Creating a fantasy setting can be both a fun and rewarding task. This post will outline the process in four easy steps: create logline, identify the clichés, use the chopping block and finally make it personal.
My world – sometimes called the Mudworld – is a place it rains a lot, and the main characters do not get paid very well. If summarized in a sentence, it can be summarized something like this:
“A dark medieval world with hordes of orcs, evil cults, and feuding noble houses locked in centuries-old struggles.”
A tough sell, perhaps, so let is a be a word of warning: this is where you end up without a strong hook at the start. On the other hand, people keep saying write what you love, so the jury is still out. Using my own willy-nilly design process, I will set up a better method for creating a fantasy setting of your own.
Now comes the fun part: try to write a summary of your world in 25 words or less. A logline is a one-sentence summary of your story, including an emotional hook. Authors Ingermanson and Economy of the Writing Fiction for Dummies calls this one-sentence synopsis a storyline. A related term is an elevator pitch.
These varying definitions attempt to do the same thing: to put whatever you are trying to do with your story into a sharp focus. The same applies to a summary of your setting.
A great hook will save you lots of time as you create your fantasy setting. The focus may even improve it, and especially if you want to sell the idea to others. It is great if you can talk about your world for hours, but as a start, it is even better if you can condense it into 25 words.
If you can’t do it, this is an excellent time to rethink what kind of world you want to create.
Let’s try this:
- A mythic version of England where magic is fading, the elves are leaving, and only the courage of a commoner can stop the dark lord.
- Earth’s only wizard private investigator lives in Chicago, where his sense of justice and authority issues get him into increasing troubles.
- A dystopian noir version of New York where a billionaire playboy is crime-fighting caped crusader at night.
- A dystopian noir version of the world where a vampires, werewolves, and mages fight for power while wrestling with their destructive natures.
- Hidden from the mundane people are wizards trained at secret schools, while a dark lord prepares for his return.
An alternative hook is a mash-up of two or more elements, like known pop-culture references or real-life persons, locations or phenomena. Let’s try this as well:
- Indiana Jones meets Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon and Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings.
- Star Wars meets L.A. Confidential and James Joyce’s Ulysses.
- A soccer mom vampire struggles with everyday life in suburbia.
- Star Wars with western aesthetics and American civil war themes.
I assume some of these sounded familiar.
The logline is your compass in all the possibilities of world building. Revisit the logline later to make sure you are on course. Use the logline as a test whenever you get an idea for the world. A good idea strengthens the theme as described in the logline, while a bad idea does not.
A trope is an often-used theme or device in a story. Everyone has their idea of what fantasy is. What is fantasy stories or fantasy worlds for you? What assumptions or prejudices do you bring with you? These probably come from the books, movies or games that brought you to the genre in the first place.
A kid growing up in the 70’s may think of Marvel’s Conan comics, while a kid from the 90’s would probably think of Harry Potter. Before anyone asks, I have no idea what kids read today. Sarah J. Maas?
Tropes can be problematic as they often are clichés, and elements one person accepts without question (or even require) is considered an abhorrent cliché by others.
Consider what kind of assumptions you bring into your world building process. What defines a fantasy world for you?
The Chopping Block
When you know what kind of world you want to build, and you know your starting point, you can probably quickly pin down a list of things that do not fit. What do you want to keep and what needs to go?
The Dungeons and Dragons tradition of fantasy comes with its own set of assumptions. You have all kinds of settings, monsters, and treasures. You can do grubby dungeon crawls, visit coastal backwater villages infested with fish people, float around on the ethereal plane and even burst the gate to the Upside Down open and take on the Demogorgon. Sometimes as part of the same story.
Including everything may not be in your world’s best interest. Harry Potter did not tout a BFG9000 and Gandalf did not ride around in a giant clockwork chicken. Han Solo did not steal the One Ring, and the latest Bond girl is not Smurfette.
These world building choices that might work in your story, but it needs to a conscious decision. A certain wizard did ride around on an undead t-rex if I remember correctly, and that did work.
The canvas can be too big, and you have to make cuts to highlight whatever you want to focus. You can add definition by removing everything unnecessary.
Example: Orcs by Any Other Name
For long I toyed with the idea of the orcs being a cursed race, always destined to fall under the spell of a new master.
Eventually, I decided some of the orcs was confused with hobgoblins, so there were some regional differences – say, the orcs live in the Northlands, while there are more hobgoblins in the Southern Deserts.
Recently I made a second distinction by using the confusion regarding their skin tone to my advantage. The healthier green-skinned orc is the original race, while dark power corrupts the grey-skinned ones.
So I can have the best of two worlds so to speak while introducing a tiny bit of story into the mix.
Make it Personal
“Polka never dies.”
– Jim Butcher
The final stage of creating a fantasy setting is making it personal. You have so far produced a pastiche, a parody or imitation. The two former are perfectly acceptable in my opinion – if that is what you want to do – the later is not so cool.
This final stage, making it personal, is where you claim your world as your own as a unique creation.
So what do you care about? What gets you excited? A story is personal, and you have to care about if for it to be even remotely interesting for others. So don’t worry about what others might think.
Make sure you include stuff you care about, even if that means using clichés. If you don’t care about your world, no one else will. Dark lords, boy wizards, feminism, roguish archeologists, politics, drunk garden gnomes, vampire romance, werewolf bureaucrats, space elves. The list goes on.
Some folks will accuse you of having an agenda. That is ok. That is because they have an agenda of their own, although they may be unwilling to admit it. Pay it no mind and include the stuff you love.
Rinse and Repeat
You have an idea of what your world is supposed to be after following these steps. You have a logline, a list of tropes to include, and perhaps a full outline and a map.
So, how does your setting outline look? Not happy? Rinse and repeat until you get it right.
Defining and rethinking world concepts early in the process will save you lots of wasted work later. To build this world, you need consistency, careful notes (or a better memory than I have) and you need to respect the logic of your creation.
Your world will gain a life of its own in time and surprise you if you are persistent and consistent.
- Your First Dungeons and Dragons Game
- World Building For Roleplaying Games
- Creating Fantasy Names and Languages
- Creating Fantasy Maps
- Fantasy Races For Your Roleplaying Game
The Reading List
The following includes affiliate links.
Well, yes. Exploring fantasy settings. Where do you even begin?
The Tolkien Companion (David Day 1993) has been my reference for all things Middle-Earth, including races, over the years. It’s decent if you can find it. A Dictionary of Tolkien, and its companion books, by David Day appears to be more recent editions of the older book.
Gary Gygax, the co-creator of Dungeons and Dragons, included an appendix in the first Dungeon Master’s Guide (1977) with recommended reading – the infamous Appendix N – which of course predates my 80’s diet of high fantasy.
Howard, Leiber, and Lovecraft alone are a solid basis for a fantasy world. You do not need Tolkien unless you want to include him. In short, if you’re going to dig into the classics, the Appendix N may be an excellent place to start.
Recently I had a craving for old-fashioned 80’s high fantasy. The genre rarely pops up my kindle recommendations list, as everything is supposed to be so darned dark these days. I actually wanted to read something for of that style, but could not find anything exciting and actually ended up rereading Raymond E. Feist’s The Magician.
Major trends in fantasy fiction the last 30 years has been dark and gritty at one end and everything magical and possibly urban at the other end of the spectrum. Perhaps with boy wizards who lived. In the dark end is the “grimdark” style novels, including George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels and later the HBO tv-series.
Martin’s series starts with the phenomenon A Game of Thrones. Less known is The World of Ice and Fire (2014) by George R.R. Martin, Elio M. Garcia and Linda Antonsson, which is both world history and a guidebook to Westeros.
The world history of Westeros begins in ancient times and ending with the coronation of King Robert. The guidebooks cover the Seven Kingdoms in detail and the Lands Beyond the Sunset Kingdoms at the end.
Joe Abercrombie’s glorious novels also come to mind. Abercrombie’s Best Served Cold, the stand-alone fourth book is a well written, violent, hilarious book about revenge, and highly recommended for an adult audience. Indeed, “back to the mud” is an in-world proverb in Abercrombie’s world. I loved that.
For classic Conan comics, look for the Savage Sword of Conan reprints from Dark Horse Comics. The 1970s and 1980s books are pure gold, but sadly these editions become increasingly hard to find.
Dark Horse: Warcraft and Dragon Age books
It turns out Dark Horse Comics knows a thing or two about producing gorgeous coffee table books about fantasy worlds.
Dark Horse has published the World of Warcraft Chronicles, a series of illustrated history books from the setting. The writers include Blizzard writer and developer Chris Metzen.
Volume One (2016) covers the ancient history, starting with the cosmology and ending 45 years before the Dark Portal. Volume Two (2017) has two distinct parts: The Doom of Draenor and the Horde and the Alliance. The books bring up to speed the events in the 2016 movie and Warcraft: Orcs and Humans (1994).
Dark Horse has given the Dragon Age franchise a perhaps even more lavish treatment. I’ve come to understand the books are a bi-product of Bioware’s need for a proper setting bible and read more like an encyclopedia when compared to the Warcraft books. This is not a bad thing, bust different. The writers included Bioware Writers, including lead writers Patrick Weekes and David Gaider.
Dragon Age: The World of Thedas (2013) cover the topics races, nations, magic, religion, the fade the blight and a bestiary. The Art of Dragon Age: Inquisition (2014) is, as the title says, a collection of concept art from the third game in the series. Dragon Age: The World of Thedas Volume 2 (2015) cover topics like legends of Thedas and the three protagonists up the point of release. All three are worth checking out.