I’m no expert in writing, as I’m just starting out myself. But based on the stories I have absorbed, the first advice I’d give to any aspiring fantasy writer, or writers in any genre for that matter, is this:
Whether you’re interested in a world-spawning politically charged epic or a more personal, psychological fable, the best inspiration is the world around you. Planet Earth’s rich ecosystem, from the lush rainforests to the wide open countryside and towering mountains. The magnificent landmarks and cities crowning human achievement. The people and other animals we share the world with, legends passed down across generations, or the hidden stories they rarely reveal except to those they deem trustworthy. It’s no accident that the stereotypical Tolkien fantasy setting resembles the European countryside, since that was his very inspiration. Or that the Kanto region in Pokémon closely resembles the real-world Kantō.
You don’t even have to go far. In fact, writing about the place you live in rather than copying the bog-standard fantasy world is a good way to stand out, since you can explore what makes your area unique. After all, the suburbs turned out to be an ideal setting for the supernatural horrors of Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street. And as a Canadian, this especially rings true since few stories set in Canada get international attention. Inspiration can come from anywhere, and with billions of people on the planet, everyone has a different experience to tell. So why limit yourself to a template?
Famed anime director Hayao Miyazaki said as much:
“You see, whether you can draw like this or not, being able to think up this kind of design, it depends on whether or not you can say to yourself, ‘Oh, yeah, girls like this exist in real life.’ If you don’t spend time watching real people, you can’t do this, because you’ve never seen it.”
It’s ironic then that the fantasy genre, which intends to highlight the outer limits of human imagination, is full of fans who are so imaginatively limited. Rather than seek out inspiration from the outside world, they confine themselves; these fictional worlds being all they know. One of the primary joys of fantasy fiction is in exploring its hidden meanings and secrets; what led the creator to imagine such things, and yet the only meaning too many derive is consumption. Buying lots of products to superficially imitate their favourite stories. Jedi is often listed as a religion, with no regard for the fact that it’s a fictionalized version of Taoism. Incidentally enough, Shigeru Miyamoto, despite his boundless creativity in making video games worlds, rarely plays them himself. Production and consumption are two different hobbies, which are worlds apart.
I’m not saying it’s wrong to like something obsessively, or even to reference nerd culture. Without fans, we wouldn’t have such great tributes such as Adult Wednesday Addams, Amethyst: Princess of Gemworld or even the hilarious Sonic Shorts. But that’s the thing; it takes a great deal of understanding and respect for the source material to pay tribute in this way, and that’s something money can’t buy. And when obsessiveness leads one to denigrate anything outside your narrow interests, that’s the worst lesson one can take away. I still vividly remember one of the worst reviews I had ever read:
“Endless Ocean gives you a sailboat and a stretch of the South Pacific to explore at 10 fathoms. What it doesn’t give you is danger, conflict, enemies, a story, obstacles a health bar, bosses… you know, game stuff.”
“Your goal here ultimately is to catalog as many fish as you can get in petting distance, stopping along the way to give dive tours to tourists who want in on the hot fin-petting action. And if that sounds more like work than a game, then bingo”
I should let you know that the deep sea is one of my richest fascinations. As you go down further into its dark depths, the more the creatures there exhibit appearances and behaviours that even science fiction could never imagine. For crying out loud, there’s an octopus that can accurately mimic other animals to avoid predators! And the vast majority of people could never visit the abyss due to its extreme water pressure, so getting to live this dream through a video game would still be an amazing experience. But nope, it doesn’t follow the typical game template, so who cares about all that? This philistine attitude is sadly all too common; not only confining oneself within a box, but denigrating those that dare to explore beyond.
But don’t let that stop you. It doesn’t take a writer to appreciate the splendor of the world and human condition, but it does take an open mind. And while this entry focused on the power of imagination with respect to writing fantasy, this message applies to anyone.