Thursday, June 06, 2013

The Worlds of Fantasy by Paul Collins

The most popular (read notorious) question authors get asked is: ‘Where do you get your ideas?’

Dragonlinks,  Book 1 of The Jelindel Chronicles series

I pondered this in relation to fantasy writing and built a 12 point "Structure of Fantasy" workshop to explain how fantasy authors write humongous tomes.  This is as good a place as any to start to answer this question.

The mythic journey is the underlying structure of most successful fantasy plots.

This process is universal and happens to us all. We leave home; this is sometimes scary or exciting and can be both. We leave our ordinary world – our comfort zone, the world of our familiar childhood – to venture out into the unknown, referred to in the ‘Structure’ as the Special World.  In smaller ways, this journey is repeated again and again throughout our lives.

Compare the fantasy cycle with the reality cycle that Isobelle Carmody drew for me after a Hero’s Journey workshop I gave.

Click to enlarge image
Click to enlarge image
So we kick off our fantasy novel in . . .

1. The Ordinary World

This is where our story begins, the familiar world in which the character (they’re not a hero yet!) knows his/her place and, even if it is not particularly comfortable, it’s also a world they are usually reluctant to leave.

In Lord of the Rings, Frodo hates the thought of leaving the Shire and is scared to do so, even though he is also excited at the same time.  In Harry Potter and the Philospher’s Stone, Harry’s life is one of unhappy drudgery with his aunt, uncle and cousin.  In The Hunger Games, Katniss’ drab difficult life is merely trying to keep her family alive by hunting for food, illegally, outside the ‘fence’.  In Dragonlinks, Jelindel is anticipating a feast and playing. Her world is safe and, to her, ‘normal’.

Taking the character from their familiar world to an alien one disorients them and makes them vulnerable and adds to the drama of the situation.

2. The Call to Adventure

This is a challenge or a problem that the character can’t ignore. He or she is compelled to leave the ordinary world, to leave comfort and safety behind.

In the Star Wars film, the call is Princess Leia’s holographic message to Obiwan that Luke Skywalker overhears.  In Lord of the Rings, the problem that can’t be ignored ─ that can’t be hidden or destroyed ─ is the ring itself.  Frodo ─ the keeper of the ring ─ is forced onto the first leg of his journey (not knowing where it will end).  Harry gets a flood of letters in the mail. When Katniss’s little sister, Prim, is chosen for the Hunger Games Katniss instinctively volunteers to take her place.  Jelindel is driven from her home by assassins and the subsequent fire and must survive on the streets of D'Loom. This is the first call. The second call is when she and her companions are forced to flee D’Loom.

3. Refusal of the Call to Adventure

The hero isn’t quite a hero yet (he/she becomes one by going on the journey) and they’re quite rightly scared to leave the known and familiar world, or to leave a lesser evil for what might be a greater one.

So they refuse or drag their feet or declare their reluctance or happily sleep in like Bilbo in The Hobbit.  Luke in Star Wars refuses and actually goes home but then discovers his family has been murdered.  Frodo begs Gandalf for time and expresses reluctance. Our protagonist resists the call.

Harry, with a twist to the theme, doesn’t refuse the call to adventure; the Dursleys do it for him.  Once Katniss has taken her sister’s place, Prim screams, “You can’t go!” which externalises Katniss’ own inner state. But she must go.  She’s scared.  Above all, she believes that she has no chance of surviving the Games.  In Dragonlinks, everything has been destroyed so Jelindel has no reason to refuse. She needs the adventure on some level ─ to come into her own.

Again, this is something that every reader and viewer can relate to. The universal fear of the unknown.

4. The Mentor (the wise old man or wise old woman)

This is one of the most important roles in the story and one that occurs early.

A wise old man or woman ─ Merlin, Gandalf, Obiwan, Glinda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz ─ is introduced and offers the hero guidance and help for the journey and often gives the hero a powerful or magical device (Obiwan gives Luke his father’s light sabre).

Hagrid is Harry’s mentor (Dumbledore is often mistaken as Harry’s mentor). Hagrid tells Harry that he’s a wizard and takes him shopping for supplies.  Haymitch is Katniss’s mentor.  He could be called a ‘flawed mentor’, initially being ‘drunk and disgusting’ all the time.  Jelindel meets Zimak who teaches her kick-fist. The spells at the Temple of Verity also help her.  Zimak is also a trickster, an archetype often found in fantasy fiction.

The mentor’s main aim is to give our future heroes good advice – which the hero sometimes ignores, to their near peril. This relationship between hero and mentor represents a fundamental and universal relationship in human societies and human history: that between parent and child, teacher and student, the old and the new, the past and the future (and how to bridge them).

Often the mentor may have another role, that of getting the hero started on his/her journey, of bolstering their courage or simply by putting the fear of God into them as to what will happen if they don’t undertake the adventure. The mentor usually doesn’t complete the journey with the hero since this must be done on their own, proving themselves by doing so.


5. Crossing the First Threshold

This is the first step on the road upon which the hero must embark.

It may take the form of setting out on the journey or dealing with the problem in some fashion (though it will not be a final solution and the problem will usually return as a much bigger and more dangerous problem that cannot be ignored).

Luke goes with Obiwan to Mos Eisley and Frodo leaves the Shire. Harry passes through the brick wall at Platform 9 ¾ and steps into the wizard world via the Hogwarts Express.  In The Hunger Games, the first threshold is the journey from District 12 to the Capitol and includes much of what happens to Katniss in the Capitol before the actual Hunger Games begin.  Katniss is prepped, trained, given advice and accepts what is coming.  Jelindel crosses this boundary when she decides to go after the dragonlinks.

The story now enters a new territory. Here, old skills or knowledge may no longer be useful but fundamentals such as loyalty, bravery and integrity will prove to be lifesavers.


6. Tests, Allies and Enemies

The hero meets difficulties that test his or her strength and commitment.  At this point they are usually not huge tests, but they will grow as the journey develops. In the process they will also enlist the help of allies (who may become permanent companions) and they may make enemies.

Frodo ─ along with Sam, Pippin and Merry ─ have their first near misses with the dreaded Black Riders and only narrowly escape them. In the process Frodo is strongly tempted to put on the ring, an action that would bring instant doom to him and his companions, but he manages to pass this test.

Harry’s new friends are Ron and Hermione; his enemies are Malfoy, Goyle and Crabbe ─ although these are underlings to Harry’s main foe, Lord Voldemort. His tests are many: the sorting hat, moving stairways, Quidditch.

Katniss’s tests are to show no fear or weakness.  Before crossing the first threshold, Katniss' first test is the Capitol laws that keep District 12 starving.  After the first crossing there are many more tests - she must decide who can be trusted and who can’t; get her mentor, Haymitch, on her side; play along with the Capitol programme (clothing, make-up, role-playing).   She must get the Gamemaster’s attention so she can get a high pre-game rating which will get her vital sponsorship during the Games.

Katniss has few friends and many enemies: before crossing the first threshold, her friends are Prim her sister and Gale, who she hunts with, while Peeta is her perceived enemy.  After the first crossing, her allies are; Peeta, Haymitch and Cinna (her stylist and designer).  In the Games themselves, her allies are intially Rue, a 12 year old girl, and, very very briefly, Thresh (when he agrees not to kill her just this once because she helped Rue, who was from his district, and so young) and Peeta although Katniss still thinks that he may be her enemy.  In the Games themselves Katniss has many enemies - all the other tributes except Peeta and Rue and, momentarily, Thresh.   Her particular enemies are Clove and Cato (indeed, all those called the ‘Careers’).

Jelindel survives various dangers and adversaries, learns more about her companions (Zimak and Daretor), becoming friends to some extent, and finds the map to the other links.

This is also the section where we start to learn about the hero (and their companions and adversaries) by seeing how they deal with the challenges and tests (such as the fights and negotiations in the cantina in Star Wars).

This section may take up a large part of the book or the film.

7. Approach to the Inner-most Cave

The hero approaches the most dangerous place in the story (keep in mind that this sequence of crossing a threshold, undergoing tests, making allies and enemies, and approaching a very dangerous place may be run over and over again, each time increasing in deadliness and difficulty).

The hero makes plans or preparations here, often girding him or herself for what is ahead. Here, Luke approaches the Death Star and Frodo approaches Mordor (this is the biggest and deadliest ‘inner-most cave’ in Lord of the Rings - there are many others on the way of course).  Harry must study hard, learn to fly a broomstick, and decide whether to break Hogwarts rules.  Katniss enters the Games and flees the centre, keeping clear of everyone else. (This ‘approach’ period also overlaps with the time prior to the start of the Games, when she was making allies, passing tests, etc.)  Jelindel must go to the Valley of Clouds and fight paraworld beasts to find the next link.  Someone tries to kill her.

The approach to the inner-most cave and the subsequent facing of the ‘supreme’ ordeal is a sequence that occurs several times, growing in significance and danger each time, until the ultimate ‘supreme’ ordeal is reached (it may be worth thinking of the earlier confrontations just as ordeals, though each one is worse than the one before). 

8. The Supreme Ordeal

Here the hero risks death, risks failure, risks losing everything ─ often not just for themselves but for their world as well.

It usually also brings the hero to his/her lowest darkest moment in the story, when everything appears to be over due to their apparent failure, and they cannot go on. They must give up. But they don’t.

This is also where the hero undergoes a real or symbolic death (or ‘shares’ in one, as Elliot does in E.T. when his alien friend starts dying). This allows the hero to be reborn, an important part of the mythical story.

In Lord of the Rings, Frodo and Sam enter Mordor ─ the most dangerous place in Middle Earth ─ and Frodo ‘dies’ after being stung by the great spider, Shelob.  He is then reborn in time to carry out the final part of the quest.  Harry must defeat the fearsome troll, and partake in his first Quidditch match.  Trapped in a tree with no way out, Katniss drops a hive of deadly wasps on her enemies but is also stung. Katniss nearly dies, suffering terrible pain and hallucinations.  Jelindel faces a paraworld beast much more powerful than she is and one who is intent on killing her. She nearly dies. A demon saves her life.

9. Reward (Seizing the Sword)

The hero ─ through bravery, loyalty and determination ─ wins through and obtains the treasure, which may be a magical object such as a gem, a sword, a suit of armour, or sometimes special knowledge or power or, as in Lord of the Rings, the destruction of the object that is too powerful and too perilous to keep.

Harry is rewarded with Ron and Hermione’s friendship and becomes popular when he wins the Quidditch match against Slytherin.  Katniss survives the mutated wasp attack/venom, and now has a new ally, Rue (who reminds her of her little sister, Prim). And she has a plan to weaken the Careers group, who are dangerous to everyone inside the Games.  She’s becoming proactive and not just reactive. The demon that saved Jelindel’s life tells her how to use the power of the link without dissipating it. She also finds a flying craft.

By the hero’s action the world is saved, especially the Ordinary World from where they started.

10. The Road Back

In many stories, the road back is almost as dangerous as the one coming.

Sometimes the dark forces chase the hero for some way as Darth Vader goes after Luke when the Death Star has been destroyed.  Frodo’s road back isn’t just the return to the Shire, which is fairly uneventful, but it’s also what happens when he gets there.  Harry’s home is now Hogwarts. But he must face a dangerous journey through the Forbidden Forest.  To have any chance of winning, Katniss has to neutralise the Careers. She takes out their food store, but then Rue is killed. She then teams up with Peeta, nursing him back to health, believing they can both go home. (Capitol will later try to renege on this.) Jelindel battles Korok, an alien, and his deadly spacecraft. She must then deal with Daretor and Zimak, who pose a threat of another kind.

11. Resurrection

Usually there is a final struggle when the hero returns to the Ordinary World (or is on the border of it).

It can be nearly as dark and deadly as what took place in the Supreme Ordeal and can be seen as a smaller version of that challenge. It’s as if darkness has not been fully vanquished yet and whatever residue of it remains in the world is intent on having one last go.

Harry gets past Fluffy, the three-headed dog, and outwits the flying keys and plays a deadly game of wizard chess in order to stop Voldemort getting the philosopher’s stone, but he’s struck down and seems to die. For Katniss, this is final battle with Cato, the most dangerous of all the tributes, and with the Mutts (lethal mutated dogs). And the climactic moment when it’s just her and Peeta, and instead of fighting Katniss and Peeta threaten to kill themselves, leaving the Capitol without a victor. Capitol relents, and both win the 74th Hunger Games. Jelindel has one final battle with the almost omnipotent mailshirt entity, and nearly loses, but narrowly manages to stop it winning.

This stage reminds me of horror movies where the heroes embrace one another, say on the boat in Anaconda, after the villain has been knocked on the head and dumped overboard. Just when you think it’s all over, the villain’s hand leaps from the water, he drags himself back on board, and the fight resumes as though the villain hadn’t received any injuries.

12. Return with the Elixir/Treasure

The hero comes home ─ though ‘home’ may have changed due to what has happened throughout the story and in the resurrection stage. With them, the hero brings back the treasure, the elixir, the magical device, the special knowledge (love, freedom, wisdom, etc) that is needed, or restores peace (for the time being) as in Star Wars.

Frodo brings back an ‘absence’ ─ the ring has been destroyed. This absence is symbolised by his missing finger, bitten off by Gollum who then fell into the furnaces of Mount Doom with it. By his struggles Frodo has saved Middle Earth and his beloved Shire, though not for himself and it is a bittersweet ending for him.

Harry wakes in hospital and is a hero. He now knows that his parents had loved him, and returns ‘home’ with photos of them.

Katniss returns a victor, which means wealth and never being hungry again (for her and her family). But she’s also learnt a great deal about the Capitol, and now understands that they will never forgive her final act of defiance in the Games.

Like Frodo, Jelindel has saved the world from a terrible evil, but at great cost to herself and others. She has lost her family and had to grow up really fast. She cares about her companions but banishes them to a paraworld. It’s the best choice she can make at that time.


1.  Heroes are introduced in the ORDINARY WORLD, where
2.  they receive the CALL TO ADVENTURE.
3.  They are RELUCTANT at first or REFUSE THE CALL but
4.  are encouraged by a MENTOR (taking on the added role of the HERALD) to
5.  CROSS THE FIRST THRESHOLD and enter the Special World where
6.  they encounter TESTS, ALLIES AND ENEMIES.
7.  They APPROACH THE INMOST CAVE, crossing a second threshold
8.  where they endure the SUPREME ORDEAL.
9.  They take possession of their REWARD and
10. are pursued on THE ROAD BACK to the Ordinary World.
11. They cross the third threshold, experience a RESURRECTION, and are transformed by the experience.
12. They RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR, a boon or treasure to benefit the Ordinary World.

Not all of these stages occur in every fantasy novel but they generally appear in this order (even if some are left out).

Our hero's journey proceeds in stages ─ leaping from their Ordinary World out into the unknown. Eventually, they find their way back home again. During the course of the journey, our hero makes friends and meets foes who help or hinder the rite of passage: this refers to a stage in the journey of life, one that’s difficult and often traumatic, but will affect everything that comes after. The most significant rite-of-passage for humans is the transition from childhood\adolescence into adulthood. 

  Copyright, Paul Collins, 2013

About the Author 

Paul Collin's many books for young people include series such as The Jelindel Chronicles, The Earthborn Wars, The Quentaris Chronicles and The World of Grrym in collaboration with Danny Willis. His latest book is Dyson’s Drop, book two in The Maximus Black Files. The trailers are available here:

Paul has been the recipient of the A Bertram Chandler, Aurealis, William Atheling and Peter McNamara awards and has been shortlisted for many others including the Speech Pathology, Mary Grant Bruce, Ditmar and Chronos awards.

'I have to confess I haven’t been reading for pleasure lately. Mostly I’ve been reading the stacks of manuscripts that come into Ford Street Publishing. However, when I was reading for enjoyment, I read Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl and Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines series.

I also travel around a lot giving writing workshops to students and adults.'

Paul's website:

1 comment:

  1. This is great! I went to a conference where Paul spoke about this process and when I think about all the wonderful Fantasy books I have read I understand the whole idea of the journey.