There are many ways to approach adding plot elements to a story, but the list that inspired me to try my own hand at writing the type of books I love was the one in David Eddings's The Rivan Codex. Eddings wrote the list to be exhaustive in an attempt to deter those not serious about writing from writing in the genre.
Instead, it gave me the well defined road map to story elements that I was looking for. This review of his principles twelve years after the publishing of them in the Codex's introduction is going to focus on how they apply to books of the fantasy genre today, but writers of all genres can benefit from this approach to defining the essential elements of story.
First up is religion. In fantasy, you about have to pick one, it is often the backbone of the story. Eddings himself went pagan, though UL was the father of all the gods, orchestrating much of the ending conflicts between the two destinies that were the heart of the theological arguments in the Belgariad and Mallorean. Tolkien also had paganism as his religion, although he was devoutly Christian. It is interesting to note that C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia were Christian in theology, and one of Tolkien's main problems with the books was how transparent Lewis was in his choice of religion. In modern fantasy, we have Brandon Sanderson, whose Mistborn trilogy is rather monotheistic in theology, the evil power of Ruin set against the world's attempts to bring forth a benevolent God to oppose and supplant him. Robin Hobb's Farseer books contain many theologies centered around ancestor worship at their heart, which is a more pagan way to go about it. This choice is also important in other genres, the underlying religious currents of whatever setting you choose lend an important feel to any story, even if their influence is not as apparent as it is in an entirely created world.
Every story has a plot. The plot of a fantasy story is centered around the proverbial Quest. This is number two on our list of required elements, and a damn important entry at that. However, it leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to specifics. Exactly what is our quest about? Well, that leads us to number three on the list, the magical thingamagig. A stone, a sword, a ring, a crown, a pink elephant, all that matters is that it is something imbued with magic power and desired by all who know of it, even the god(s). Eddings went for the magical stone with the Orb of Aldur, Tolkien has the One Ring, Sanderson's characters are obsessed with a horde of the magical substance atium, and Hobb's are unique in that the magic thingamagig is dragons themselves. All stories have quests, even outside of the fantasy genre. In sci-fi, you may still be looking for a “magic” object, though there is a plausible explanation for its extraordinary properties. Mysteries and crime dramas revolve around finding a perpetrator, and while their thingamagig is a person or persons, the plot to get to them can be paralleled with the classic fantasy quest.
Every plot needs a protagonist to center around, and in fantasy we call this character the Hero. There are occasional Heroine's – Elizabeth Haydon's Rhapsody is a good example of a fantasy heroine, even if she gets a bit too wrapped up in romance at times. Now, we could just call our Hero a protagonist, but in fantasy, as in any story, there is often more than one big personality running the show. The Hero is the one who gets the Quest, however. All others are there to help him along.
Eddings describes the types of Heros in terms of the Knights of the Roundtable, but I prefer to look at them in a more general way. Heros come in four essential flavors. Innocent, righteous, champion, and fierce. Innocent is what Eddings went with in his hero, Garion, and you could as easily name it ignorant as innocent in most cases. Tolkien had innocent heroes in the hobbits as well, although I feel one of the most compelling things about the Lord of the Rings is Tolkien's ability to center a story around so many heroes. Frodo, Sam, Aragorn, and Gandalf all take turns as Hero. In fact, the hobbits act as four parts of one Hero, with Pippin ignorant, Frodo with a righteous will, Merry as the most physically adept, and Sam fierce in his loyalty to Frodo and thus, the quest. These four types of main protagonist exist in mainstream fiction as well, Janet Evanovich uses innocent to great comedic effect in the character of Stephanie Plum, and Roland from Stephen King's Dark Tower series is a classic case of a righteous protagonist.
It helps to boil characters down to these general stereotypes at times so we can tweak them to create unique characters. Eddings does a classic job of this with the wizard Belgarath, a scamp and derelict of a sorcerer that breaks the fantasy mold of the wise wizard that is number five on the list of essential fantasy story elements. This is also Janet Evanovich's success with the Stephanie Plum character in her Number novels. The innocent character, surrounded by a cast of all the horrible criminals a bounty hunter comes in contact with, blows every serious scenario where the innocent character is supposed to get screwed into full on comedy. This drives the plot, you keep turning pages, wondering what sort of chaos she is going to run into next due to her absolute inability to perform her job as a bond enforcer properly.
However, neither Stephanie nor Frodo would be anything without their supporting cast, and all the baggage they bring along with them to flesh out the background and plot of a story. Before we cover all of them, maybe it would be best to sit down and see where the characters and situations of our current projects fit into this list of story elements. The religion, quest, object, hero and wizard are pieces of any story, albeit under many different names.