How to Write Contemporary Fantasy Novels: Following in the Footsteps of Author J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Series

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Daniel Harvell, author of The Survivors, provides writing tips for aspiring contemporary fantasy authors based on key writing elements from the successful Harry Potter book series.

The Survivors | Contemporary Fantasy | Paranormal | Superheroes

The Survivors by Daniel Harvell

Ask the average reader to define contemporary fantasy, and the answers will likely be all over the map.

The word “fantasy” may bring to mind works of literature like Lord of the Rings, which is the very model of a fantasy novel. Books like this that are set in a pure fantasy genre, however, take place in imagined worlds not the putative real world.

One of the most popular set of novels involving fantastical creatures in a real world environment is the Twilight series. Because Twilight and its sequels are primarily romance-driven, they’re more accurately defined as paranormal romance—but it’s also not too far off the mark.

Contemporary fantasy is a close cousin to both of the aforementioned books’ genres, but the differences are significant. As its name suggests, contemporary fantasy has a fantastical narrative and takes place in modern times in a supposed real world setting. The genre may borrow elements from horror, romance, mystery, fantasy, science fiction and many others. A contemporary fantasy book may delve into the emergence of supernatural creatures, the development of mutated humans, the arrival of aliens, the training of a boy wizard at a magical school and many other supernatural situations.

So why is all of this important? When an aspiring author is writing and preparing to market his or her novel, it’s critical that they know their audience. If a writer wants his or her book to make the biggest splash (critically and monetarily), they must appeal to their target market.

Author Daniel Harvell, whose debut contemporary fantasy novel The Survivors released this week to much fanfare, has spent years honing his craft and studying the genre. “The most popular example of contemporary fantasy is the Harry Potter series,” Harvell said. “Given the extraordinary level of success of J. K. Rowling’s books, contemporary fantasy novelists can learn a lot from the series’ style and structure. Duplicating Rowling’s successes may not be realistic, but achieving a superior work of contemporary fantasy fiction is possible for any author.”

Harvell developed the following tips for writing contemporary fantasy novels based on his study and appreciation of the Harry Potter series:

1.    Tragic beginnings. The titular character of the Harry Potter books has a childhood filled with tragedy. Harry was orphaned at a very young age and forced to live in an undesirable setting where he was unloved and regularly bullied. Despite his heartbreaking start to life, Harry Potter is loyal, honest, kind and heroic. The reader empathizes with Harry for all that he has endured. The reader pulls for Harry because he has risen above his upbringing to be the type of person anyone would want as a friend. By introducing a character at such a low point, an author provides an opportunity for the reader to experience the character’s desires, dedication and trials that eventually lead to triumphs. By sharing these struggles, the reader will forge a powerful emotional bond with the character.

2.    Magic from within. Magic is a powerful force in the world of Harry Potter, but it requires education, practice and effort. While it is an intrinsic energy residing within wizards, it is like any skill that must be honed. The setting for much of the novels, in fact, is Hogwarts—a school for learning magic. Whether a writer’s contemporary fantasy novel deals with wizards or vampires or mutants, the lesson is still the same: readers (especially young readers) better connect with characters whose power must be nurtured from within. Just like readers who have to practice to play better tennis or study to make higher Algebra grades, so too should the characters have to struggle for growth with their fantastical abilities.

3.    Supernatural structure. In the world of Harry Potter, wizards can perform all sorts of spells like Apparition (a magical form of teleportation), though the learning process is difficult and requires being issued a license. There are also consequences for conducting the spell incorrectly or poorly, and certain areas are off limits for spell-performance. The guidelines for Apparition sound a lot like those for driving a car in the real world. Rules are a funny thing. People tend to complain about them a lot; but what kind of world would it be without them? Pure chaos. The same applies to books with unfamiliar settings and supernatural creatures—without rules to guide contemporary fantasy novels, readers would find these stories to be a complete mess. Reader buy-in is much easier when the governing rules and structure of a fantastical world are apparent.

4.    Real characters in an unreal world. The heart of J. K. Rowling’s books is the relationship between Harry and his two best friends, Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley. They might battle Lord Voldemort, Bellatrix Lestrange and the Death Eaters, but readers love the trio because they encounter real-life happenings too. Harry and company faced school deadlines, sports team tryouts, first dates, unrequited love, the death of family members and many other relatable situations. Rowling showed us how differently these three characters handled their triumphs and disappointments, and it all felt very real—even when the circumstances didn’t.

5.    Good versus evil. There is no doubt that Harry Potter is a force of good. As readers watch him grow throughout the seven novels, they seem him make mistakes and occasionally perform selfish acts. But ultimately those are minor (and realistic) bumps along the road to the forging a hero. Fans of fantasy (contemporary or not) clamor for champions who do the right thing simply because it’s the right thing. While the real world may offer varying degrees of good and evil, readers whole-heartedly want and support true heroes. It doesn’t mean the characters won’t or shouldn’t err in judgment—the writer should be keeping them real, after all—but that they’re on a clear path that rallies readers to their sides.

Daniel Harvell is author of the contemporary fantasy novel The Survivors. For more information about the book, upcoming novels, tips on writing fantasy and more, visit his website at To purchase The Survivors, visit Follow Daniel on Facebook at or Twitter at

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