourself to trial and error, all on your own.

When I wrote my first chatter and squeal racing stories, I hadn’t researched the background very much. I never thought there was much to research. As a result, the world of the monkey jockeys and squealers had no depth or breadth to it.

At this time I was also developing my craftsmanship as a writer, so eventually I became aware of the weakness of the fantasy world that I had so far I created.

So how could I develop it? What source material might I use to help me both deepen and broaden this world, to fill it out with interesting detail that helps to suspend the reader’s sense of disbelief? It seems obvious now, but back then it took me some time to realise just how deeply I could dip into this other world to help me build up my own fantasy world.

I turned to horse racing, a world more than any other which mirrors my own fantasy world. By researching horse racing, I was able to turn chatter and squeal racing from something vague, slightly dippy and cute into a vibrant and powerful fantasy setting. The world I had first glimpsed on the determined faces of those competitors I’d seen in my original vision, I was now able to write about.

I studied books on horse racing: amongst these were biographies of jockeys, horses and trainers, horse care, strategy and tactics of actual racing, breeding and books on betting strategies and the history of the track. Much of what I read I’ll never use, but all of it helped me see the bigger picture of the horse racing world. The auto/biographies, in particular, offer invaluable insight not just into the technical and social aspects of the sport but also the emotional side of horse racing.  They show you why those involved in racing are so passionate about the sport and why the industry is so successful. Amongst other things, the auto/biographies can help orientate you to a sense of what sort of attributes your own trainers, chatterers and squealers should possess as part of their character.

Overall with these books, I could pick and choose whatever I liked in order to help build up the monkey and pigs fantasy background. For example, a study of horse racing strategies and tactics helps massively with planning actual races in my own stories. I can even have my trainers and jockeys discussing how a race should be run more or less as a human jockey and trainer would. But the study of horse racing strategies gives me not just a real world model on which to build on but also ideas for putting together my own imaginative racing strategies.

The study of horse racing flooded my mind with ideas in every conceivable way from small technical matters to inspiration for character and plot development. When you come up with your own original fantasy idea, this is what you want to do. Find a real world subject that closely mirrors it and study it as a means of developing your own fantasy concept. You can rarely do better than use the real world to help you build on your imagination because the real world is full of experts who have been involved in their specialist fields for a very long time. It is a richness of source material that you would be foolish to overlook.

Adding small details, almost inconsequential details also helps give your fantasy background legitimacy. For example, let’s take grooming. Research into horse care made me realise that grooming a horse involves several stages using several different combs and different stroking techniques to bring about different effects on the horse’s hygiene, health and appearance. This sort of knowledge can be used in a scene where a character is grooming and bonding with a squealer and where you might be giving details about the squealer’s appearance and where something else plot related is happening. Writers use detail like this all the time in realism, science fiction and historical writing to enrich the scene. Don’t be afraid to do the same! Make your own scenes more dynamic as you add detail to the scene’s background.

There is so much I can take from horseracing to help me build up the chatter and squeal racing world. I attended several race meetings at York and Pontefract. I observed everything at the track from the turf to the dress and mannerisms of the crowd as a whole, as well as individual race goers within the crowd. And obviously, I closely observed the jockeys and the horses. And in my mind’s eye, I was always comparing them to my chatterers and squealers. Chatter and squeal racing even has its own magazine and TV station. Why would it not? The magazine regularly interviews chatterers and trainers. The racing is international with individual countries setting up their own rules and associations.

But never forget that character is the heart of any story. Never neglect it for the details of you fantasy world. Your main protagonists, (in my case both monkey and human) will play important roles in the plot. Therefore, they must have an intellectual and emotional depth. They are individuals with individual attitudes, tastes, quirks, ambitions, etc. The most important monkey jockeys in my stories are well rounded with a history both on and off the track. To flavour up their track history, I let the reader know what races, trophies and medals they have won. As an example, here is the racing history of the legendary one-armed chatterer, George Puffwhistle, taken from On George’s Day:

He had two ‘World Jockey Champion’ gold trophies, six ‘England Jockey Champion Of The Year’ medals and hundreds of other trophies from top Group 1 championship races. These included the prestigious ‘John Smith Cabbage Cup’ six times, ‘The Gold Turnip Cup’ from ‘Royal Chascot’ three times, ‘The Derby Cup’ seven times, trophies and cups from ‘Goodwood’ where he once won eight out of eight races in a single day. And these were to name just a few.

Just enough fantasy and no more

The heart of the fantasy in these stories is the anthropomorphism of the monkeys. This means they take on human characteristics and can do certain things humans can do. In reality, it would be impossible for the monkeys to do what they do in the chatter and squeal racing world. They speak to one another in their own monkey language. Chatlish is the international language on the racing scene. People must speak it if they want to communicate with the monkeys. The racing pigs, the squealers, don’t communicate with any language, except body language, but their physical and athletic dimensions, of course, are also a fantasy as no pig in the real world could accomplish what a squealer can accomplish.

A powerful fantasy world must use just enough fantasy to give it that extra fantastic dimension and then no more. After that, it should be grounded in the real world to make it believable and dramatic. It would not do my hard-working, stylish and athletic chatterers and squealers justice to have any other fantasy element added to the stories, especially ones that were introduced simply to bail them out of trouble. There are no monkey wizards and witches casting spells and throwing down bolts of lightning to strike their enemies helpless. You would not get that in horse racing. Of course, if your own fantasy story has these then all well and good – but know where to draw the line.

This links in with the concept that fantasy like any other genre must have rules. So lay down your rules early on, show your reader how much fantasy is available, and by doing so, you are making a declaration about the sort of physical restrictions you have imposed on your story. And then stick with it! If your character is caught up in a really difficult situation in the plot, let them fight their way out of it only with the faculties and skills you have shown us up to that point that they possess. If you suddenly and literally allow them to sprout wings and fly away from trouble where up to that point you never even gave a hint that they had wings, then you are betraying your own otherwise carefully constructed fantasy world, one that you are trying to make credible in order to have the reader suspend their disbelief and so really enjoy the story.

Research helps brings a story to life; it shouldn’t strangle it at birth

Don’t overuse whatever source you use for your research. Don’t overload your fantasy world on detail. Writers researching all sorts of subjects are guilty of this: they feel because they’ve become fascinated by it that the reader will be, too. But the reader wants to read a strong narrative story, which means that the story must be continuously moving, not getting bogged down by detail overload. Just as you build any descriptive scene using just enough description to make it poignant, you will use details from your researched subjects to make your fantasy world poignant, but not overbearingly weighted down with detail.

And, of course, never forget that concepts, descriptions, cultural references, vocabulary and so on should be relevant to your targeted audience.

You can buy Jerry’s books on any Amazon site. They are also for sale in many of the other online stores such as Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Smashwords.

Click on the image below to buy any of Jerry’s books on the US Amazon site

About jerrydunne

This entry was posted in Writing fantasy, Writing fiction and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to How to develop an original fantasy idea

  1. Jed Herne says:

    “A powerful fantasy world must use just enough fantasy to give it that extra fantastic dimension and then no more.” – Love this idea! It sums up how I’ve always felt about effective fantasy stories. Great article!

Comment On This Post

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s