Author Archives: Nicci Cloke

How to write a great villain

Every story needs an antagonist. Sometimes, the thing the protagonist must overcome isn’t a character – it might be a system or a situation or even a quality within themselves. But more often, the opposing force that powers the plot will be another character. And whether you’re writing a crime novel, a literary thriller, a fantasy epic or domestic noir, it’s crucial to give your hero’s adversary some thought. From Mrs Danvers to Hannibal Lecter, Voldemort to Annie Wilkes, the most memorable villains stay with us because they are as complex and as carefully drawn as our main character – and without them, there is no story.

What makes a great villain?

Whether you’re setting out to create a sadistic serial killer for your detective to catch or someone with more shades of grey to them – a rival for something the protagonist wants, perhaps, who isn’t necessarily in the wrong but a force of opposition nonetheless –  there are four main things to consider if you want to create the perfect villain for your novel.


Perhaps the single most important thing to figure out about your antagonist is: why are they doing the things they’re doing? Motivation is something that can make or break a novel for your reader – if it doesn’t feel believable, the story doesn’t stand up. Find the right motivation, though, and you can craft something deeply satisfying for the audience. Be warned: as tempting an answer as it might be, ‘because they’re just bad’ is rarely the sole reason people commit crimes in real life, and it’s not an answer a reader spends 300 pages to discover either. It’s important to dig a little deeper.

Their motive might be your starting point. Perhaps you already know that your antagonist is someone who is committing a crime because happened in the past, or because did this other thing, and now you need to build the rest of their personality around that driving desire. Or maybe you only have the image of the crime, and now you need to think about who would do such a thing, and what might drive them to it.

It’s important to also think about how you’re going to feed information about this motive to your reader. Whether you’re planning to let them in on the villain’s POV, or have them piece together the villain’s story with the protagonist, or have it revealed at the climax of the story, think carefully about how to most effectively and satisfactorily convey this information. Try and avoid the Scooby Doo style monologue at the end, where a villain expands at length about how and why they choose to commit their crimes – it’s cheating!

A good, believable motive for your villain ties in closely with their:


As many writers, including, famously, John Barth, have noted, we are all the protagonist in our own life story. Your villain does not believe themselves to be an antagonist (this does not mean they think themselves to be good, however), and will have a complex inner world just as your hero does, shaped by their history and beliefs. This history and those shaping beliefs will form their goals, and lead them to view other people and forces as antagonists in the way of their achieving them.

Backstory is related to, but not the same as motive. The same event – say, the murder of their lover – might lead two characters on entirely different journeys, depending on who they are as a person and the way in which their life experiences up to that point have led them to view the world.

Understanding where a character is coming from will help you make sure the path you’re sending them down feels right. There are lots of ways to do this work – there are plenty of character quizzes available online (ours is here), and you could also try writing a pretend Wikipedia article about them (a good way to set out the cold, hard facts about their history and personal life for yourself, without worrying about turning them into prose within the novel itself). An enneagram test (there are free versions online) can also be a good way of building up your understanding of this character’s personality and the way it makes them behave in various situations.

As well as possessing a history and inner life that makes them feel three-dimensional and interesting, your villain also needs to have:

A relationship with the protagonist

The opposing forces – the conflicting desires and goals – of your protagonist and antagonist are a crucial engine for your story. This is very rarely as simple as good vs bad or right vs wrong, and often the most interesting characters in both categories have shades of both. Think carefully about the relationship between these two characters. This is not necessarily an actual relationship – they may never have met before (and may even never meet at all) – but instead the way in which they contrast with one another. In what ways are they different – and in what ways are they not? What does the villain illuminate about our hero for us? What quality do they bring out in each other, what must our hero confront within themselves in order to defeat them?

Lastly, and crucially, the very best of villains must also have:

A relationship with the reader

As with your protagonist, consider what your villain will bring out in us, your audience. Are we afraid of them? If so, then consider how to do that most effectively – is this a murderer with an inner world that is frighteningly similar to our own, or one we fear because we don’t recognise it? Or do we simply love to hate them – can you create someone so detestable that there will be a real catharsis in finally seeing them defeated? Or (and perhaps trickiest of all), has our understanding of their backstory and motive created a space for us to not only understand them, but perhaps even secretly sympathise with them?

Writing exercises to try

It’s a simple but effective technique, and it might be something you’re already doing (or planning to do) in your story: write from your villain’s perspective.  This could be:

  • A letter to a family member
  • A chapter you’ve already written that features them, told instead from their perspective
  • A diary entry they wrote as a child
  • Write about a day in their life, in their voice
  • Alternatively, try interviewing them: write a transcript of the conversation between the two of you.

This isn’t about writing material that will go in the novel; likely very little of it will. It’s about you trying to capture this character’s voice and put yourself in their head, to clarify and expand on the four areas above. Good luck and enjoy – sometimes it’s fun to be bad…

Ask Academy with Sarah May

Just before Christmas, we ran a week-long writing clinic on Twitter, where our tutors answered your writing questions every lunchtime. The conversations proved so interesting and informative, we decided to share them here.

Here’s Sarah May, fielding queries on the right time to edit, knowing when an idea is ‘The One’ and forming good writing habits.

FA: Hi, Sarah! Alright, our first question came from one of our Instagram followers: ‘Whenever I start writing a novel, I end up disliking my idea really quickly. Where do your ideas come from and do you ever have to push past the temptation to drop an idea before it’s got legs? Or do you think if you’re struggling with an idea from the off, it’s probably not the right one?’ 

SM: A few things here: first up, you will never know if an idea is ‘the right one’.  No writer does. Going down this path will send you mad because you’ll be constantly looking at your novel from the outside rather than the inside.

Key to getting ‘inside’ your novel is focussing on character rather than the idea. You need to do a 180 here. Stop thinking of your novel in the abstract and instead start thinking of it as a physical landscape peopled by characters. Whenever you sit down to write, what you’re actually doing is spending time with a group of people you will come to know intimately. I’m talking long-term relationships here, so make sure you create the kind of characters you’re happy to make that commitment to. It will change the way you write.

FA: I love that. That’s kind of blown my mind, actually – that idea of the novel as landscape is such a brilliant way of thinking about it. Alright, our second question now: ‘How can I make sure my dialogue feels natural?’

SM: Let’s start by talking about bad dialogue. Bad dialogue is when a writer uses a character as a vehicle for info-dumping. When this happens, there’s usually an excessive amount of uninterrupted dialogue and the reader loses track of who is saying what because essentially it doesn’t matter.

Good dialogue works in the opposite way. It comes from character. What a character says and how they say it is unique to both them and the situation. Unlike bad dialogue, it is reactive. Responsive. Supple. Dexterous. A character should never simply deliver lines. Good dialogue is a conversation/exchange between two or more characters.

Another thing to think about is choreography. What is a character doing while they are speaking? How are they moving about the space where the dialogue is taking place? The last golden rule is, less is more. When it comes to dialogue, make every word count.

FA: Brilliant advice, thank you! A question from Twitter now, although this is one we hear a lot: ‘Should we edit while finishing our first draft or wait until the end?’

SM: If the writing is going well and you have narrative momentum, don’t break off. Just keep on writing and try to get that first draft out of your head and onto the page/screen. Especially if you’re a procrastinator!

And regardless of whether or not the writing is going well, I would advise pushing on past that 25 – 30k marker. It’s when most first-time novelists give up on a story and abandon it. The graveyard of unfinished stories. So, try to push past this. Most writers can expect to work on anything between 8 – 12 drafts of a novel. There’s no point expecting your first draft to look anything like your twelfth!  First draft is a rush – it’s like falling in love. Don’t put the brakes on unless you really have to!

FA: This is so so true – what is it with that 25–30k point that brings ALL the doubts out to play? Okay, we’ve got a related one up last, actually: ‘I struggle to keep up writing regularly. Do you have any advice for that?’

SM: When we write, we use our creative muscle. It’s something we all have because humans are natural born storytellers. The more regularly we use it, the more we can make it work for us.

So, it’s important to build that writing habit in order to build that creative muscle. Half an hour a day is enough. Honestly! Just try to make it the same time each day and then your mind gets used to.

Don’t set yourself unrealistic targets. If you know you’re only going to be able to write for half an hour a day, don’t set yourself a 1000 wordcount goal. You won’t achieve it, and every time you fail to achieve it, you’re giving yourself a reason not to write the next day rather than a reason to write. You don’t have to set yourself a word count goal, but if you are someone who’s responsive to deadlines, etc. 200 – 300 words a day is enough. That will soon grow to around 1500 words a week, 6000 words a month… you see where I’m going with this?

Sarah May is the highly-acclaimed author of seven novels, including The Nudist Colony, which was short-listed for the Guardian First Book Award. Her second novel, Spanish City, was shortlisted for the Encore Award, and The Internationals was longlisted for The Orange Prize. She is also an experienced playwright, and in 2000 set up The Mayhem Company, a London-based theatre company for young people, with partner and theatre director, Ben May. Sarah has been a freelance writer and tutor of creative writing for over fifteen years. Sarah teaches on our one-day online Start to Write introductory course, and on our six-month advanced Writing a Novel.

Ask Academy with Joanna Briscoe

Just before Christmas, we ran a week-long writing clinic on Twitter, where our tutors answered your writing questions every lunchtime. The conversations proved so interesting and informative, we decided to share them here.

First up was Joanna Briscoe, with advice on research, character development and writing through self-doubt.

FA: Right, let’s get things kicked off, shall we? Welcome, Joanna! And thanks so much for joining us. Our first question: ‘I’m writing a novel set in a particular period of history which I know will require a lot of research but I’m worried that’s going to distract me. Should I do the research before I start or afterwards?’

JB: OK, interesting. I see this a lot. I’ve seen students being completely weighed down by research, to the point where they barely write their novels at all. I’m quite strict about this – think in terms of the characters, plot, narrative arc, as though the novel were not historical, unless what you are writing about is incongruous with the period you’ve chosen.

You will, however, need to get a sense of the dialogue of the time. Do just basic research that will show you that what you’re writing about is historically valid but then focus on the novel as a whole. You can certainly read at the same time as writing, and steep yourself in the period. It can be particularly helpful to read literature from the period, if it exists. You can leave a marker – XX or whatever – where you know you will need to fill things in with historical research later. It’s possible to write and research at the same time, of course, but above all, make sure the novel works as a STORY.

FA: That’s a really good tip re reading literature from the period! And dialogue too. Do you have any thoughts about fictionalising real people/events? (I’m thinking of The Crown of COURSE, but a student asked me about this recently too)

JB: My advice would be: be careful! There are too many rules and laws on this to cover here, but often writers use a real event or a real person in history as a starting point, and then let their imagination take off.

FA: Very wise words! Okay, let’s move on to our second question. Something a little more general this time – one of our newsletter subscribers asks: ‘I’ve been told that my characters feel underdeveloped. Do you have any tips on how to fix this?’

JB: I certainly do! I think many characters are underdeveloped until you get to know them. In many cases, it’s simply a question of real character work. You get to know your characters over time by being curious, much as you get to know someone in the real world.

Simply put, characters are fleshed out over time. It’s worth doing exercises. I now make myself do the character exercises I set my students, and the most useful is one where you look at the character completely objectively, as though they’ve just walked into a room. Describe them in real detail. Get a sense of their walk, even their smell, their voice, and every aspect of their physical appearance. That can lead into a greater sense of who they are inside.

FA: I love that, especially the exercise – I can happily spend hours filling in questionnaires about characters’ biggest fears/earliest memories etc but actually having a physical sense of them is so important isn’t it… Do you have any all-time favourite characters?

JB: Hmmm… yes… I love Tess Durbeyfield but I find myself drawn to the minxes you don’t really want around in real life – Scarlett O’Hara, Holly Golightly.

FA: Alright, this one will feel familiar to so many of us: ‘I’m really struggling with my confidence after a previous manuscript failed to sell to publishers. I’m finding it impossible to finish a first draft without worrying that this one isn’t good enough either. Do you have any advice on writing through self-doubt?’

JB: I sympathise. It’s very, very common to be rejected, but heartbreaking after so much work. And of course it affects confidence. Remember, rejection is the norm. You have to deal with it in this industry. And remember that the really good writers are the ones who have crises of confidence. It’s the over-confident ones who are usually no good. Published writers nearly all struggle with confidence. It goes with the territory. You do just have to continue and break through the pain barrier.

FA: That’s a really good way of thinking about it. It’s so true re the over-confidence! Do you find setting yourself eg word targets helps you on doubtful days, and is there ever a point where you think taking a break from the manuscript is necessary?

JB: Yes, I set myself word targets and hour targets on different days depending where I am, and other times I am less disciplined. Taking a break can clear your head for sure. I find a walk nearly always helps me to think better.

FA: YES, the power of a walk is really something, isn’t it? I also find the shower to be some kind of mystical source of plot fixes and inspiration!

JB: Interesting. I’m a bath person. Perhaps I should try the shower. Good to hear this tip!

FA: I can’t recommend it enough! Okay, last question for you – and it’s a tough one! ‘I find titles so hard! How do you choose yours and do you do that first or once the book is finished? What do you think makes a good title?’

JB: Titles… Yes, titles are tough. I’ve done both – known the title immediately, and struggled with it. My usual technique is to note down potential titles as I’m going, however ridiculous they sound – and there are some corkers – and then go over them much later. There’s sometimes some treasure among all the dross, even if it’s one word that sets off another chain of thought. My title Sleep With Me was actually in the ms, and I hadn’t noticed it. A character says it.

Good titles are often quirky…who would ever dream up Hideous Kinky? Yet it’s a great title. And they are often the perfect summary of the novel’s entire theme. I think they mostly just take a lot of work, and trying them out on your friends. Good luck.

FA: I like that technique! Do you have any almost-titles for your books that you still look back on wistfully? Or can you only imagine them with their final titles now?

JB: Good question. I don’t, really – I tend to forget all those misses and near-misses and screaming bits of rubbish on my lists. Oh, except my novel Skin. Four books with that title came out the same year.

Joanna Briscoe is the author of the novels Mothers and Other Lovers, which won the Betty Trask Award; SkinSleep With Me, which was published in eleven countries and adapted for ITV by Andrew Davies; You, which was published by Bloomsbury in the UK, USA and through Europe, and Touched, which was published by Arrow. She works as a literary critic for the Guardian and has written for all the major national newspapers. She broadcasts on Radio 4, and has taught for the Arvon Foundation, and for the Birkbeck and City MA degrees in Creative Writing. Joanna is one of the tutors on our flagship six-month Writing a Novel course. 

Perfecting your plot and protagonist: how to overcome those first draft hurdles

As the Christmas season looms, lots of us will be hoping to find time to work on our manuscripts. Or perhaps you won NaNoWriMo this year – congratulations! – and are now beginning the editing process. So what can you do to stop your novel stalling on two of the most common problem areas, plot and character? We asked our Writing a Novel tutors for a couple of simple exercises to help.

If you’re feeling like you’ve lost your plot, Sarah May has got you covered:

‘Does it feel like your story’s going nowhere? Losing direction? Has no future? Writing is like being in a long-term relationship. You’re up so close that after a while you lose perspective. Back in the beginning, when you first had that brilliant idea, writing felt amazing. But now you’re like… tell me again, why did I decide to write this book? If this is you, then now is the time to pull back and take a look at the bigger picture.

To quote Margaret Atwood, story centres on a dramatic question that must be answered. At the heart of most stories there is a protagonist who has to overcome obstacles in order to resolve a problem. So, the dramatic question is nearly always, “Will the protagonist achieve their story goal?”

This is the question you want readers to ask. The question that is going to keep them turning those pages. It’s the question that needs to drive all your plotting. In fact, every scene you write needs to ask this question.

Here are some examples of dramatic questions:

The Old Man and The Sea: Will Santiago catch the fish?
The Hunger Games: Will Katniss win the Hunger Games?
The Silence of the Lambs: Will Clarice Starling catch Buffalo Bill?
Pride and Prejudice: Will Elizabeth Bennet marry Mr Darcy?

Now you need to work out your dramatic question. A single sentence will do. Once you have it, write it down and stick it to your desk. A partner’s forehead. The cat. Or get a tattoo. This is your narrative compass.’


If your plot’s all nailed down but it’s the people within it you’re struggling to develop, try this exercise from Shelley Weiner:

‘Where and how do we find the characters that populate our fiction? In the days of free roaming and carefree congregation (i.e. pre-Covid – remember those?), we’d observe people in the streets, on public transport, in cafes, in theatres; we’d watch and listen and speculate. Now, like most things, we’re forced to do it online.

So here’s my character-seeking exercise, adapted to our times:

Your central character eludes you. You know she’s lonely and troubled, you have a vague idea of her place in your story, but you don’t quite believe in her. Solution? Open Google (or any other search engine) and search for, say, ‘lonely, troubled young woman’. Select images and see what comes up.

You’ll be confronted by page upon page of potential characters in various stages of gloom.  Without thinking too hard about it but making sure it’s not someone you recognise or a renowned/infamous personality, pick an image, enlarge, and focus on her face.

Invent and write down your answers to the following, as fully as you can:

Dark secret (we all have one …)?
Aspiration – what does she want?

As you write away, your character will come into being – vivid, powerful, effective.’

Sarah and Shelley are both tutors on the January iteration of Writing a Novel. Applications close 31 December.

Finding the heart of your novel – and how to turn that into its pitch

Spending this weekend working on your novel? If you’re doing NaNoWriMo this year, the finish line is almost in sight (keep going, you’re doing great!). Or perhaps you’re using this year’s lockdowns to get started on an idea that’s been nagging at you, or to edit a full draft of a novel you’ve been writing for a while.

We’ve asked our Writing a Novel tutors to set some exercises to help. And Joanna Briscoe and Sabrina Broadbent have some tips for you on getting right to the heart of your story.

Joanna says:

‘Without thinking, absolutely spontaneously, write down a single word that sums up your novel and what it’s about. Anything. The first word that occurs to you. Then write one sentence. Summarise what you’re trying to do. What is at the heart of this novel? It may feel impossible, but you can do it.’

Sabrina often suggests her students look at other novels to help with that one sentence. ‘Take a novel off the shelf and look at the blurb on the back. You’re likely to find a one liner that is the key question, dilemma or heart of the novel. Now write your own that answers the question: what’s your novel about?’

Once you think you have that perfect sentence, Joanna suggests looking at it a second time from an entirely different angle: ‘If you’ve described your novel thematically, look at it in terms of plot instead. And if you’ve written about the story, write a sentence about the novel’s themes instead. At all times, you will come back to that same essential question: What’s my book really about?’

Wherever you are in the writing process, keep that answer front and centre in your mind as you continue. And when you have a finished draft, Sabrina explains how you can use it to start building the pitch for your novel: ‘Develop that one-liner to include some characters, setting, crisis, tone, motivation – think in terms of one paragraph; the way you’d describe your novel to an interested agent who asked what it was about. Eventually this can become the beginning of your synopsis.’

Joanna and Sabrina are both tutors on the January iteration of Writing a NovelApplications close on 31 December.



Reading about writing: what I learnt from some of the best craft guides

by Nicci Cloke

Confession time: I am not writing. Perhaps that’s not surprising, given I’ve been relentlessly refreshing news sites on a loop since March. But handy an excuse as 2020 is, I’ve been struggling to get my head down on a new novel for over a year now. I’ve started and abandoned more than I care to count (this is in fact a lie… I counted last weekend and it’s twelve. Twelve!) and seem to be paying for my relatively easy second book by encountering the lesser-known Difficult Eighth Novel.

Along the way, I think I’ve lost faith in my own instincts, something that’s really essential in getting past the first draft doubts and writing blindly on. So I decided to take some time out. I’m always interested in the writing guides people recommend to our students so it seemed like a good moment to recharge my own creative brain by checking out some tips from the top. Here’s how I got on with six of them.

On Writing by Stephen King

This is a classic that’s been on my shelves for a long time, bought when I was about fifteen, I think, having run out of King’s novels to read. I loved it then for the behind-the-scenes look it gives at his process and how some of his most famous novels came to be. And it’s still the writing guide I see most frequently mentioned now – whether by fellow novelists at events or in interviews, or by tutors here at the Academy. So picking it up again felt like a good place to start. There’s still so much of it that struck a chord with me – his famous advice to write with the door closed, rewrite with it open is so well put, and I’ve always loved the image of the ‘Boys in the basement’, his unconscious mind working away at a story idea or problem. There are some other things which feel a little out of date now – at one point, King says that 180,000 words is ‘a goodish length for a book’ (I had to double-check whether that first ‘1’ was a typo). The toolbox section is focused on line-level stuff – vocabulary and grammar and forming a paragraph – in a way that also feels a little dated and which might not be that useful if you’re looking for guidance on the bigger-picture things like plot, character and pace, though we do come to that stuff in later chapters. And the advice regarding publication also feels less relevant now – there’s a lot about selling short stories to magazines, a much more difficult task than it was twenty years ago. But it’s impossible not to feel inspired by someone with such a fertile imagination (and a mindboggling work rate) who is so clearly passionate about their craft. And the memoir sections alone make this well worth a read.

Buy it here.

Story Genius by Lisa Cron

I liked the bold claim of the subtitle here and found Cron’s practical approach to plotting really helpful. And I ended up feeling really energised by the process, which encourages you to think – right from the off – about your protagonist’s internal, emotional journey and how to always tie the story back to that (what she calls the ‘third rail’ of your novel). It won’t be for everyone – writing and rearranging so many detailed scene cards was too laborious for me – and I would’ve preferred to see examples from famous novels used in support (instead we follow an author work on a new, unpublished idea, which is really interesting but doesn’t always lend itself well to the points being illustrated). But it genuinely felt revolutionary for me when I was reading it, and I’d recommend it to anyone who is feeling blocked or uninspired. Having said that, the novel I plotted using this process currently languishes on my laptop with the rest, largely unwritten…

Buy it here.

Writing and Plotting Suspense Fiction by Patricia Highsmith

I was excited to read this, having felt so inspired by my On Writing reread, but I ended up a little disappointed. It’s elegantly written (of course) and fascinating on Highsmith’s own attitudes to and feelings about writing, so worth reading in that respect, but it doesn’t offer much in the way of practical advice. I like the faith Highsmith has in creativity – inspiring in itself – and her reluctance to make sweeping statements or generalisations about how to write, and if you’re a fan, you’ll enjoy it (almost all of the examples come from her own work, so if you’re not a fan, this is not one for you). But this was probably the book I found least helpful to my current predicament, and, like the King, it’s a little outdated when it comes to talking about the market and publication.

Buy it here.

Seven Creative Gremlins by Nicola Jackson and Teresa Wilson

I felt a bit like the authors of this one could see directly inside my head (which is why I invited them to write a guest post for us). This is a funny, sympathetic look at the various fears that stop us from writing, with some practical tips for overcoming each. What I really liked about it is that it encouraged me to show some of that same sympathy to myself; to stop beating myself up about procrastinating or having doubts. I’m a big fan of the butt-in-chair approach to writing but this book made me realise it’s also important to understand why I might be stalling instead of just trying to write through the block. This is not so much a guide to the craft itself but to understanding yourself as a writer, and I found that really refreshing.

Buy it here.

The Idea by Erik Bork

This was recommended to me by someone on a screenwriting course I’m on, and it’s largely aimed at writers of TV and film although novels are mentioned too. It takes a no-nonsense approach to analysing what makes a ‘good’ idea and very clearly sets out the components Bork sees as essential for any successful story. It had me scribbling notes as I was reading and if you see your novel as even vaguely commercial, you’ll probably find something of use here (and if you’re writing for screen, you definitely will). Unlike the Highsmith, it’s maybe a little too prescriptive, and I think I’ll be taking elements of it away with me rather than applying the theory wholesale to every idea from now on, but I thought the section on the emotional reaction of your audience particularly helpful.

Buy it here.

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

By now I was beginning to feel as though it was time to stop reading about writing and actually get on with it before I confused myself further. I’m so glad I decided to pick this one up first. It’s the most generous, warm, intelligent look at the craft I think I’ve ever come across and has honestly changed the way I feel about writing. Again, it won’t work for everyone – one thing this reading list has taught me is that different theories will always connect with different writers, and it’s important to find the approach that really speaks to you. For me, that was this one. The whiteboard above my desk now instructs me to ‘Listen to your broccoli’ (it’ll make sense when you read it, I promise) and there are all sorts of other little tips and reminders in there that feel like a gentle steer back to what is most important of all about writing: your love for it. And it really made me laugh too. I know I’ll be returning to it soon.

Buy it here.

It would be remiss of me to finish without mentioning one further book: Writing a Novel by our own Richard Skinner, a brilliant distillation of his decade of designing and teaching the course. And if you’ve got any other favourites or recommendations, let me know! I’ll need a new list soon, no doubt – but in the meantime, I’m going to write. I swear.

Fantastical Worlds and How to Write Them

YA author and Academy alumna Holly Race gives us her top tips on creating a believable world for your fantasy novel

Writing is hard enough at the best of times, isn’t it? You have to forge characters, hammer out a plot, painstakingly etch out tens of thousands of words. And when you’ve done that, you’ve got to edit them all, often many times over.

Every genre has its specific challenges, but my preferred poison is fantasy. Creating an entirely new world, subject to its own rules, laws and history, can be incredibly intimidating. It’s one of the reasons why it took me nearly a decade to finish Midnight’s Twins, a YA fantasy set between our world and the dream world.

From the start, I knew that I wanted the dream world to be a magical alternate universe; one where unicorns grazed in Richmond Park, where subconscious fears would take tangible form; and where being killed in our nightmares would mean dying in the real world too.

But I knew I’d have to do a lot more world-building if my dream world, Annwn, was going to feel believable. I spent long nights poring over my favourite fantasy books, trying to work out how the authors made their worlds feel rich, relatable and unique. It took me ages to figure out that I shouldn’t be trying to create my world independently of the rest of my book. The best fantasy stories – just like non-fantasy – have plots and characters that are interwoven with their worlds. You couldn’t have one without the other two; they work together like a Rubik’s cube – sometimes you need to shift a line of red to make all the blue come together.

Here’s a few tips that I picked up in those ten years. If you’re stuck on your fantasy, I hope you’ll find them helpful!

Make your world recognisable

We all want our stories to be original, but it’s easy to forget that relatability is just as important. Without that, a reader won’t be able to sink into the story. Look at almost any fantasy novel and you will see that there’s always at least one recognisable element. Philip Pullman hangs the world of His Dark Materials off ideas of faith, souls and redemption. Jordan Ifueko’s Raybearer is inspired by West African mythology, while Natasha Ngan’s Girls of Paper and Fire series is based on Malaysian folklore. Perhaps there’s a particular story you’re passionate about – one that could give you the bones of a plot or a world to flesh out with your voice. A Throne of Swans by Katharine and Elizabeth Corr is based on Swan Lake, for example, while Dangerous Remedy by Kat Dunn is a retelling of Les Miserables. Maybe you’re more interested in a particular historical period, as in A Song of Ice and Fire.

With Midnight’s Twins, I turned to my childhood love of Arthurian and Celtic folklore and my teenage interest in The Faerie Queene. Suddenly my world had a millennia-old history, a hook that readers would instantly recognise, and a vocabulary borrowed from Old Welsh.

Don’t be afraid to mine your own interests for material for your world building. It won’t make your work feel derivative. Instead, it will give readers something satisfying and recognisable to cling onto.

Approach story problems from a different angle

Plot, character and world are – or should be – intertwined with each other. When you’ve got the balance between them right, you shouldn’t be able to pull on one thread without unravelling the other two (yes, this does make editing very tricky indeed – a game of constantly moving parts!)

My favourite example of this is a very short book called Clockwork by Philip Pullman. It’s set in a dark, steampunk world, following three storylines: a king who will do anything to keep his ailing son alive; a clockmaker’s apprentice who is out of time to create his masterpiece; and a warm-hearted barmaid who will give anything to keep a dying boy alive. As the title suggests, each of these storylines is a cog in a beautifully engineered story machine, although it isn’t until the final scenes that we start to understand just how cleverly interconnected those mechanisms are. I would highly recommend reading it, if you haven’t.

How does knowing this make world-building easier? Well, it means that if you get stuck on one element of your story, it can often help to look at another element instead. If you feel more confident with your characters, then use them as the way into your world. For example, in Bex Hogan’s Viper, the heroine Marianne has been brought up believing that she is heir to a great pirating legacy. Most of the main cast of the novel are pirates as well. It stands to reason, then, that the world of Viper is largely maritime. Thus, Marianne’s father is the leader of a pirating force that terrorises the seas surrounding an archipelago. There would be no point in Marianne being heir to a force that oversees a tiny, insignificant ocean. In creating a watery world where control of the seas means control of an empire, Bex has effectively raised the stakes for Marianne to their highest point.

Similarly, when I realised that my ‘villain’ wasn’t quite working, I stopped thinking about the character and turned to the dream world. What was the worst thing that could happen to that world? Bingo – I had my villain’s master plan.

Write the story first, not the world

Sometimes it’s tempting to dive head-first into your new world and try to work out every detail before you start to write. Some writers might find that exciting. Some might find it overwhelming. I vary between the two, depending on my mood. But I’ve always done my best world-building when I’ve been focused on writing the book. 

Like any theoretical structure, unless you’re a master engineer it’s difficult to know for sure that something’s going to work until you actually make it. You might think that you’ve got a brilliant, fantasy solution for something in your world, but you may find that when you actually come to write it, it doesn’t really work. My dream world is powered by imagination, and at first I designed three different kinds of ‘inspyre’, as it is known. When I was writing it, though, it became clear that having three distinct types was far too confusing! It was a bitter pill to swallow because I had spent quite some time working out the purposes of the different inspyres, and even longer picking out names from an Old Welsh lexicon. But in streamlining the world, the story became a lot easier to follow.

Try to resist the temptation to figure out every detail of your world before you start writing. As much as anything, it’s easy to use world-building as a form of procrastination – it may feel as though you’re ‘writing’, but you’re not really! Go in with some ideas, of course, but be willing to troubleshoot on the fly.

Resist the urge to show us everything

This is less of a problem in adult or high fantasy, where longer word counts are the norm and a slower pace is expected, but in YA fantasy where a quicker pace is demanded, it’s impossible to show all the facets of a richly conceived world in a maximum of 100,000 words. That may seem like a lot of words when you’ve only got 10,000 in the bag, but it’s nothing when it comes to fantasy! At one point Midnight’s Twins ballooned to 140,000 words because I wanted to show as much of Annwn as possible – it was very painful cutting nearly a third of the novel!

Try to restrict yourself to only showing the parts of the world that your characters need to encounter for the plot. Don’t be tempted to take them on a superficial journey just to show off your world, either. That doesn’t mean that you can’t hint at a wider world in passing conversations or comments – those moments are always a delight to read because they reassure the reader that you know your world inside-out. You can always explore it more in a sequel – or leave it to your readers’ imaginations. It’s the literary equivalent of showing a little ankle.

Check your cogs are working

Once you have your first draft, do what all the books and blogs and writing coaches tell you to and put it away for a few weeks. When you re-read it, make sure to pay attention to the world when you make your notes and start to edit. It can be really easy to forget about this element because most of the time it’s in the background – it’s part of the scenery by its very nature.

Pay attention to whether the elements you were proud of are really working or whether they’re extraneous to the action. Ask yourself whether you needed to take us to that new setting or whether you only took us there because it’s really cool – if you realise it’s the latter, don’t necessarily cut it! Think instead about whether there’s a way of integrating that setting more into the scene – can you make whatever’s happening integral to that particular place? In the sequel to Midnight’s Twins, I wanted to show more of the dream world, so I made my character uncover something that had wider implications, necessitating a ‘tour’ of the country. In The Hunger Games, we only ever hear about the other districts. In Catching Fire, Suzanne Collins is able to show us the districts through the victory tour – and gives it a deeper purpose by showing the start of the unrest in Panem.

That’s it! Those are my top five tips if you’re stuck on your fantasy novel. Fantasy can be a really tough genre to write, but when you get the world, character and plot working in unison, it’s also one of the most satisfying. Good luck in your quests, and may all your plot dragons be friendly!

Holly Race is now a full-time writer, but she used to work in TV and film script development, for companies like Red Planet Pictures, Aardman Animations and Working Title. She is a graduate of our Writing a Novel course, and Midnight’s Twins is her debut novel and the first in a trilogy. Holly lives in Cambridge with her husband and daughter. In her spare time, she enjoys baking, trying not to kill plants, and travelling to far off places at short notice.

Midnight’s Twins is published by Hot Key Books and is available in paperback and ebook now. 

How to Overcome the Imposter Syndrome Gremlin

Author Nicola Jackson and life coach Teresa Wilson, co-writers of Seven Creative Gremlins, reveal how to get past that nagging feeling that you’re not good enough

So, you’re ready to begin your novel. You’ve got an idea that you’re really excited about and you’re starting to think about getting your thoughts down on paper. There’s no harm in having a go, right? And you don’t actually have to tell anyone you’re doing it. What could possibly go wrong?

Right on cue, up stomps your Imposter Syndrome Gremlin, bellowing, ‘Write something? You? HA! Are you kidding me? You’re not a writer!’

We all have Creative Gremlins – pesky internal critics that seek to derail our writing journey. In our book, Seven Creative Gremlins, we’ve identified the main offenders that can prevent writers from starting, sticking with or finishing a creative project. 

Imposter Syndrome Gremlin is usually the first to crop up and often targets new writers; those who have been eyeing up a creative pursuit for many years but haven’t yet had the courage to do anything about it. Such writers, being inexperienced, are very vulnerable to this Gremlin’s harshly negative schtick. 

The Imposter Syndrome Gremlin can be so hurtful and so convincing that, after hearing its merciless judgement, many aspiring writers immediately put their creative projects away for good, mortified that they ever had the audacity to think they could be a writer in the first place.

But, then again, Imposter is an equal opportunities beast. It’ll target experienced writers, too, pointing out, ‘Sure, you managed to fool them before, but this time everyone’s going to realise that you don’t belong. Yeah, start that writing project but, just so you know, you’re wasting your time. In fact, you know what? Stop embarrassing yourself by trying to be a writer because everyone knows you’re a fake.’



Okay, now we’re aware that, just as we embark on a piece of writing, this Gremlin is likely to turn up and declare that we’re simply not up to the challenge. But why are we so eager to believe it? 

The short answer is, not believing you could be a writer may be connected to some limiting beliefs, stories from the past you’ve been carrying around unchallenged for years. There are two parts to this. The first is what you believe a writer to be. The second is what you believe yourself to be.


What do you picture when you think of a writer? Someone accomplished and at the top of their game, recognised and respected by the literary press? Someone making huge amounts of money from their work? Or perhaps you picture the starving artist, passionately and single-mindedly toiling over their art, but with a terrible personal life and a deepening alcohol problem? Whatever you imagine a writer to be, if you don’t fit the description it will be difficult for you to call yourself a writer. 

We prefer the OED’s definition of a writer: ‘A person who has written something or who writes in a particular way.’ Now, listen, we get it. Calling yourself a writer can feel very exposing so we’re not telling you to have it embossed on a T-shirt, get it put on your passport or announce it to strangers as your calling in life (unless you want to, in which case go for it). But what we are saying is that you could experiment with thinking of yourself as a writer – i.e. someone who writes. Because the truth is, you cannot wait to ‘feel like a writer’ before you begin. It is the beginning to write that turns you into a writer.


If, when you think about writing, you start to feel anxious or uncomfortable, it might be that the action conflicts with the story you’ve been telling yourself about who you are. In your past, you may have developed a belief about yourself, others, or the world that clashes with the notion, ‘I am a writer.’ This means that, when you start to think it, you activate an earlier, contradictory thought and it makes you feel bad. The earlier thought could be something like ‘I’m not an imaginative person.’ Or ‘If I express myself, people will laugh.’ Or ‘I shouldn’t show off.’ Or ‘People from backgrounds like mine don’t do things like that.’ 

As our brains like to use the least amount of energy possible – and discomfort means expending energy – they prefer running old ‘maps of the world’ rather than investing the effort in creating new ones, meaning many of us are already primed not to believe we are writers or artists


The important thing to realise is that everyone suffers from the Imposter Syndrome Gremlin at one stage or another, no matter how experienced they are. The trick isn’t to be such a ‘great’ writer that you never feel like an imposter (impossible). The trick is to expect the Imposter Syndrome Gremlin to turn up and to know how to tackle it when it does.  

Here are some things to try next time Imposter comes knocking.

Pay attention

Notice what is coming up for you when you think about starting your writing project. Tune in more closely to what you feel in your body. Physiological reactions are clues to what’s going on in your mind. If you feel tense or anxious, that’s fine. You’ve identified the Gremlin. You’re on the right track. Changing your limiting beliefs is a process that doesn’t happen overnight, but starting to become more aware of them can be a powerful first step.

Act as if

Does it serve you to hold the belief, ‘I am not a writer’? Does it help you create? If not, then switch the thought and act ‘as if’, even if you don’t believe the new thought yet. Every time you do something even slightly creative and then catch yourself feeling a sense of defeatism or disapproval, just switch your mindset and tell yourself, ‘I am a writer!’ You don’t have to believe it immediately, but just get used to countering your Gremlin as this will help you to understand that its voice is not your voice. 


Pouring out a stream of consciousness onto the page, without censoring or judgement, is an incredible resource for anyone who wants to clear some space in their brains for the good stuff to appear. By developing the habit of regular journalling we strengthen our connection to our creativity and begin to reclaim the artist inside us. 

Eventually, once you notice this Gremlin popping up like clockwork every time to start to write, you can learn not to listen to its pointless negativity. You’ll understand that being a creative person does not require anyone’s permission. All it requires is action. After all, the only way to be a writer is to write.

This is an abridged excerpt from the book Seven Creative Gremlins: Write your way through doubt and fear to claim your creative life by Nicola Jackson and Teresa Wilson. 

There are many more Gremlins to look out for, from persuasive Procrastinator to haranguing Hyper-Critical, from terrorising Tyrant to snooty Too-Cool-For-School. Want to find out which Gremlin is derailing your writing journey and how to get past it? Take this one minute quiz

Find Nicola and Teresa at 

Book Haunting

by Rachel Morris

Has there ever been a book that has taken so long to be written?

For years the idea of it haunted me like the flicker of a shadow, a repeated, bittersweet realisation that there was something inside me I needed to say – if only I knew what it was.  So vague was this sensation – although also piercingly painful – that I didn’t even know what I was trying to write. Was it fiction or non-fiction, a novel, a short story, even a poem?  I had had two novels published (a long time previously) but they were relatively straightforward.  With them I knew from the start what I was writing.  Nothing had prepared me for being haunted by such a shadow of a feeling. 

And so I decided to forget about that slippery, indefinable something and to write instead a book about museums.  Museums are my day job so why shouldn’t I write about them?  

But although museums are full of solid things, they are also remarkably slippery to pin down, and the more I tried to do so the more they resisted me.  Until one day the book began to write itself and then I knew what it was that I wanted to say.  It was this, that just as museums are about making meaningful patterns out of the chaos of the universe, so – when it comes to our pasts, to our memories and the things that we inherit – we are all museum-makers, all seeking to make sense of our histories.  This was the slippery scent of something that had haunted me for years.  It was the mystery of my childhood, saying, Please write me.  

From this I learnt the first rule (for me) of storytelling. Never tell a book what to do.  The more you boss it around and tell it that it is this and this and this, the more it will resist you and the more formulaic it will become.  The book knows what it wants to be. Write from the heart and let the book take over.

That first realisation drove the first draft of the book.  Now at least I knew what I was writing – part memoir, part history, a quest, a detective story, an elegy to a lost past. There followed the most painful part of this process – the twenty-three agents to whom I sent that first draft, every one of whom sent it back with a ‘no’ – although about a third of them were helpful ‘no’s’ – enlarging on why it didn’t work, even regretting that they couldn’t publish it. 

I made myself read it again and found myself agreeing with them. It was indeed muddled, overblown, incoherent. Where to go from here?  With hindsight I did the best thing possible.  I signed up for a creative writing class – in fact to be exact a one-week writing course at the Faber Academy, led by Julia Blackburn.  

Julia used to give us a writing task and about seven minutes in which to do it.  Inevitably you spent the first two minutes in a panic before an idea came to you. From this process I learnt to trust my subconscious.  More particularly I learnt my second rule of storytelling: to keep it simple, keep it truthful and be prepared to edit. It’s amazing how much better writing can be when you take things out, not put them in.  That was the best money I ever spent.

After that I took a year and rewrote the book again.  But now I had a problem.   It is hard to enough to get an agent to read a book once; it was all but impossible to find anyone who would read a second version.  I had sent the book out too soon and had scuppered my chances.

Somehow  I came up with the solution which was to send it out to one of the new independent publishers that are springing up across the UK.  They, unlike the big publishers, will (at least sometimes) look at your work even if you don’t have an agent.  The first one I sent my book to was September Publishing. Hannah Macdonald is the publisher there. She snapped up my book within three days. 

And so I thought – of course I did – that the book was more or less finished.  I soon learnt how wrong I was.  Working with Hannah and Charlotte Cole, September’s editor, the book was edited from top to bottom; from the big questions, such as the narrative arc, down to the specific details of paragraphs and sentences.  This was the third thing I learnt, that there is a lifetime’s worth of skill and craft in the simple act of using words to tell a story.

The book is called The Museum Makers and it was published on 27 August with endorsements from Julia Blackburn and Dina Nayeri.  (Thank you, Julia and Dina.)  

Every book has its own journey to publication and some are long and some are short. Sometimes I wake in the night and think, If I’d known how long it would take would I ever have written this book?  And then I think, Well yes, of course I would, without a moment’s hesitation, just as – no doubt – I will write the next one that comes along to haunt me.

A director of the museum-making company Metaphor, Rachel Morris has been part of the creation, design and delivery of some of the most exciting displays, renovations and museums of the last few decades. Rachel is also the author of two novels. She was a student on our Five Days to Write a Life course. 

The Museum Makers is published by September Publishing and out now.

Q&A with S J Watson

In the latest in our series of Q&As over on Twitter, we were joined by bestselling superstar and Academy alumnus S J Watson. We celebrated the publication of his third novel, Final Cut, and had a good old natter about writing and the inspiration behind the book.

FA: Alright, let’s get started! Hi @SJ_Watson and huge congratulations on the publication of #FinalCut! Are you having a good publication day so far?

SJW: I’m having a great day, yes! Such a weird day – it’s a bit like having your birthday, Christmas day and your driving test all on the same day. But good!

FA: This is such a perfect description… Let’s start by talking about #FinalCut – can you tell us a bit about the story?

SJW: Yep! Final Cut sees a documentary film maker go to a remote seaside town to make her new film, which she intends to be an investigation of ordinary life, using footage shot by the people who live there. But, she learns of a girl, Daisy, who took her own life some years previously, and another who disappeared around the same time. Some of the villagers seem to think something went on, and might still be going on now. Alex gets sucked into the story and starts to notice some disturbing elements in the films people are sending in…

FA: Such a *brilliant* pitch. I know this is often a bit of a tricky one to pinpoint but do you know where the idea for it started?

SJW: A number of things came together for this one, rather than it being a ‘lightbulb’ moment. I was thinking about documentaries, and in particular true-crime docs, and how they’re often more unbelievable than fiction….That tied in with my thoughts about the modern-day urge to document and record everything, on Instagram, Twitter etc which led me to the film Life in a Day which came out a few years ago and consisted of footage sent in by people from all over the world. I then started thinking about other documentaries, and watched an amazing one called ‘Three Salons at the Seaside’. Then there were some photographers that did some work on voyeurism and surveillance. I made a short video about all these different things.

FA: It’s always so interesting hearing about those elements start layering themselves in… we’ve had a couple of questions about the writing process for the book. What’s your writing routine like, and has it changed between first, second and third novels?

SJW: Great question! It has changed, yes. I’ve become more of a planner with each book. #beforeigotosleep was pretty much unplanned, and I did a lot of work in the edit. #secondlife was kind of half and half and now with #finalcut I planned it in quite a lot of detail. As for my day-to-day routine, I work better in the mornings, so I try to get my creative work done then, and the afternoon is for admin etc. I aim for 1000 words a day when I’m writing; when I’m editing, things are much more fluid and it can really vary. I used to work every day, but that was EXTREMELY UNHELPFUL and I now allow myself a weekend. And the new thing with #finalcut was that I started doing street photography. I would write for a few hours, then take photos for a while. Each thing seemed to feed the other (if you’re interested, you can see my photographs on my Instagram page).

FA: That’s so interesting. Also, I love your photos on Instagram – I didn’t realise that was part of the process (you’re REALLY good at it!). Okay, we’ve just had another #FinalCut question pop in from @Jamesfan2: is the novel set in a fictional town?

SJW: Thank you! It’s really great having a creative outlet that isn’t my day job. And thank you @jamesfan2 for the question! Yes, it’s set in Blackwood Bay, which is entirely fictional… BUT heavily influenced/based on Robin Hood’s Bay, which is a beautiful village near Whitby. I decided to change the name and fictionalise it because some pretty terrible things happen in Blackwood Bay, and some pretty bad people live there.

FA: Haha I’m sure the people of Robin Hood’s Bay will be grateful! Okay, a qu now from our own lovely @JoannaBriscoe, who says: ‘I’d like to ask about the mental strength it must have taken to follow up a global bestseller’. How did you go about starting #SecondLife?

SJW: Actually, to be serious for a moment – it was kind of difficult. You have to write the first draft as if no one is going to read it, which suddenly became very hard to do. So I had to learn how to shut those voices out. It was tough, but, as I reminded myself, as problems go, ‘following up a global bestseller’ is quite a nice one to have!

FA: That is such a nice way of looking at it as yes, it must have been incredibly tough to shut that all out. Let’s skip back to before Before I Go to Sleep for a second: is there anything about the writing process you know now that you wish you’d known then?

SJW: Yes…

1. It’s OK to take a break
2. The answer isn’t going to reveal itself by staring at the screen
3. You’re not a morning person, but set that alarm because being half-asleep sometimes helps
4. Done is better than perfect
5. Head down, driving as fast as you can is one way to get there. But occasionally taking a look at the signposts will probably get you there quicker
@ScrivenerApp is amazing
7. There’s more to life than books you know (but not much more)
8. Poetry is your friend

FA: These are GREAT. #3 is so true (and #2 is something I really need to hear right now). Ah, here’s an interesting one from @shauneley: ‘As photography played an integral part to this book, would you give another creative medium a go to influence and help future ones?’

SJW: GO FOR A WALK (it helps…). Thanks @shauneley – I think I’m going to stick with the photography. I really love it, and I think it helps with writing. My theory is that with writing I’m using a story to try to create an image in the reader’s head whereas with photography I’m trying to use an image to create a story in the viewer’s head. So they sort of complement each other. Also, I can’t draw or paint, I can’t play the guitar due to an injury, no one wants to hear me sing…

FA: I’ll remember that… And I love that idea of how those two mediums complement each other. That’s all we’ve got time for! Thank you so much @SJ_Watson for such brilliant, generous answers. And now is the perfect time for me to remind everyone that #FinalCut is out now… 

SJW: Thank YOU for having me! And thanks everyone who sent in their questions.

S J Watson’s first novel, Before I Go To Sleep, became a phenomenal international success and has now sold over 6,000,000 copies worldwide. It won the Crime Writers’ Association Award for Best Debut Novel and the Galaxy National Book Award for Crime Thriller of the Year and has been translated into more than 40 languages. His second novel, Second Life, a psychological thriller, was published to acclaim in 2015, and his third, Final Cut, was published earlier this month.

Final Cut is published by Transworld and is available now in hardbook, audio or ebook. You can find S J Watson on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.