Creating A Fantasy World

Absolute Blank

By Patsy Sheehan

When writing fantasy or science fiction, the writer has the opportunity to create an alternate world. It could be on earth, but in a mythological time, or hidden in another dimension. It could be on another planet. Or it could be a place of the imagination, like a fairyland.

Whenever the writer leaves familiar settings, she must create a three-dimensional geography for her characters to occupy. She must provide them with a civilization and culture. She must invent plausible characters, and other creatures to inhabit that world. No matter how fantastic a world the writer creates, the reader must feel comfortable jumping into it.

Although many writers like to let their fantasy worlds evolve, this can lead to rewrites if the narrative takes an unexpected turn. A well-planned fantasy world gives the writer a framework to work within and allows her to concentrate on writing.

To illustrate this, if the writer is doing an alternate-earth world, she should ask herself what the natural surface will be like. Will it be desert, forest or prairie? Are there oceans, lakes, and rivers and where will she place them? Will there be mountains or tableland? Now is a good time for her to start roughing out a map. This may seem like too much work at first. Many of these details might never end up in the story. However, these background details will help her write the story.

Background Image: Victoria Nevland/Flickr (CC-by-nc)


Geography influences the weather and the seasons. For instance, forests are rainy and deserts are dry. Cold regions are close to the poles and tropical regions are close to the equator. This seems obvious. However, some writers make terrible mistakes in this regard, like placing an arctic region on the equator of a planet.

“Yes, but this is fantasy,” the writer says.

True, but remember you want to make the reader feel comfortable in this world. A discerning reader will question apparent impossibilities, so the writer must have a plausible explanation. The arctic region could be on the equator of a planet tipped on its side with a horizontal rather than vertical axis. The reader must accept this situation as a fact. He won’t be comfortable if his logic is challenged.

When adding geographical features, the writer needs to keep the reader in that acceptance mode. Children can embrace a stream flowing with chocolate. The adult reader prefers that the white knight cross a stream consisting of water on his way to rescue the fair damsel from the dragon.

In science fiction about a distant planet, the stream could consist of some other chemical but it would have to be a liquid form of a chemical, like liquid hydrogen, to be consistent with the concept of a river. Help the reader accept this world by keeping it scientific, even if it is pseudo-science.

When the writer is satisfied with the natural features of her world, she is ready to create the artificial structures of a civilization.


The characters live and work in the farms, villages and cities the inhabitants have built. The writer needs to decide what level of civilization this society has achieved. Are they using fire or electricity? Have they harnessed some another form of energy?

When writing futuristic fantasy or science fiction, the writer can invent all kinds of technological and scientific advances as long as they seem plausible in her setting. Some level of scientific knowledge helps to explain those things that don’t seem real. If the writer doesn’t have enough scientific knowledge and is reluctant to do the research, it would be best to avoid this genre. A writer in this genre would need to have a plausible, scientific-sounding explanation for questions like: “How do the characters walk around a spaceship?”

The architecture of the buildings and layout of the farms, villages, or cities need visual explanations. What building materials are used? What are the roads like and what kind of transportation do the inhabitants use? Do they have parks or gardens? In addition, at what artistic level are they? Remember that civilizations that didn’t have electricity, running water and advanced medicine have produced some of the greatest works of art, architecture and engineering.


Next, the writer needs to create the culture of the inhabitants. Who is in charge? Do they have a king or are they democratic? Are their leaders elected, appointed or born into the job? Do they have a class-tiered society of rich, middle-class and poor? Are they egalitarian? Are they matriarchal or patriarchal? What is their religion and what are their spiritual beliefs? What is their economy based on? Are they peaceful or warlike? How do they heal themselves? Do they have writing or do they pass their stories and traditions down orally? What is their music like? What do they eat? What do they wear and what ornamentation do they use?

The deeper and more varied the details of the culture are, the richer and more nuanced the writing will be. Once the writer is satisfied with the culture, she is ready to create the physical appearance of the inhabitants of her world.


What do the characters look like? Are they human, humanoid, or intelligent beings of other species? The writer needs to take care when peppering her world with other species that they remain credible. For instance, if she writes a story that takes place in Africa, she needs to keep the species African. If she throws American buffalo into the Congo, she needs to explain how they got there.

Likewise, she shouldn’t put real Earth species on a fantasy planet unless they were transported there from Earth. She may have similar species, yet they must be a species unique to that planet. Creatures from Greek mythology, like griffins, would be inappropriate in Mayan mythology, unless the author explained their presence.

The writer needs to keep her characters within the context of her fantasy world. When J. R. R. Tolkien created Middle Earth in The Hobbit and his later works, his characters were rooted in northern European mythology. The same can be said about the wealth of literature surrounding the Arthurian legends. When Ray Bradbury wrote The Martian Chronicles, he created Martians who could inhabit what was known of the planet at that time. Frank Herbert’s Dune characters and society are an alternate earth-like society with very human denizens and institutions.


Sometimes, the writer may want to place her fantasy squarely in the middle of a real time and place on earth. When writing fantasy in a historical context, the writer needs to be prepared to do plenty of research. If the writer doesn’t like history and doing research, then she shouldn’t write in this cross genre. Without the historical background references, the writing becomes flat and boring or even nonsensical.

If she has a delicious vampire story, and she wants to place it in a historical era, she needs to get her facts straight. She must decide when and where her story will take place and find out everything she can about that period, which means researching the history and geography, literature, art and folk customs. After she has gleaned as much information as possible, then she is free to invent details to fill in the gaps in information.

Like all guidelines, don’t be afraid to break these. Unlike historical fiction, fantasy fiction is flexible. Some writers have placed castles in valleys, which in real life would make them vulnerable to attack. Yet, the reader accepted the situation because the writer explained why the story needed that castle to be in a valley.

To summarize, in order to make a fantasy world work, it has to seem possible and credible, while remaining fantastic.

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