What is Historical Fiction

What is Historical Fiction? An Author’s Guide with Examples and Tips

If you checked out and read every Royal Diaries and Dear America book you could get your little-kid hands on, I have a prediction: you grew up to love historical fiction. How do I know? I was that kid.

There’s something magical about historical fiction. It combines the intrigue of exploring a fantasy world with groundedness—reading good historical fiction teaches you about how different people lived in different time periods.

That said, it might seem intimidating to write historical fiction. You might be a passionate fan of Downton Abbey, but that doesn’t make you an expert in Edwardian or Interwar England.

Does this mean you’re not suited to write the Edwardian romance of your dreams? Of course not! 

Consider this article a crash course in historical fiction. We’re going to cover what historical fiction is, what different types there are, give you some reading recommendations, and cover some tips and tricks for writing your own.

What is historical fiction? 

Historical fiction is fiction that takes place in some specific era of the past. The events and characters might not have literally happened, but they’re rooted in the time period. In other words, while they didn’t actually happen, they could have happened.

Is historical fiction real, fake, or in between? 

This is where it can get a little confusing: is historical fiction real or fake? Is it considered nonfiction because of its roots in the real world, or is it fiction because of the made-up characters and events?

Let’s consider a hypothetical contemporary novel set in New York City. The book references specific streets and locations in New York City and portrays the setting accurately—if you were to go there, you’d see what the author described. However, the book is fiction. The characters aren’t real people. The events in the book didn’t actually happen. You could go to New York City and ride the trains, but you wouldn’t run into the novel’s protagonist.

This is how historical fiction works. The setting is grounded in historical accuracy, but it isn’t literally real. Downton Abbey, for example, is based on a family that existed, but Mary Crawley never did.

So, is historical fiction real? Sort of, and not really. Reading well-researched historical fiction will teach you a lot about a given time period. It is still, however, fiction, because the characters and their interactions aren’t real. The Titanic really did sink, but Patrick Crawley, heir to Downton Abbey, was not on it.

A quick note on creative historical nonfiction: some readers confuse historical fiction and historical nonfiction, and it’s easy to see why. The difference is that creative historical nonfiction is depicting real events which actually happened to real people, and it strives to depict these events accurately. Creative nonfiction just leans on more creative and descriptive prose, so it reads more like a novel than your typical nonfiction read.

What are some examples of historical fiction? (5)

If you’re going to write historical fiction, you’ll have to read historical fiction—a lot of it. If you’re not sure where to start, here are a few reading recommendations.

1. Atonement by Ian McEwan

2. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

3. Beloved by Toni Morrison

4. The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah 

5. Half Life by Jillian Cantor 

Types of historical fiction

Like any genre, historical fiction is an umbrella term which covers a huge variety of stories. Before you sit down to write a historical fiction novel, you’ll want to have an idea of what type of historical fiction you’re working with. This will help you know what sorts of genre expectations and tropes your audience expects, and it will help you search for historical fiction to read.

This list isn’t all-inclusive, but it does cover most of the historical fiction you’ll come across. Also, take note that some historical fiction will fall under several types. Outlander by Diana Galbadon is a historical romance, since its primary plot revolves around the love story between Claire and Jaime. It’s also a time travel story, since Claire meets Jaime by time traveling back to eighteenth-century Scotland.

1. Historical romance

As the name implies, these are romances that take place in the past. An Edwardian romance, for example, would follow a love story between two people in Edwardian England. Historical romances often have tropes specific to certain time periods, so make sure to read widely within the time period you’re writing to get a sense of what audiences expect.

2. Biographical historical fiction

Biographical historical fiction throws some people off. I’ve been saying that historical fiction is a real-world setting with made-up characters, and that’s mostly true. Sometimes, though, historical fiction includes people who did actually exist. Biographical historical fiction is one such example of this type of historical fiction.

Biographical historical fiction tells us a fictional account of a real person’s life. The subject of the novel did exist, but the events in the novel didn’t necessarily happen. This can be ethically complicated, since authors (ideally) strive to respect the memory of whoever they’re writing about as they fill in the blanks.

3. Historical adventures or mysteries

Historical adventures, mysteries, and thrillers are the same as their contemporary counterparts in terms of plot structure. They just take place in the past, and the conflict will obviously be steered by the specifics of the historical setting. Again, historical mysteries and adventures have tropes specific to certain time periods, so read extensively!

4. Alternate history

In an alternate history story, the author takes a point in history and considers what would happen if things were different. What if the Titanic hadn’t sunk? What if Rome never fell? What if Christopher Columbus landed on a different shore?

This fiction is obviously more speculative in nature, but it’s still rooted in an accurate understanding of events. If an author wanted to write an alternate history where Rome never fell, for example, their story would be informed by what Rome was like, what caused it to fall, and how the empire would have interacted with the rest of the world. In other words, the changes are motivated by an accurate understanding of the time period.

5. Historical epics or sagas

A historical epic will extend over a long period of time and cover the story of an entire era. It’s common for historical epics to follow a specific family or group of people over the course of a period of historical change. Downton Abbey is a great example.

Tips for writing your historical fiction novel

You’re ready to write a historical fiction novel! Before you get started, here are a few tricks to help you along the way.

1. Research your setting

It’s vital to do your research when writing historical fiction. You’re not expected to have a PhD in history or anything, and history involves a lot of guesswork. However, this guesswork is educated, and it should be rooted in the real information you’ve read. Little, fact-checkable details should be verified, and all errors should be corrected before the book is published.

Here’s a famous example: you know how in Pirates of the Caribbean (and countless, countless other works), Keira Knightley faints because her corset is too tight? That’s historically inaccurate! It would be almost impossible to lace a corset in such a manner that it would make someone faint, and in fact, most corsets were very comfortable and supportive for the wearer.

Fans of the era you’re writing in will notice things like this, and if you clearly didn’t do your research, it will turn them off. It’ll also create problems for you when it comes time to plot—if you don’t know what could happen, it’s hard to make a story that’s really rooted in the setting.

2. Work in exposition naturally

Historical fiction involves some worldbuilding, much like fantasy does. Fantasy authors are always hearing that they should avoid info-dumps and clunky exposition, and guess what? It’s the same for historical fiction authors.

Don’t give your readers paragraphs explaining, in detail, how the table is set at a particular dinner. Your job isn’t to lecture—it’s to entertain. Readers will learn about the time period by observing the characters and setting. They’ll put a lot together on their own.

If you absolutely must explain something to the reader, you’ve got a few options. Keep it brief, and try to work it in organically. Maybe you explain who’s in line for the throne by having two characters argue about it. This keeps the reader entertained and prevents the story from coming to a halt in the name of a history lecture.

3. Root the conflict in the setting

The setting and time period should drive the conflict. Readers seek out historical fiction because they want to escape into that era for a little while—the story should be steeped in its setting.

Consider The Duke Heist by Erica Ridley. Much of the conflict comes from the fact that the love interest (and the antagonist, because Erica Ridley is a genius) is a duke, while Chloe is not. The real social hierarchy from that time period creates conflict—the characters have to navigate the intricacies of their world in order to be together.

How do you know if your plot is heavily tied to your story? Ask yourself if the plot would be exactly the same if you set it in the modern day. If so, you may need to rework it.

4. Keep dialogue accessible

Ah, the Wuthering Heights problem. For those not in the know: in Wuthering Heights, there’s a character named Joseph who speaks with a heavy Yorkshire dialect. Emily Bronte spells this dialect out phonetically, or the way it sounds, and this makes it almost impossible to understand. Scholars still debate over some sections of Joseph’s dialogue and speculate about what he might be saying.

Here’s the lesson we take away from this: while you do want to include historical details in dialogue to keep it grounded, you don’t want to make it confusing for the reader. Someone who doesn’t know anything about the time period should be able to read the dialogue and understand what’s being said. Slang, regional dialects, and accents should be used sparingly, and never in a way that confuses the meaning.

A quick note: in my humble opinion, exclamations and expletives are the best place to put period-specific slang.

5. Write from an interesting perspective

As I mentioned before, Outlander is a time-travel historical romance. Because Claire is going back in time, she’s learning about eighteenth century Scotland alongside the reader. This makes exposition much easier, and the unique vantage point creates interesting conflict throughout the story. Claire is also a woman, which means she’s not in a position of power, and that heavily influences the way she’s treated.

When you write your historical romance, consider the perspective from which you’re writing. What’s your in? How are we getting to the historical period in question, and how does the main character’s identity inform their experience in this period?

A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin isn’t historical fiction, but it is a good example to look at here. He writes heavily from the perspectives of marginalized people in a very patriarchal and ableist power structure. This means his characters are constantly fighting, and this means much of the conflict arises very naturally from the world he’s built.

Next Steps

Now that you know a thing or two about historical fiction, it’s time to write! We have free training that will help you get a jumpstart on your fiction book(s). Click the banner below to learn more.

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Writing Thrillers

Writing Thrillers: A Deep-Dive on Subgenres, Plus 4 Must-Have Elements

Writing thrillers takes work. It takes practice and know-how to balance high stakes and high stress over a long period of time. Too much, and the novel starts to feel predictable or melodramatic. Too little, and it’s not a thriller.

How can we, as writers, keep our readers hooked all the way through our thriller? What makes a good thriller, anyway, and what’s the difference between thriller and suspense or horror?

In this article, we’ll answer all of these questions and give you some tips for outlining and drafting your thriller novel. By the end, you’ll be ready to stress out any reader who picks up your book (in the best way imaginable)!

What defines a thriller novel?

First things first: what makes a thriller novel a thriller novel?

Thriller novels use heightened emotion to keep their readers hooked. They often feel cinematic and involve high stakes and dramatic plot points. Thriller often overlaps with other genres, namely mystery and crime novels.

Thrillers are defined by how they make the reader feel, and thrillers make their readers feel anxious. They aim to make readers unsettled, nervous, and eager to read what happens next. All fiction should elicit some amount of stress in the reader in the form of conflict, but in a thriller novel, the stress is the main feature.

Writing Thrillers

What are some examples of thriller novels?

If you’re going to be writing thrillers, you’ll need to read lots of them. Here are five thriller novels to start you on your way—think of these as a starter kit for reading thrillers.

1. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

2. The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware

3. A Time to Kill by John Grisham

4. American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

5. Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

What are the key elements of a thriller?

These elements are commonly found in all types of thriller novels.

1. Suspense

Suspense is how an author builds tension throughout the story. It’s necessary in any genre, but it’s absolutely vital in thriller novels. Ultimately, your goal for the reader is that they never want to put the book down.

How do you make sure that happens? End each chapter (or most chapters) with a cliffhanger. Throw in a twist. Change up the pacing. More on this in the coming points.

2. High stakes

If you want to stress a reader out, you need to give them something to be stressed about. This means you need a plot with high stakes. The characters must have a lot on the line—it needs to really matter whether or not they succeed. This is why thrillers are so often crime or mystery novels, especially murder mysteries, and it’s why you don’t see a lot of thrillers about, say, bake sales or fantasy football teams.

3. The big question

In a thriller, the plot should be driven by one big, important question. Think Gone Girl—from the start, the reader is asking themselves what happened to Amy, and whether Nick had anything to do with it. This question drives much of the suspense throughout the novel. It fizzles in the back of a reader’s mind and laces everything that happens in a layer of nail-biting anxiety.

4. Realistic pacing

Readers will get worn out with nonstop action. Real-life doesn’t actually include bombs going off every five pages and shootouts around every corner. The suspense and intrigue need to be constant, but the action doesn’t have to be. Oftentimes interesting and punchy dialogue, dream sequences, or the character reviewing the disparate facts and puzzle pieces is enough to keep you turning the page.

Types of thriller novels

On Masterclass, their site outlines eight types of thriller novels—this list isn’t all-inclusive, but it covers most of the thrillers you’ll come across.

Also, note that there’s often overlap between these sub-types. Gone Girl, for example, is a psychological thriller for its use of an unreliable narrator and its exploration of its characters’ psyches and relationships. It’s also a crime thriller because it centers around a missing person investigation.

We’ll follow the Masterclass list, but explain each subgenre in more detail.

1. Psychological thriller

Psychological thrillers concern themselves with the inner workings of people’s minds. They’ll often be about subjects like mental illness, substance abuse, trauma, morality, and crime. Psychological thrillers are likely to use unreliable narrators, since unreliable narrators are great for bending reality and being generally creepy.

2. Action thriller

Action thrillers are distinguished by their focus on physical danger. In an action thriller, most of the excitement comes from watching characters navigate action sequences. An action-thriller will have things like car chases, shoot-outs, or fist fights. Action scenes will probably come up in other types of thriller novels, but again, in an action thriller, the action scenes are the main attraction.

3. Crime novel/crime fiction

As you might have guessed, these types of thrillers revolve around solving a crime. Sherlock Holmes is the epitome of this genre. The mystery might be a murder, a series of robberies or assaults, a drug cartel, or any other criminal activity. The drama comes from the nature of the activity and the solving of the crime by our protagonists.

4. Political thriller

Political thrillers take place within the government. The tension comes from the high stakes—if the problem isn’t solved, there are probably some huge ramifications for the nation or government. Usually, a political thriller explores the nature of politics and forces the audience to consider their stance on political issues.

5. Mystery thriller/mystery novels

In a mystery thriller, the characters are working to solve a mystery. This is usually a crime, but doesn’t necessarily have to be—the justice system isn’t always involved. The tension comes from seeing the perpetrator captured in time to avoid further crises.

6. Spy thriller

Think James Bond or Jason Bourne. These thrillers follow a spy, usually working for a real or fictional government agency, and the excitement comes from watching the spy navigate their mission. Often, this genre combines action, politics, and crime, and there’s some focus on the spy’s psychological state as well for added tension.

7. Legal thriller

Think John Grisham. Legal thrillers focus on a specific legal investigation. Characters will be in a court case navigating the justice system. These usually showcase the impacts of the legal process on the characters involved, and they also ask readers to explore their understanding of justice.

8. Science fiction thriller

Think Jurassic Park! Or the Marvel series. Science fiction thriller authors take a look at science and ask themselves: how could this be used in the weirdest, most stressful way possible? Sci-fi thrillers often explore the ramifications of scientific experimentation, and they’re often rooted in some believably scientific premise (though your suspension of disbelief may vary).

Tips for writing thrillers

How do you make sure that your thriller keeps your readers hooked from page one to the end? Follow these tips to create a fast-paced, interesting thriller that not only hooks your audience, but sticks with them after they’ve finished reading.

1. Focus on crafting great characters

Writers often lose themselves in the technical aspects of crime or mystery novels. They’ll write pages explaining the layout of a museum or dedicate an entire chapter to the ins and outs of a given chase sequence. In doing this, writers detach from characters, and this is the fastest way to lose a reader.

People care about people. Readers are interested in characters above anything else. In any story, the conflict and intrigue come from wondering what’s going to happen to the characters. If the readers don’t care about the characters, especially the main character, they’re not going to be glued to the page to find out what happens to them.

Create a compelling protagonist with a vested interest in the plot. Make them emotionally involved in the story so that your readers get emotionally invested, too. A reader will forgive any number of plot contrivances in the name of a character they love, but they’ll be less likely to care about a technically perfect plot if they have to see it through the eyes of an uninteresting character.

Need help developing your characters? Check out this free resource below.

Character Development Cheat Sheet [also printable!]

Fast track your character development in HALF the time.

Keep your characters feeling REAL and organized at the same time with a fully customizable and printable character development worksheet designed to make your characters shine!

Where should we send it?

2. Create an interesting problem with high stakes

Readers might forgive plot contrivances for characters they love, but that doesn’t mean the plot shouldn’t be interesting!

The central conflict of your thriller should revolve around an interesting problem with high stakes. If you’re writing about a serial killer, what’s interesting about this particular serial killer? If it’s a murder mystery, what about this particular murder is different and unique?

The problem should also have high stakes. It should matter deeply to the main character that the problem is solved—maybe the killer is coming for the protagonist or the protagonist’s loved ones next, or maybe the fate of the nation hangs in the balance. Again, you want the character emotionally connected so that the audience will be emotionally connected, too. Make it personal.

3. Don’t make it easy

At the risk of sounding too obvious, a thriller should, first and foremost, be thrilling. If a reader can tell who the killer is on page three, they’re not going to be interested in reading the rest. If they do keep reading, they’re probably going to be frustrated that the characters can’t seem to see the obvious solution dangling in front of them.

To make your thriller satisfying and exciting, you’ll want to put your characters through some serious difficulties. Throw obstacles in their paths. The bigger the obstacle, the more satisfying it’ll be to watch the character overcome it. Don’t be afraid to really change up the status quo for your characters.

Have your characters lose their jobs, their spouse, or their friends. Have them get lost, have them get caught by the villain and have to fight their way out, and take away all their weapons. Making it as difficult as possible for the characters to achieve their goals will not only make the reader more interested to see what happens next, but it’ll also make the reader respect and like the characters more for gritting their teeth and persevering.

One easy way to nail this is to create a great villain. The villain should be powerful, unpredictable, and have some personal connection to our main characters.

4. Nail the pacing

This is an entire subject to study on its own, so this is a very, very quick rundown of how to nail the pacing in your thriller novel.

First, keep your action scenes quick. Any fight sequence should be vital to the plot, contain high stakes for everyone involved, and change the status quo when it’s done. These scenes should also be fast-paced. It should happen as quickly as possible (without losing important details). Instead of focusing on the technical movements of the fight, focus on the character’s reactions, feelings, and problem-solving skills.

Next, keep the pace varied. Not every single scene in your thriller should be fast—you need slower scenes to build suspense. Maybe the cop just finished a day of high-stakes interviews with suspects, comes home and debriefs with his wife, and settles into bed. But then, he has a wild dream that in some way seems connected to solving the mystery.

Balancing high-drama scenes with slower scenes will make your book more balanced, and it gives you more room to build momentum as you work toward the climax.

Finally, don’t neglect your climax! All the momentum in your story should point toward it, and when it happens, it should be all-hands-on-deck. This is why it’s often hard to put a good book down once you’ve gotten about three-quarters in. Everything builds to the climax, and if you’ve done your job, the reader will be eager to see the story through.

What’s Next?

If you saw this article through to completion, we must have kept the suspense at just the right level for you. At Self-Publishing School, we have a ton of resources to help you write and publish your novel. If you’re serious about getting started and writing a thriller, check out this free training:

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Flat Character Arc

Flat Character Arc: How to Write It Well [5 Modern-Day Examples Included]

A flat character arc is a less-common arc used in literary fiction and nonfiction, as well as movies and TV shows. While dynamic character arcs are compelling in their dramatic change, shift, or focus, flat character arcs can be equally powerful when used well.

The term flat character arc can be used interchangeably with the term static character arc. You may be used to crafting dynamic characters with big changes, so let’s dive into flat character arcs and how you can use them to write a compelling story. In this article we discuss:

Remember, good writing, whether fiction or nonfiction, uses a myriad of tools to communicate to readers. Just as it’s difficult to portray a truly heroic protagonist without a truly evil villain, without flat characters, it’s difficult to show the dichotomy of dynamic characters. 

Character Development Cheat Sheet [also printable!]

Fast track your character development in HALF the time.

Keep your characters feeling REAL and organized at the same time with a fully customizable and printable character development worksheet designed to make your characters shine!

Where should we send it?

What Is A Flat Character Arc?

The definition of a flat character arc is a bit dependent on who defines it. 

  • The Novel Smithy defines them as, “Flat arcs are still character arcs, but instead of growing and changing as a character, flat arc characters stay the same. Instead, their journey is about learning to uphold their inner truth in a world that doesn’t accept it, allowing them to overcome the external conflict along the way.”
  • Studio Binder defines them as, “Flat characters, often called stock characters, never deviate from their rather simple traits. They are the opposite of ‘round characters’ who have complex personalities and change throughout the course of a story. Flat characters are often used to support main characters in a story.” 
  • Literary Devices defines them as, “A flat character is a type of character in fiction that does not change too much from the start of the narrative to its end.” 
  • Master Class says, “A flat arc is a much less common form of character arc that can mostly be found in action and thriller stories.”

Regardless of your exact definition for a flat character arc, this specific arc can be just as compelling as a dynamic character arc. Sometimes it is more difficult for a character to hold true to who they are in difficult circumstances than it is to give in to change. Of course, the arc you give your character is largely dependent on your story’s plot and the goal of your protagonist. 

For nonfiction, keep the above definitions in mind. If you are writing your memoir, consider what your personal journey has been and what type of arc best demonstrates it. If you’re writing a self-help book or an educational book, the basics of character arc can still be applied to the examples you use and the goals you have for your readers.

What is the message of your book? Do you want readers to walk away changed (dynamic character arc) or stand strong in who they were when they first started your book (flat character arc)?

When To Write A Flat Character Arc?

When to write a character arc depends on the message of your story. If you write fiction, a good place to start is with your protagonist. Do you want him to change by the end of the story, or be the same person as he was on page one? A flat character arc does not mean there is no growth. Sometimes it takes more strength to stay the same than it does to change, especially in difficult circumstances. 

If you write fiction, consider the power a flat character arc may have on your protagonist if he has a dynamic character arc. Sometimes the most powerful way to demonstrate change is by showing a lack of change in another character. This dichotomy acts as a mirror, revealing the opposite in a secondary character and shining a spotlight on the dramatic change of your protagonist. 

For nonfiction, the same is true. If you write a self-help book, consider using varying examples of character arcs, flat and dynamic, to demonstrate the positives and negatives of your message. If you write a book on how to be financially independent, consider demonstrating the power of staying within your budget even when surrounded by people who do not. 

A flat character arc does not need to be any less inspiring than a dynamic character arc. However, a flat character arc can also be used to demonstrate the effects when someone refuses to change even when it is clearly the best choice.

If you write fiction with a theme of redemption, consider incorporating a flat character arc to show the negative effects of not accepting redemption. For nonfiction with a particular theme, consider demonstrating the repercussions of your theme by sharing an example or story of someone who refuses to change. Flat character arcs can be both compelling, revealing, and a combination of the two. 

How To Write A Flat Character Arc?

How you write a flat character arc depends on the character you write it for, as well as your genre and the theme of your book. But now that you have a general understanding of what a flat character arc is, it’s time to determine exactly how to write this particular arc.

Step One: Know Your Genre And Theme

When writing your flat character arc it’s essential to know the rules by which you are playing. A fantasy with a theme of forgiveness will have a much different character arc than a historical fiction with a theme of resilience. Before crafting your characters, make sure you have a healthy understanding of the genre you write, as well as the theme you are aiming for. Writing a flat character looks much different in young adult dystopia than it does in middle-grade fiction.

Step Two: Know Your Character’s Purpose

The purpose driving your character directly impacts his or her character arc. The better you know your character’s purpose (whether protagonist or supporting), the more realistically you can tie it into their character arc.

For example, let’s say you write historical fiction. Your character is a prisoner of war, struggling to survive and maintain their moral code in the midst of desperate circumstances. This is their purpose. Knowing that you want to make them a flat or static (unchanging) character will allow you to lean into their purpose and align it with their arc. If he is eventually freed, having maintained his moral code for the entirety of his time as a prisoner of war, how much stronger will this character be? In this way, sometimes a character’s flat arc shows more than a dynamic arc could.

Step Three: Know Your Story Goal

Your story goal will drive your protagonist’s arc, so it’s important to have a firm grasp of it. Distill your story goal into a simple phrase that concisely covers the core theme (if you’ve written an elevator pitch before, follow this format). The more simply you can define your story goal, the easier it will be to use it to influence your character’s flat arc. Ask yourself:

  • What is the overall plot?
  • Why does it matter to the character?
  • How does the goal influence my character’s arc?

Knowing your goal and distilling it into a simple statement will make writing that much easier. 

Examples Of Characters With Flat Arcs 

Sometimes it’s helpful to have a list of concrete examples to draw from. Whether it’s in the genre you write and helps you specifically, or gives you ideas from movies and TV shows to cross over into your genre, examples can give a specific foundation and help you build with your own creativity. It’s helpful to have something to draw on from writers who have gone before. 

Diana from Wonder Woman is considered a character with a flat arc because, from beginning to end, she is firmly rooted in her conviction that “only love will truly save the world.” Her belief influences soldier Steve Trevor and even brings an end to World War I.

To continue with the superhero example, Steve Rogers from Marvel’s Captain America is also considered a flat character. Cinema Debate says,

“A flat character arc is used for a protagonist that knows the truth about himself from the start; there is no arc to find himself for better or worse. Instead, this character can change the world around them…For Marvel, Captain America holds this status. No matter the consequence, no matter the sacrifice needed, Steve Rogers always does what is right. His morals, ethics and outlook does not change or bend with circumstances.”

If you’ve read Jane Austen’s classic Pride and Prejudice, you likely have a love-hate relationship with the protagonist’s cousin, Mr. Collins. Conceited, concerned with appearances, and desperately desirous of a wife, Mr. Collins vainly pursues the female characters in the novel until one settles to marry him. His goal to “select a wife” remains throughout, and once married, he simply settles down, satisfied.

Sherlock Holmes from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is another classic literary example. Holmes is smart, witty, and drives the plot forward with his genius. He does little growing or changing but simply reveals more of who he is through every crime he solves.

J. R. R. Tolkien’s Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings is a wizard who offers sage advice, acts for the good of Middle-Earth, and fights for what he believes in. He is a mentor for the protagonist and a guide for the band of friends traveling to Mordor to destroy the one ring and defeat Sauron for good. While Gandalf does go from Gandalf the Grey to Gandalf the White, his character remains the same throughout.

The Power Of Flat Characters

We all want to stay true to our convictions, beliefs, moral code, and the parts that make up the best of us. That said, just as we try to make our characters human, we are human and often fail to remain strong at times. Flat character arcs are powerful because they demonstrate the ability to remain true even under great suffering, difficult circumstances, peer pressure, or other negative circumstances that affect your protagonist.

While it may seem that dynamic characters get the most page or screen time, when researching in a little more depth, flat characters are just as powerful. Gandalf would not be Gandalf if he was not the steady, wise companion he was. Captain America would not be Captain America if he bent under his convictions when the stress got too high.

As you write your next character, consider creating their arc as a flat arc rather than a dynamic one––it may be more dynamic than you realize. Take your time, do your research and then give it your best. It’s worth it!

Character Development Cheat Sheet [also printable!]

Fast track your character development in HALF the time.

Keep your characters feeling REAL and organized at the same time with a fully customizable and printable character development worksheet designed to make your characters shine!

Where should we send it?

Redemption Arc: 5 Steps to a Flawless Arc [Examples Included]

Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, incorporating a redemption arc can be a beneficial way to make your story relatable. After all, just as all humans have flaws, characters should be flawed as well. A redemption arc is not possible without something to redeem. Some of the most well-loved movies, books, and TV shows center around a character’s redemption arc. If you’re wondering how to make your writing more relatable, you’ve come to the right place. 

In this article we discuss:


Before diving in, note that redemption arcs can be as varied as protagonists are unique. There is not a one-size-fits-all redemption arc just as there aren’t cookie-cutter protagonists. While there are tropes that have been used time and again, as you read through this article, take note of how you can make your character’s arc unique to the individual character

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What Is The Meaning Of A Redemption Arc?

The meaning of a redemption arc is dependent on the intention of the author, as well as the genre, plot, and individual characters in the book. A redemption arc is when a character either 1) performs a heroic act that essentially makes up for his previous wrongdoings, or 2) is redeemed by another character.

The act can be external, internal, big, or little. The repercussion is that the act performed by the character helps make up for what he did in the past. Additionally, a second character could proactively act to redeem him (consider Victor Hugo’s portrayal of the Bishop redeeming Jean Valjean in his 1862 novel, Les Miserables). 

Every character will have a different meaning behind their redemption arc. This is part of the enjoyment of creating stories and these particular character arcs. The redemption arc can be applied to any genre and any character.

For villains, a redemption arc can be extended by the protagonist and rejected by the antagonist. This will have a much different meaning than if the protagonist earned his own redemption on the last page. However, the meaning of a redemption arc can change based on the character it is applied to. It’s important to know when to write a redemption arc.

When To Write A Redemption Arc?

Just as the meaning of a redemption arc changes from character to character, when to write a redemption arc is also subjective. When deciding what type of character arc to include for your villain, your protagonist, or your secondary characters, it is essential to first dive into who they are. Write out their backgrounds, goals, dreams, and fears. Get to know what makes them who they are.

Is your protagonist the type of character who would offer redemption to another? Is your villain a character who would never be able to redeem himself no matter how gracious the other characters are? What about your secondary characters? They should be nuanced even if they are not given much page time. Consider how even a sentence or two of dialogue can include a redemption arc.

As you research your characters, consider the other character arcs and what most naturally fits with each character. It is unlikely you will want to write a redemption arc for every character in your story. If you are writing a memoir, maybe you are the protagonist and you experienced your own redemption arc. Include this and give it realism by writing about the details that truly matter. The term redemption arc may sound heroic, but often, it is the small details that give it the power it deserves. 

How To Write A Redemption Arc?

Writing a redemption arc is similar to writing any other type of character arc. However, the redemption arc may feel a bit more nuanced than other character arcs. Below is a process to help walk you through step by step. After you walk through these steps, keep reading for specific examples of redemption arcs. 

Step One: Know Your Character 

Before launching into your redemption arc, it is important to know your character inside and out.

  • Are they the type of character that will work to redeem themselves?
  • Would they be humble enough to accept redemption from another character?
  • Are they cocky or proud?
  • Are they heroic and selfless?

Know the answers to all these questions so you can better articulate how to incorporate their specific redemption arc. If your character is selfless, forgiving, and shy, it may take some time for them to accept redemption from another character or publicly own up to their mistakes. 

Step Two: Reveal Your Character’s Goal

For sake of example, let’s assume you’re writing a redemption arc for your protagonist. It may help to create a goal that opposes their redemption.

For instance, let’s say you’re writing a mystery crime novel. Growing up, your protagonist never felt loved by his father, who is involved in illegal activities. When the father is sentenced to fifteen years in prison, your protagonist’s goal is to break his father out of prison with the hopes of earning his love. Against all odds, he succeeds, but his father goes back to his old ways, consequently hurting the protagonist’s friends. The protagonist’s inner goal (earn his father’s love) conflicts with his external goal (break father out of prison) in that it results in harming those he loves.

Step Three: Reveal Your Character’s Weakness

In the above example, the protagonist’s strength (sacrificing for those he loves) is conflicted by his character flaws or weakness: Going too far for those he loves and placing too much weight in what his father thinks of him. These unmet needs result in those he loves being hurt by his actions. His inner morals (wanting to extend help) conflict with his need (to be loved). When your protagonist’s goals and weaknesses oppose each other, you create tension. This sets the stage for your protagonist’s response, which directly leads to the redemption aspect. 

Step Four: Show Your Character’s Response 

How your character responds to the repercussions born from his weakness is essential to his character arc. When determining your character’s response, you have two standard options:

  • The first is to see his weakness for what it is and work with it for his redemption. Staying with the above example, he could apologize to his friends and work to reverse the wrong done to them.
  • The second is to see his weakness and become overwhelmed by it. Again, to stick with the above example, the friends could offer forgiveness when they see the protagonist is incapable of redeeming himself.

Step Five A: Reveal Your Character’s Response To Their Response 

In the fifth step, it’s crucial to reveal your character’s response to himself. Does he accept his weakness in seeing it for what it is, take proactive steps to right his wrongs, and therefore earn redeem himself? Or does he remain blind to his weakness and unable to work for his own redemption? Often, individuals’ responses to their mistakes reveal more about their character than the mistake itself.

Step Five B: Reveal Your Character’s Response To Others’ Response

Whether you choose to write a redemption arc that your character earns or is given, his response to others is equally as important as his response to himself. How does your protagonist respond when others extend redemption? Maybe part of their character arc is losing his ego enough to be able to accept forgiveness. Maybe you’re writing a trilogy and your character won’t be able to accept redemption until the last book. If you’re writing nonfiction, portray your experience or the experience of the protagonist you are writing as true to fact as you can. How your character responds to other characters will reveal much about his own character.

Examples Of Redemption Arcs 

Before wrapping up this article, let’s dive into some examples of redemption arcs. 

  • Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize-winning All The Light We Cannot See depicts Marie-Laure LeBlanc in charge of protecting a diamond wanted by the Nazis. Her opposite, Werner Pfennig, is with the Nazis and finds both the diamond and LeBlanc. However, seeing the Nazi actions for the cruelty it is, Pfennig refuses to let LeBlanc be killed or the diamond to be taken. 
  • Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand, is the story of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic athlete, and World War II airman. In 1943 Zamperini’s bomber crashed into the Pacific Ocean. Captured by the Japanese, Zamperini was a prisoner of war in two separate prison camps. After torture and other unimaginable difficulties but with his spirit unbroken, Zamperini was released. While Zamperini struggled to overcome his difficulties and battled post-traumatic stress, he became a Christian focused on evangelism, and emphasized the power of redemption. Zamperini is a true example of a redemptive character arc and exemplifies the power of extending redemption to those who least deserve it.
  • Part true and part fiction novel Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts is the story of an Australian robber who escaped prison. Knowing he can’t return to his country, India becomes his destination. He makes his home in the slums, fights in Afghanistan with freedom fighters, and builds a health clinic with free service for those in need.
  • As mentioned above, Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables is a classic story of redemption. The protagonist, Jean Valjean, is a convict who steals from a bishop. Despite his thievery, Bishop Myriel extends redemption and saves him from going back to jail for his crime. Throughout the book, Jean Valjean works to help his fellowmen, forges his own path, and seeks forgiveness. Valjean’s character arc is one of redemption not just for himself, but for a myriad of other characters as well. 

Redemption arcs are powerful because they offer hope to readers. Hope is powerful and can last long after the book is closed. Whether you choose to incorporate a redemption arc for your villain, your protagonist, secondary characters, or apply a redemption arc to a myriad of characters over a series of books, redemption arcs can transform characters in a compelling way unique to themselves. 

As you go about your redemption arc, consider the steps and examples illustrated to help you on your journey. Remember, redemption arcs are unique to your specific character. This type of arc is not a one-size-fits-all. Do the necessary research you need to create a compelling character arc that will not only transform your characters but inspire your readers for years to come.

Whether you prefer to outline every scene of your book (plotter) or write to find out what happens (pantser), do your best to read many, many books in your genre. As you read you will discover examples of what has been done well and what shouldn’t be done. Take all this to heart and then write well. You’ve got this!

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Symbolism In Writing blog post image

Symbolism – How To Use Symbols With Confidence In Stories

This article is for writers looking to learn how to use symbolism as a literary device to expand and layer meaning in their stories, by using symbolism in stories.

Symbolism can show hidden meanings and help set tones in the story to help the reader to understand and better connect with your story.

When using symbolism as part of writing your story, a balanced approach is best, so that your reader does not become confused. Symbolism, used well, should continue to advance the story forward.

By the end of this article, you’ll have a better idea of how to find hidden meanings in the art you consume, and you’ll know how to use that hidden meaning in your own work to attract and engage readers. 

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What is symbolism?

A simple definition of symbolism is that symbolism uses people or objects to represent a concept. These objects might be colors, animals, or parts of the setting – like the weather or lighting. 

Symbols are often used to get certain aspects of a story’s mood or tone across to a reader without being too on-the-nose.

Symbolism if often used in story-telling to key the reader into important concepts like death, rebirth, love, or even doom, but the author doesn’t want to spell it out for the reader too plainly. Symbols can be used to impart these concepts to the reader while moving the plot forward.

Symbols can also be used to identify themes and subplots in a story.

Writers might give characters certain symbols which show them at different stages in their journey—following these symbols as a reader will help you understand where the character is in their journey and what sorts of changes they’re going through. 

You can note these symbols on a character development worksheet for fast reference later.

Examples of Symbolism

Most symbols in a story take their roots in universal symbols. First, we’ll talk about some universal symbols and give examples, then we’ll talk about how writers work with those universal symbols in the context of their own stories. 

Universal symbols 

Here are some common universal symbols, broken down by category.

You may notice that some of these have meanings that don’t seem to have anything to do with each other—that’s because one symbol rarely has one agreed-upon meaning. That meaning will often depend on how the symbol presents itself.

For example, the meaning of the color yellow changes depending on the context, and depending on whether it’s a pastel or a vibrant yellow. 

Color symbols 

Black: sophistication, elegance, formality, mourning

White: life, purity, sterility

Red: romance, passion, danger, or lust

Green: prosperity, rebirth, nature 

Yellow: hazard, cowardice, dishonesty, friendship

Brown: groundedness, home, hearth, comfort 

Animal symbols 

Snake: deceit, cunning

Dog: loyalty, friendship

Bear: courage, threats 

Lion: courage, bravery, physical strength 

Flies: decay, rot, death

Raven: prophecy, foreboding

Object symbols 

(A quick note: you’ll notice that object symbols often combine with color symbols.) 

Money: prosperity, wealth

Ladder: ascending, connecting lower and higher concepts like heaven and earth 

Bridge: connectedness, togetherness

Rings/chains: restraint, joining together, commitment

Mirror: one’s own soul, beauty

Bones: death 

Water: life

Symbolism Tip: Water is almost always associated with “life”.

Story-specific symbols 

Writers take symbols like the ones listed above and incorporate them into their own stories when planning out the parts of the story for their book.

Example: The ‘Golden Snitch’ in Harry Potter 

  • ‘Gold’ symbolizes wealth or a prize, and the golden snitch symbolizes enlightenment and victory. 

Example: Night by Elie Wiesel 

  • Throughout this book, the night is used to symbolize death, danger, and doom. Nighttime is dark, and we already associate the darkness with fear and the unknown. 

Example: The green light in The Great Gatsby by Scott F Fitzgerald 

  • The famous green light! We associate green with prosperity and hope, and so does Gatsby. He looks out on the green light and believes he will be reunited with Daisy. However, this dream falls apart. Fitzgerald uses green a lot in this novel to symbolize wealth—notice where it comes up, and what happens to those characters who identify with it the most. 

How to Identify Symbolism in Writing

If you’re completely unfamiliar with symbolism, it might be easiest to start with movies, where directors and screenwriters use visual symbols. Being able to literally see the symbols on screen is super helpful if you’re new to this sort of thing. 

That said, these skills will help you out whether you’re looking for symbols in movies or in your favorite books. 

1. Look for symbolism in the most important scenes 

Go through a movie or book and pick out the most important scenes.

The best spots to find symbols are the introduction or beginning, the inciting incident, the climax, and the resolution. Find the moments with the most dramatic tension and identify the setting, characters, and description

Start by searching for universal symbols. Yes, this means underlining that the curtains in the climax of the novel are blue. It might not mean anything—not every single description is going to have a symbolic meaning, and that’s okay.

Keep an eye out for what symbols pop up at important plot points will help you notice them when they resurface again. 

Speaking of which… 

2. Symbolism is usually found in recurring imagery 

If you have a physical book, highlight every time a specific image or symbol resurfaces. Maybe you notice that one specific setting has water or bones, or specific types of animals always hang around one particular character. 

What sorts of items are associated with different characters? What colors are those items? What happens to those characters, and what happens to those items? Maybe the items change hands, get lost, or take on a new presentation. 

How to use symbolism in your plot

Now that you know how symbolism works and how to spot it, here are a few tips for using symbolism in your own work. 

1. Worry about it on the second draft 

The first and most important tip, for the sake of writing, is to get through your first draft without worrying too much about your symbols. Editing your book can wait.

This is the kind of thing that can get writers tied up in a never-ending first draft, constantly going back to make sure that everything is consistent. 

Write your first draft all the way through, pausing as infrequently as possible.

Then, when you revise, take the time to work on your symbols. Make a sheet of characters, settings, and themes with their associated symbols. 

2. Tie a specific universal meaning to your symbols 

Make sure you keep your symbols consistent across the board.

If green represents money and greed for some characters but life, prosperity, and nature for others, the meaning will get muddled and fall apart.

If rainbows appear in times of sadness, happiness, anger, and excitement, it’s difficult to pin down the significance of that symbol. 

This is where your symbolism planning sheet comes in handy.

Use that list to make sure the symbols you’ve chosen retain their meaning.

The meanings might change and evolve as the characters do, and that’s totally fine! But the meanings shouldn’t change randomly, or out of inconsistency on your part. 

3. Using symbols for foreshadowing 

Symbols are a great way to foreshadow events in your story. After all, the whole point of symbolism is getting across figurative meaning without being too direct.

Stories aren’t fun if the writer is spoon-feeding it to you.

It’s fun to be able to go back and notice that actually, the flies in chapter one signaled that character’s oncoming death. 

If you want to use your symbols to foreshadowing, double-check your symbols when you revise.

Make sure you’ve set that symbol up with that character or theme so that when it reappears later, your reader can recognize it. 

Also, you don’t want to beat your reader over the head with symbolism. Which leads me to… 

How to Avoid Heavy-Handed Symbolism in Your Writing

Say chapter one opens with a horrible storm approaching. A character arrives to the scene in a black car. A flock of ravens descends as he steps out, wearing black from head to toe. A skull and crossbones decorates his bumper. He walks up to our main characters as thunder rumbles, and we’re thinking, oh, gee, I wonder if this guy is going to end up dying or killing someone else. 

This is an example of heavy-handed imagery.

We don’t need all of this to get across a sense of foreboding or doom. We could pick any one of these symbols to suffice on its own. 

It’s also important to be aware of clichés. Sometimes using cliché is helpful, but relying on it to get information across will make the story fall flat.

A dark and stormy night, a black cat crossing a character’s path, a raven squawking in the background, a red-lipped seductress in a little black dress, a sweet little girl in a white dress—these are all cliché images.

If you want to use them, you need to do something with them. 

Maybe the sweet girl in a white dress is actually a murderous villain, or after the black cat crosses a character’s path, that character receives some great news.

In both instances, the writer is aware of the symbol they’re using, but they’re subverting the expectation to make for an interesting, engaging story.

Want to learn more about how and where to use symbolism in your story?

Join us for a free creative writing class! Choose your time below and get an email reminder when we start!

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fantasy creatures

Fantasy Creatures: A Guide to Using & Creating Mythical Beings

As a fantasy writer, one of the biggest things that attracted me to the genre was fantasy creatures. I love imagining new beings, mixing features and lore with ones that already exist, and incorporating those creatures into my stories to watch them interact with the world and characters.

If you’re interested in writing fantasy or sci-fi, you’re probably pretty familiar with a lot of different fantasy creatures that already exist. In your own writing, do you create your own unique beings, or do you use lore monsters and classic creatures?

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What are fantasy creatures?

A fantasy creature is an imagined being, usually for storytelling. Whether it’s novels, video games, art, or spoken folklore, fantasy creatures are present in any culture you can name. Ancient civilizations, every continent, every subcategory of place and person–they all have fantasy creatures.

The Middle-Eastern Manticore, the Cajun Rougarou, the Scottish Kelpie, the Zulu’s Tikoloshe. Everyone has fantasy creatures. They might be toted as fact (like creatures important for the religion or customs of different regions), or they might be stories people tell for fun (growing up in Louisiana, we were told the Rougaru would come eat children or turn them into Rougarus if they misbehaved). 

Fantasy writers often pull from lore and fairytales to recreate them when writing their novels. They might also take elements of one or more creatures to put their own spin on them. And other writers make up their own original creatures, which is hard to do!

A writer would be hard-pressed to come up with a completely original character that didn’t seem at least a little derivative of an existing creature, so don’t sweat originality too much.

Benefits of Having Unique Fantasy Creatures in Your Novel

If you’re writing a high fantasy, using epic fantasy creatures can make it a lot more exciting! They can also add conflict and richer worldbuilding.

Imagine if Tolkien wrote Lord of the Rings with no fantasy creatures. Just humans in a world with some magic–not as exciting or interesting, right? Adding unique animals and beings to your world is a crucial step in building a compelling and immersive fantasy.

A well-crafted fantasy creature can also make your story memorable and unique. It’s a real chance to use your creativity and logic to create “realistic” make believe. 

So how do we create good fantasy creatures?

How to Create One-Of-A-Kind Fantasy Creatures

You’re allowed to make up your own animals in your world, ones that can do and be whatever they please. However, if you create these fantasy creatures with intention to add to and build your story, it’ll be far more effective and memorable.

Here’s how to make fantasy creatures people create fan art for:

1. Consider the fantasy world they live in

The environment, lore, history–even politics and religion–can affect the creatures that are created and exist in your world. Think about what creatures would reasonably exist in the environment you’ve created. Would any of them be exterminated, relocated, or hunted? Are they sacred or worshipped?

As an example of using the environment to shape the creatures, here’s a short list of creatures I used in my fantasy novel who live in the swamp environment.

  • Komars. Komars are hivemind swarms of giant mosquito-like creatures with scimitar claws. Mosquitos love warm, humid places, so having a similar fantasy creature in the swamp made sense for that location.
  • Adelaide. Adelaide is a character who lives and works in the swamp, and she’s a scaly, amphibious person. Her biology and instinctual behavior makes her adept at surviving in an unforgiving swampscape.
  • Ragondin. Ragondin is a giant mount animal who resembles a nutria rat. He’s not sentient in the way humans are, but he works with Adelaide and acts as a named character. His coarse hair, thick tail, fat mass, and high nostrils make him perfect for swimming in murky water for long periods of time.
  • Garou. Garou is one of many swamp villains. He’s a wolf-human hybrid. Garou is influenced by the Cajun Rougarou and acts similarly to the lore I heard growing up.

All of these creatures work together to create the world of my swamp setting, and all contribute to the vibes, themes, plots, and character arcs that happen there. If you put any of the creatures I listed in another environment in the same universe (which I do a few times in the books), they would stick out and struggle.

That’s how well you want your creatures to make sense for the environment, because it makes for a much more believable world that your readers can really immerse themselves in.

We have a great blog post all about building a realistic fantasy world right here so you can get started.

2. Consider how the creatures interact with the characters and plot

Understand your creature’s place in the story universe. Is your creature its own sentient species?

Are they a friend, a pet, an enemy? What does the element of a fantasy creature add to your story, to the scene it’s in, and to your character arcs?

How can your creature create conflict for a scene or plot point in your novel?

Think about the ways in which your fantasy animal can play a role, and not just be a distant addition to your worldbuilding. When characters come into contact with them, it can make the world feel so much bigger and more real than if they’re just observed.

3. Build their physical features

This is where it gets fun. You can develop the way your character looks based on factors like its environment, its origin, and its purpose. You can pull ideas and elements from real animals or creatures of lore and fairytales.

If you’re taking a classic creature, like a vampire or an elf, what original thing can you bring to them? For example, Stephenie Meyer took vampires, introduced the concept of vegetarianism, and made them sparkle in sunlight.

There are benefits to taking a creature that already exists, like a vampire, because the groundwork is already done. Your reader knows what a vampire is. But then they get to learn what makes your (or Meyer’s) vampires unique in that universe.

Here are a few things to consider when you’re crafting your fantasy creature’s physiology:

  1. Evolution. What did previous iterations of this creature look like? Why did it develop in this way? Does it have vestigial features?
  2. Features. Wings, limbs, horns, tails, scales, fur–there are endless combinations of endless lists of feature elements. It can be hard to decide! Consider what use each of these features would have for the creature and its thriving (or failure) in an environment.
  3. Colors and patterns. This could just be for fun, or maybe your creature survives through camouflage or other pattern-related techniques. Also consider what the colors and patterns can mean for the creature socially–are some considered more attractive? Are some colored specifically to attract mates?
  4. Size. How big is your creature? How much does it weigh? Can it change its shape or size? How does its size change from infancy to adulthood?
  5. Variations and subspecies. How are members of the same species different from each other, and are there categorically different types?
  6. Habits, diet, etc. Knowing how your creature spends its time can help you decide what it looks like, how it acts, and what it needs to survive and thrive.

Examples of Mystical Fantasy Creatures

Let’s look at a few examples of fantasy creatures to get some ideas flowing! You can definitely use these in your own novels, but we challenge you to think a little broader and instead pull inspiration from the below examples and tweak them to make them unique with the tips above.

1. Phoenix

The phoenix is a mythical bird associated with Greek roots that is known for its cyclical regeneration. It ignites at the end of its life cycle, regenerating and emerging as a new creature–sometimes as a newborn version of itself, and sometimes as a new creature entirely. Phoenixes are where we get the cliche “rising from the ashes.”

2. Centaur

A centaur is a creature with the head, torso, and arms of a human, but the legs and body of a horse. They also come from Greek mythology, with various possible origins, all of which involve a human breeding with a horse, to confirm your fears.

fantasy creature - centaur

3. Dragon

Everyone knows what a dragon is, because there’s a version of them in every culture. This might be due to individual nations discovering the remains of dinosaurs and drawing conclusions.

An anthropologist (David E Jones) suggested that the fear of snakes is so common in humans due to an evolutionary fear recognition of dragons. That might seem like a silly assertion, but consider that it’s also very fun.

4. Selkie

Selkies are creatures that can shift from human form to the form of a seal. They come from Norse and Celtic mythology, featured in many stories and folktales.

The most popular stories involve a man finding the selkie’s skin (sometimes taking the form of a fur coat or another type of outerwear), hiding it, and forcing her to stay human and marry him (gross). Song of the Sea is an animated film featuring a selkie character.

fantasy creature - selkie

5. Griffin

Griffins are another mishmash creature, with the body of a lion and the wings and head of an eagle. Some griffins may also have eagle talons. The griffin is a powerful creature in mythology, because the lion and eagle are both seen as kings of the animal kingdom.

They appear in most tales as guards of treasure or other highly valued things. Some myths include that the griffin lays its eggs underground, and if you dig them up, you’ll find they’re surrounded by nuggets of gold. If I didn’t want people disturbing my eggs, I personally wouldn’t bury them with gold nuggets, but who am I to judge the choices of a griffin.

6. Bandersnatch

I’m including this gangly doofus because he has a specific and clear origin–Lewis Carroll. Carroll became famous for works like Alice in Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass. The first mention of the bandersnatch is in Carroll’s poem, Jabberwocky:

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!

      The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!

Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun

      The frumious Bandersnatch!”

fantasy creature - bandersnatch

7. Mermaid

Everyone knows what a mermaid is because, just like the dragon, there are iterations of the mermaid myth in nearly every culture. With the tail of a fish and the torso of a human, the mermaid has found herself in countless iterations and stories. One early sighting rumor was made by the infamous bandersnatch, Christopher Columbus, who mistook manatees for mermaids.

8. Werewolf

Speaking of creatures that multiple cultures independently invented, the werewolf is a creature who shifts back and forth between a human and a wolf. The rules and circumstances of that transition depend on the story. Some werewolves can control their shift, some turn on full moons or other key times without control, some only start shifting after they’ve murdered someone to enact a curse (shoutout Vampire Diaries).

9. Dryad

The dryad is a tree spirit or nymph. Sometimes they present as ghostlike figures of women, as lively trees, or as a person made of petals or leaves that can blow through the wind and reform whenever they please (shoutout Narnia). They’re usually quiet and shy, with people only catching glimpses of them in the deep forest.

fantasy creature - dryad

10. Golem

The golem finds roots in Jewish lore. They are human-like creatures, typically presented as clunky, clumsy beings that lumber around like Frankenstein’s monster. The golem is made of clay, mud, or other earthy substances. Their underdeveloped nature is probably due to Biblical influence, where “golem” is used to reference the unfinished person in God’s eyes.

11. Chupacabra

The Spanish translation of “chupacabra” is “goat-sucker.” If you think that means this silly little guy sucks on goats, you’ve nailed it.

Chupacabra’s main hustle is its vampiric treatment of treasured farm friends. Some tales represent it as a furry, doggish creature, while others describe it as reptilian. While there have been sighting reports of the goat sucker all over the world, the majority originate in South and Central America.

fantasy creature - chupacabra

12. Fur-bearing trout

This is a goofy little guy you might hear about in Icelandic and American lore. It’s exactly what it sounds like–a little fishy with a fur coat. Why?

To keep warm, to be fashionable. Like most fantasy creatures, the fur-bearing trout has multiple origin stories–from the water being so cold that they rapidly evolved, to hair tonic being spilled in the river. Either way, I think he’s charming.

fantasy creature - fur-bearing trout

Do you have a favorite fantasy creature? Are you having ideas for how to create your own? Let us know in a comment!

Character Development Cheat Sheet [also printable!]

Fast track your character development in HALF the time.

Keep your characters feeling REAL and organized at the same time with a fully customizable and printable character development worksheet designed to make your characters shine!

fountain pen writing

Top Fiction Writing Prompts to Get Your Pen Moving

Fiction writing prompts, fiction writing prompts adults, fiction writing prompts high schoolers, fiction writing prompts middle schoolers, fiction writing subgenres 


Whether you’re a seasoned expert or a brand-new writer, using writing prompts is a great way to get your creative gears turning and start on a story. Feel free to use these prompts exactly as they are to write short exercises, or to modify them and use them as a jumping-off point for your own worlds and plot ideas! 

We’ve broken these prompts up into adult, high school, and middle school prompts, and there’s a few ways to look at them. You can stick to the prompts that much up with your age group, which might be especially helpful if you’re a new writer, to make sure you’ve got prompts with experiences relatable or relevant to you! 

You can also think of them as separate genre prompts. Maybe you’re a highschool student writing adult fiction, or you’re an adult writing middle grade. Feel free to try prompts across all age groups to see what sticks! Writing for a different age group can also be a fun exercise to flex your writing muscles, so even if you don’t typically write outside your age group, use one of these prompts to try it out. 

Without further ado, here are 51 writing prompts for adults, high schoolers, and middle schoolers! 

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Writing Prompts for Adults 

Here’s a list of 20 writing prompts for adults, or anyone writing adult fiction! 

  1. Two rival coworkers get assigned to the same hotel room during a company retreat. They think they can grin and bear it, but then they get snowed in for the weekend. Do they fall in love, or do they plot their revenge? 
  2. Fresh from college, a new graduate gets their dream job. But when they show up for their first day of work, things seem… strange. And no one will tell them what happened to the last intern. 
  3. A new renter’s upstairs neighbors won’t stop stomping around during the odd hours of the night. Fed up, the renter goes to confront them, but it turns out nobody’s living there. In fact, no one has ever rented that apartment since the building’s completion. 
  4. It’s a small town, and any scandal can ruin you forever, but that doesn’t stop a woman in an unhappy marriage from filing for divorce. To make things worse, her husband is the mayor. 
  5. Mary is a happily married woman with two kids and a dog. One night, a visitor comes to her door, claiming to be her partner’s former lover. What does the visitor want? 
  6. A recently retired lawyer receives a mysterious letter calling him to return to a beach he hasn’t visited since childhood. 
  7. Write from the perspective of an old house watching a family move in and, gradually, move out. 
  8. Two adult siblings prepare to head home for a tense holiday season–Mom’s remarried, and no one likes her new husband. 
  9. An estranged family decides to meet up for a family reunion at a ski resort deep in the mountains to reconnect. As soon as they get there, things start to go wrong. 
  10. Anthony’s never heard a sound from his next door neighbors, and when he knocks, no one is ever home. One day, all the lights are on, and the front door is wide open. What does he find? 
  11. A detective duo takes shelter from a snowstorm in a small town where there’s been a string of murders. They don’t plan to stay long, but there’s something strange about the people here. Something that makes them unfriendly and skittish. 
  12. It’s been a few hundred years since the war that ended civilization as we know it. One group of people travels from town to town playing old jazz music on scavenged instruments. Write about their journey across America. 
  13. At a company Christmas party, a worker decides to finally let her boss know everything that’s been bothering her about this job. 
  14. The new resident living in 111B has been acting strangely. Write from the perspective of the landlord inspecting the apartment when the resident’s out one weekend. 
  15. A woman gets a phone call from the same man every Friday night. Eventually, she falls in love and agrees to run away with him. When she meets him at the spot they chose, what happens? 
  16. A CEO goes on an island retreat in the hopes of brokering a deal with another company. Write the emails he sends home as he slowly goes insane. 
  17. Matt’s lived in his small town his whole life. One morning, he wakes up and realizes he’s the only person left on Earth. 
  18. Write from the perspective of a woman who decides to quit her job in the big city and work on a farm in the middle of nowhere. 
  19. Everyone thinks the king has gone mad and moves to remove him from the throne, but in truth, the king isn’t mad–his son has just convinced everyone that he is. Write from the perspective of the king as he seizes back control over his court. 
  20. One day, a man decides to move his entire family to a remote island far from the American Coast. Write from the perspective of his wife. 

Writing Prompts for High Schoolers 

Here’s a list of 16 writing prompts for high schoolers, or for anyone writing young adult fiction! 

  1. Two best friends get stood up on the night of homecoming. Instead of going home, they decide to make their own fun at the dance. 
  2. It’s the night of the big Varsity football game, and one student notices that the opposing football team has been infiltrated by vampires. 
  3. Two teenagers are head over heels and things are looking good, until one of them has to move across the country for their parents’ job. Write the letters they send each other as they try to make long-distance work. 
  4. A pair of high school sweethearts are planning to go to college together. One of them gets an acceptance letter, and the other one doesn’t. What happens next? 
  5. It’s the first day of school, and there’s a new kid in town. No one knows where he came from, and when people talk to him, something seems… strange. 
  6. There’s a new French teacher every year. A group of students decides to find out why they keep quitting, and why each new hire is stranger than the last. 
  7. A new student decides to join the Chess Club to make some friends, but finds that the students are cold and unwelcoming. They decide to stay anyway, determined to defeat them in the District Tournament. 
  8. The high school marching band has earned a perfect score at competition every year, until this year. What goes wrong? 
  9. A teenaged kid gets expelled from high school, and in the hopes of whipping them into shape, their parents send them to an old boarding school on the East Coast. There’s no cell service or Internet, and at night, the kid hears strange noises on the water. 
  10. Three friends decide to start a cryptid hunting club. They’re mostly in it for the jokes, but one night, they find something lurking in the woods near the school. 
  11. Write the diary of a teenager sent to live with her wealthy, eccentric aunt shortly after the death of her parents. 
  12. Write from the perspective of the cheerleading captain as she decides to leave the captain of the football team for the captain of the dance team. 
  13. Sadie’s best friend moved out of town when they were kids, but she’s come back for their senior year of high school. They decide to reconnect over the summer. What happens? 
  14. When a zombie outbreak strikes town, the high school students and staff are locked in the high school. What happens next? 
  15. Write the social media posts that one local teenager wrote in the leadup to their mysterious disappearance over the summer. 
  16. During a tornado drill, two students break into the principal’s office and find something neither of them could have prepared for. 

Writing Prompts for Middle Schoolers 

Here’s a list of 15 writing prompts for middle schoolers, or anyone writing children’s or middle grade fiction! 

  1. Mark’s parents take him to the pet store to get a new hamster. He picks out a cute one and brings him home, and everything seems normal. But at night, the hamster acts strange. 
  2. Write from the perspective of an alien disguised as a middle schooler, sent to pick up information from a public middle schooler and relay it to their home planet. 
  3. The middle school theater kids seize control of the entire school and issue a full lockdown.  Nobody enters, nobody leaves. What happens next? 
  4. A middle schooler wakes up one morning to discover that she’s completely invisible, even to her family. 
  5. Four childhood friends have always been told never to wander into the neighbor’s yard, and to especially stay away from the neighbor’s run-down shed. When they decide to break the rule and go searching, what do they find? 
  6. Julie’s the best volleyball player on her team until a new kid moves in and outperforms her. The new kid is better at volleyball–in fact, she’s too good. Is there something more to this kid than meets the eye? 
  7. A middle schooler makes friends with the boy across the street, but his parents won’t let him sleep over at their house. Finally, they agree to let him go for the boy’s birthday party. 
  8. Write about a middle school in a fantasy world where students are trained to ride dragons. 
  9. A kid’s dad goes missing on a work trip, and he’s pretty sure the neighbors are to blame. When none of the adults will listen to him, he takes matters into his own hands. 
  10. In this town, the citizens always elect a twelve-year-old mayor. When the mayor turns fourteen, they elect a new twelve-year-old. The newest mayor doesn’t want to give up his seat. What happens? 
  11. In this fantasy world, an immortal tree keeps the kingdom alive and strong. The princess in line to the throne notices that the tree is beginning to get sick. What’s causing the sickness, and how does she save her kingdom? 
  12. Every year, the Richards go to the same cabin for a week-long vacation, and Emily is sick of it. When they get there, Emily’s mom tells her this is the last time they’re coming to the cabin. Why? 
  13. A group of Girl Scouts discovers a secret society living in the campground mountains. The citizens of this society are kind, but they offer the Girl Scouts a choice–stay forever, or never come back. 
  14. The local middle school D&D club falls into their world, and has to survive the campaign with their friend still acting as Dungeon Master. 
  15. The principal is dragging his feet solving the series of locker thefts terrorizing the middle school. One group of kids decides to get to the bottom of things and catch the locker thief red-handed. 

With these prompts under your belt, you’re ready to get started. Happy writing! 

200+ Fiction Writing Prompts in the 8 Most Profitable Genres  Come up with your NEXT great book idea with over 200 unique writing prompts  spanning 8 different genres. Use for a story, scene, character inspo, and more!  YES! GET MY WRITING PROMPTS!

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