10 Ways to Find Inspiration for Fantasy Writing

The elusive muse. Long considered dead by some, still widely sought after with hounds, nets, and harpoons by others, the concept of “invoking the muse” still lurks out there in the writers’ ether.

Inspiration can be fickle: it doesn’t always necessarily come when you want it. There are some tried and true methods for getting ideas and motivation to write. These have been discussed in multiple “killing writer’s block” and other such advice columns.

What I want to propose are ways to find inspiration for writing fantasy, some of which may be obvious and others not so much.

1. Look at animals

If you think about it, a lot of ideas and concepts of monsters may actually derive from animals. The mythical Kraken was for the longest time thought to be just that: mythical. Now we’ve seen evidence that giant squids do exist and may have been crushing ships and terrorizing sailors just as the Greek myths told. There are plenty of weird, mysterious animals just on Earth, so no telling what version you could come up with for a fantasy tale.

Some of the most intriguing creatures are combinations of various animals, such as the chimera (part goat, part dragon, and part lion) or the bunyip (a sort of horse/walrus hybrid that infests wetlands). A lot of inspiration for fantasy creatures can obviously be found by just studying various cultures. Find a culture you’re interested in and study just a little bit about it. I’m pretty sure you’ll find something to spark your interest.

2. Look at old photographs and study your family

Some of the most wonderful inspiration can come from looking at a simple photograph. I’m not talking about Instagram. Just look at old pictures of anything.

Find old pictures of your grandparents, parents, friends, or children. What was it like for them growing up? What about your great-great grandparents? I’ve found lots of inspiration just hearing about my family genealogy. This can open up a whole new world of not only what your ancestors were like, but what you may be like as a writer.

No photographs of some of your family members? Just imagine what they were like. How would they function in a world of acid-spitting dragons, elves, and water spirits?

3. Watch movie trailers

Yes, you can watch movies to find inspiration, but what about movie trailers?

Sometimes just a clip can get me thinking about stories. It may be the way a character looks at another or the color of someone’s coat. It doesn’t necessarily mean I’m thinking “Oh, this character is wearing a blue coat so I want my character to wear a blue coat.” It may be something like, “That blue is quite striking. What if the whole world was blue like that?” or “What if time moved in what we perceive as slow-motion?”

4. Listen to music you hate

Anyone can find inspiration in music they love. Like a lot of writers, I listen to music as I write; it gives me a soundtrack to my writing. But when I’m not writing? Sometimes I just like to listen to songs I would never have any interest in hearing. Why? Because it gives some new perspective, something I’m missing.

Next time you’re stuck for an idea, just listen to some music you hate. Maybe it will invoke a feeling in you that you haven’t felt in some time.

5. Sit in an empty room with no computer or paper

Just sit somewhere and think. Preferably a room with no decorations. Just white or beige. Bland.

Make yourself a prisoner of the room. If it locks from the outside, have someone lock you in there. How would you get out? How would you decorate that room? What kind of creatures might live behind the walls?

Just let your mind race. After about 10-15 minutes, run out of the room and scribble down anything you thought about while in there. You might just have come up with some interesting ideas.

6. Transform your surroundings

On a bus? Find someone. What would they look like in wizard robes or with long, pointy fangs? What if the bus was actually a massive beast of burden that carries dozens of people across the ashes of a fallen civilization, the screams of those left behind echoing in your ears?

Make the mundane moments of your life interesting by doing a little day-dreaming. Find weird stuff and people. Mold them into something new. You don’t have to always go on a sunny walk in the park to find inspiration.

7. Shake up your schedule

If your routine is to go to work, come home, talk to your family, eat dinner, and start writing, maybe you need to change it up a bit.

Wake up super early, like 3 am and just start thinking about your story. Look for strange holes in the wall that you may not have noticed before or go in your attic and just stare into the darkness.  Do you see ghosts? Does the pitch black awaken something inside you? Does your perception change?

Sometimes the best ideas may come in the middle of the night. Sure, your family may think you’re creepy or something’s wrong with you, but just reassure them and say, “I’m working on a story.” Make yourself available at different times of the day. Disrupt things a little bit. You may notice if the rhythm of your life is a little off, new ideas may come swarming in.

8. Go to places outside your comfort zone

Hate dance clubs? Go to one. Avoid shopping malls? Go browse a bit.

With the increasing reliance on the internet for research and ideas, good ole’ fashioned “people watching” has gone the way of the dodo. Similar to my “look around the bus” situation, putting yourself in places that may not be entirely comfortable for you may get you thinking about story ideas.

If your story is about an elf that feels isolated amongst humans, what better inspiration than finding places where you feel isolated and go there. It’s best not to go anywhere that pushes your limits too far. Just trying new social situations may help spark some ideas.

One of the most awkward situations I was ever in was at a vampire party. I was totally out of my element, but observing the way they acted was quite fascinating.

9. Over-saturation of news

Read, watch, and consume news until you feel sick. Try different mediums and points of view. Just watching different pundits talk about a myriad of topics can give you perspective into your fantasy world.

Do people think the same way? Are there broad divisions in philosophy? Are some points of view so extreme that there’s no possible way you could ever understand them? Then you may be getting quite a bit of inspiration.

What if you have an army of goblins marching towards the southern capital and no amount of negotiation can make them turn back? What are they fueled by?

You can find a lot of inspiration just in consuming as much news as you can. Just be careful not to get too depressed. Too much news can do that.

10. Read fantasy books

I left the most painfully obvious for last. If you’re a fantasy writer, read fantasy books. Read old ones, new ones, ones that you’ve resisted. Don’t box yourself in to only reading one sub-genre or certain kinds of writers. Find authors you’ve heard good and bad stuff about and try them out.

Most fantasy writers would say they got their first inspiration from reading. So that should still be any writers go-to point. Try to please your inner hipster though. Find obscure books no one has heard of or ones that nobody likes. You learn as much about yourself as a writer from what you like as from what you don’t like.

So there are my obvious and slightly less obvious tips for finding inspiration for your writing. Some writers are “waiters” (those who wait for inspiration) and some are “seekers” (those who seek it out). What camp do you fall into?

When seeking inspiration, what is the least conventional tactic that you’ve tried? How did it work for you? Please share your thoughts below.

You can find Phil’s blog about Japan, writing, pro wrestling, and weird stuff at philipoverby1.blogspot.com.

Philip Overby is a nomadic warrior, indiscriminate troll slayer, undead unicorn enthusiast, former indie wrestler, and lover of all things fantasy. He lives in Yokohama, Japan.

13 Responses to 10 Ways to Find Inspiration for Fantasy Writing

  1. I like these tips. Very informative, thanks. Particularly like the ones about finding interesting stuff in boring situations, and the “people-watching”! I definitely fall into the “seeker” category, I always think doing something is better than waiting for it to fall on you.

  2. I find a combination of music, going out into places I haven’t been before (especially places surrounded by nature such as forests or lakes) and browsing the Internet for pictures works best.
    Fluctuating between a saturation and deprivation of information. I will do a lot of inspirational research, then go out to a café (ideally one I haven’t been at before or where I can be mostly by myself) and let all the information sink in and sort itself out. All this, with a bit of good, old healthy “it will sort itself out” has worked for me so far.
    It gets a little more complicated as each story I write has a distinct theme different from the rest. But after about 4 manuscripts a pattern of inspiration starts to filter through.

  3. I have always looked to our animal friends for inspiration. I will sometimes go to the zoo and sit for hours watching and listening to them. For some reason, getting up close is even better so bring along some binoculars.

  4. Great ideas on ways to get inspired. I like number 5, sit in an empty room with no computer or paper… however, I would need to have a paper and pen with me. As I get ideas, I always need to write them down immediately, or they vanish again.

  5. I like the idea of being physically outside your comfort zone. My thoughts always run wild whenever I accompany my wife or daughters into their female fashion stores…

  6. I actually like to tap into children’s, or the younger generation’s imagination for more ideas.If I’m lucky, they give me the weirdest, but the most fascinating thoughts that I have been subconsciously looking for!

  7. I, too am a people watcher.  Not in a creepy way or anything, but I like to keep it real.  I base characters and secondary characters… heck, even background characters off people I pass in my day.  Sometimes, a whole story or scene can bloom from meeting one person and wanting to write their story.

  8. Great article, Philip! I especially love your points about visuals. I’ve noticed overall that the more visual stimuli I pour into my brain, the less trouble I have coming up with ideas. I used to compose only with words, and spend time researching only via scholarly articles, etc. Now I include a lot of image searches (have tons of folders of “inspiration images”) and also use the daily art featured at artistaday.com and dailyartfixx.com as writing prompts. Plus, crossing genres (to write a comic book script, for example, and working with the artist on page layouts) also refuels my creative well so I can get back into fiction and either come up with ideas or solve plot problems, etc.

  9. I keep a journal as if I were each major character in my story. While I write, I “role play” them, often writing about the same event from 4 different perspectives. I have some of my best plot and character breakthroughs while free writing “in character.”

  10. I’m currently debating #4. I like to use songs as a basis for characters, and Adema’s song “Immortal” fits one of my antagonists pretty well, but it’s just such a dumb song!

  11. Reading about History is also a great one. I guess in practice it’s a combination of 9 and 10 on your list but seeing the world as it once was (often times closer to the setting of your fantasy story than the present) and how people reacted to major events is a great way to get creative juices flowing.

  12. Strangely enough, I find that mowing the lawn works wonders. The connection with nature – combined with the repetitive nature of the task and the machinery – gets my creative juices flowing. I’ve had some of my best ideas while doing yard work.

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