How to Create the Fantasy World

This page is based on a workshop I gave on building the fantasy landscape. I’d like to discuss briefly several things;

  • What is it that makes the fantasy world?
  • Some do’s and don’ts.
  • The fantasy landscape and natural world
  • Races, societies, and creatures
  • Religions and Magics
  • Some writing techniques and considerations for the fantasy author

Today’s fantasy market is expanding at great rate, and rather than have me repeat what I think the reasons for this are, read my paper on creating the modern romance epic.

Basically, this page is not so much a ‘how to’, but is merely intended to make you think about the kind of world you want to create.

What are some of the ingredients of a fantasy novel and world?

Science fiction can be set in this world, but fantasy is usually set in a different world, or in a pre-modern world. Why?

  • Neither magic nor adventuring quests can be believably set in a modern, logical and scientific world (while science fiction can). We cannot believe in fantasy or magic in our scientific world — we’re not allowed to, therefore to be believable (for the reader to be able to suspend disbelief) we must set a fantasy novel in a new world (or in our past, pre-scientific world). Again, I discusss this in more detail in creating the modern romance epic.

The Fantasy World: must be pre-scientific and pre-technological. a world where magic can be believable … but how different does the fantasy author dare to be?

  • Basically, not very different at all. The fantasy world must be our world only slightly altered, and the differences must be so small as to be hardly discernible : Why?
    – readers must be able to easily suspend disbelief, and that is easier in a virtual clone of our world
    – readers yearn for the magical and the enchanted in our world; it is easier to satisfy that yearning if the fantasy world is as close as possible to our world. Readers want to be able to relate to the fantasy world, they want to be able to place themselves within it, thus is must be as much like ours as possible (that way that can almost believe that our world might be like the fantasy world).
    – Readers don’t want the gap to be very wide at all, they want to be able to step across the instant they take up the book. The most successful fantasy books are those where the fantasy world is our world in all but name. For example:
    – Tad Williams, Memory, Sorrow and Thorn
      – Raymond Feist Riftwar Saga
    Both of these authors also used medieval history and legends as the base for their plots (always a good ploy!).

Before I get down to the elements of the Fantasy World I’d just like to discuss what’s in and what’s out — what has been overdone and what can still be used and developed.

You must be careful in fantasy writing not to:

  • be racist (the bad guys are very, very bad, and the good guys are wonderful and charming). It’s often been pointed out that fantasy books can foster racism, simply because of the stark contrast between the good races and the bad races, where the bad races are always unredeemable.
  • be paternalistic and sexist, esp with treatment of female characters. Modern publishers are desperate for books with strong female characters, as are the public. Don’t just have your female characters be gorgeous princesses on the side who weep and wail and wait for the golden hero to save them. Try to avoid sexist constructs in the fantasy novel — they’re too easy to fall into simply because of the ‘medieval’ non-tech world you throw them into. It is a fine line to tread and you must be careful.
  • be Tolkien-ish. Tolkien is out (for new authors): dragons are out, as are elves, fairies, gnomes, goblins etc. Avoid everything that has been overused before (and often used very badly). Too many authors try to be like Tolkien, but the market, as publishers, basically don’t want another Tolkien-imitation. I think we must all be heartily sick of those blurbs on the back of books that warble: The next Tolkien!
  • gratuitous violence is out, unless it fits in with a character
  • Something else to be careful of is unthinking use of the fantasy formula: Dark evil lord from snow-bound north against golden hero from sunny south, evil wizards, etc. Use it, but be original with it.

So what’s in?

  • grit is in, realism is in, the blurring of lines between good and evil is in, strong female characters are in, flawed heroes are in, sympathetic bad guys are in.
Creating the fantasy world

The Landscape. The landscape is vital as it dictates social structure and religion. This section also addresses how large (or detailed) the landscape should be for the size of the project (a trilogy demands a much larger landscape than a stand alone volume or a short story).

Where do you start? Draw a map! It is invariably the first thing I do when creating an entirely new world (or even when I place a tale within our world). If you can visualise your world, everything becomes so much easier.

How vast should your world, or map, be? H ow large and varied your landscape needs to be depends on how large and varied your plot will be:

  • the more features, the more creatures, races, societies, religions you will be able to have.
  • on the other hand, there is no point for either yourself or your reader if you have a very complex landscape for a minimalist plot (e.g my stand alone book Threshold) with little or no journeying about, few places mentioned, and where the action mainly stays in one spot or in one plot.

The natural world: together with the landscape, the seasons (weather, climate) will profoundly affect the peoples and story the author creates. Will your world have two moons, or just one? Will there be four months or twelve? What are the names of the months? Will you have northern hemisphere seasons, or southern? While all of this can be fun, if you’re not going to have a plot that actively uses the landscape (i.e. have characters out and about) then you may not need to much of this.

On the other hand … seasons and the natural world affect the type of society as well the type of religion your world will have.; more of this below.

Races, Societies and Creatures: some things to think about.

The creatures: how extensive (and how varied) a bestiary should you have? The animal (as vegetable life, for that matter) must suit the landscape.

Dragons might be out, but you can do a great deal with, for instance, creatures from classica mythl or medieval bestiary.

The races: how many different races, and just how different? There’s little point in having a huge variety of races if neither landscape nor plot will support them. The tension within the book can come just as much from a clash between individuals or groups within the same society or race as much as between races. Be careful, as I mentioned above, not to get too carried away with race versus race in sheer black and white terms.

The society: Typically a pre-modern society must be primarily agricultural, non-educated, relatively poor (cashless economy) with a social and a religious aristocracy who control all power (economic, political, social and cultural) within the society. There must be a significant population o ‘have-nots’, for it is from the have-nots that the hero (or the hero’s motivation) will emerge.

The nitty-gritty of life: how do people live in a pre-scientific world? How do they eat, work and construct their homes? How long does it take them to travel by foot, horse or barge? How far can a laden horse go in one day, anyway? Health, diet, utensils and so forth must always reflect the non-technological and scientific world in which that characters live.

Culture, particularly myths: Every culture and society is deeply affected by their myths, so the fantasy author must develop a rich mythological background for their world (and each race will have a different background) without overburdening their readers with boring and unnecessary details.

Religion, Magic and Language: The religion is as important as the social structures, perhaps more so. Pre-modern and pre-scientific worlds are supernatural worlds, that is, the supernatural is used to explain the world and to get things done in the same way that science explains and achieves for us. Religion is affected by many things: the landscape, the variety of races populating the worlds, as their needs and lifestyles (the kind of religion a desert-based and trading people would vary significantly from that of a forest-dwelling, hunter and gatherer race), and the ‘negatives’ of the particular world (those things which are perceived as evil or as uncontrollable).

You must also think about the accoutrements of religion – the festivals, mysteries, and services rendered etc. – as well as what type of priesthood you have for your religion, the hierarchy of the priesthood, and how much power within the society the priesthood has. Does this priestly power generate conflict? Or does it impart such comfort that the society could not function effectively without it?

The system of magic. Fantasy worlds are magical worlds, and generally have systems of magic that, as with the supernatural, are used as a means of getting things done. ‘Magic’ is as structured as religion, and it must reflect the landscape, society and religion within which it exists. What are you going to call your magicians? How is the magic accomplished? What is its power source? Are your magicians part of the priesthood, or separate from it (and perhaps even in conflict with the priesthood)?

Language. What words do people use? How do people count? Or swear? For example, most profanities are based around religious concepts, so the language (or the words the characters use) must reflect the world that has been created for them. As as example, you can’t have characters in a different world going around swearing “by Christ” or “By the Devil!” , and you must even think about such common (and, we think, free of religious connotation) words such as bloody – which is merely a corruption of “By the Lady Mary!” (The Virgin Mary). The religion and gods you create will dictate your profanities.

The fantasy formula: how to use it to your best advantage

Depicting the conflict between good and evil: this is one of the fantasy favourites that is hard to get away from, and, to be perfectly honest, I don’t see why there’s any need to. But, again as I’ve said above, be careful not to make this too black and white, be ‘grey’ in your depiction of who is good and who bad … and play about a bit with your depiction of ‘evil’. It’s one of the things that I love to play with, and it is something that I like to make my reader think about – what is good, and what evil? One of the things I do in books is to turn the concept of ‘evil’ on its head; after all, perception of evil is only what your culture teaches you is evil … what if evil is the best way out? The best way forward?

Using the ‘self-discovery’ concept (the lead characters are not who they first believe themselves to be) . This is also one of things that occurs a great deal in fantasy – and again I don’t think there’s any need to try and escape it. After all, the character who knows exactly who he or she is, is the most boring character in the book. One of the reasons why this ‘fantasy trope’ is so popular is because we all long to believe there’s something ‘other’ within ourselves, and as readers we go on our own journey of self-discovery and growth as we read about the character’s self discovery (the physical quest, the journey, should only be the physical means by which the characters confront the ‘other’ within themselves, and discover their true selves).

Undoubtedly the typical fantasy novel (especially if it is part of a series) has masses of characters. How many should you have? Enough to keep the major plot, as well several subplots (if you need them) going for however many books it takes to get the story told. How many main characters? It’s up to you, but for a trilogy I generally have between 6 to 8, and anywhere between 25-40 minor characters (not counting one-liner bit parts!).

Naming your characters, and developing a coherent naming system, can often be difficult (it’s not something I achieved with all that much success in the early Tencendor books!). Whenever I start a new world now, I go to one reference book for the culture that I’m basing my world on (for instance, one of my favourites is The Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible) and take the names from that, or at least develop them from that.

If you have a number of characters in order, especially if they’re involved in a number of plots, can be really difficult. Every writer develops their own methods … but I often have massive wall charts showing me where various characters are in time and space and plots. Messy, but it works.

How to use (and curb!) your imagination. Imagination is better used with restraint than with abandon. Fantasy relies very much in being able to maintain your reader’s suspension of disbelief. If you get too carried away then you risk your reader suddenly deciding the entire story is utterly unbelievable and putting the book down in disgust. Again, I believe the ‘new’ fantasy world must be as much like ours as possible – that keeps the reader’s suspension of disbelief healthy – but that’s only a personal view.

How to use your reader’s imagination. Read the page I have on this.

How to show and not tell. This is part of learning how to make the reader work, and is also a somewhat difficult task. It is too easy for an author to patronise the reader by telling them what is going on, or what a character is like, rather than showing them. Actions are more important than words. If one of your characters is a bigoted, hot-tempered idiot, then don’t patronise the reader by writing “John walked in. He was a bigoted, hot-tempered idiot.” Instead, show the reader why kind of guy John is by using his behaviour to make the reader realise the guy’s not very likeable.

How to present background information

Most novels begin ‘part-way’ through a story … what I mean by that is that there is almost always some background information that the reader must be informed of (some past incident or history that affects the current story, some events in a character’s past that does the same). But how to do this? Again, I don’t think there’s any need to spell it all out in one or two scenes (young and naive character meets up with older and more worldly character who spend 76 pages telling him exactly why King Fred is at war with Wizard Emily). That is also patronising the reader. We can learn gradually as the story unfolds of the long and torrid history of the relationship between King Fred and Wizard Emily.

I hope this has given you some ideas, as food for thought, in your own quest to construct the fantasy world!

©2000 Sara Douglass Enterprises

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