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Apr 26, 2021

Building a Realistic Fantasy World

By: Gemma Martiskainen

Creating a plausible world is a challenge unique to fantasy. In other genres of fiction, you work within the parameters of Earth, and the reader will immediately know how the society runs. The setting is familiar to them, so you don't need to spend much time explaining the characters' surroundings. But when you build your own world, you must slow down. For the reader to empathize with the characters, they must understand the world the characters live in. As the writer, you should try to make the world look like it could really exist.

For political events, I like to use the "cause and effect" rule. Upheaval does not happen in a vacuum. As in the real world, everything that happens in your fantasy world should have a clear cause or multiple roots coming together to make it happen. A disturbance cannot appear to have happened just to advance the plot. If two neighbouring kingdoms are at war, why? What does each side hope to gain from fighting? It could be something as simple as protecting their territory, but there does need to be a reason. Political events without a clear cause seem purposeless and make the person making the decisions look petty. 

Conversely, every event should have consequences for the rest of the world.  In a war, most civilians will likely flee the area. How will other regions accept these refugees? Is there enough food for them? Ask yourself these types of questions when you are forming the history and current political climate of your world. 

Have your characters wear clothes that are appropriate to the climate they live in. Please don’t overheat your characters, give them hypothermia, or dress them in water-absorbing fabrics if they live in a rainforest. Research real-world places to see what the weather is like there, and what clothes people traditionally wore. 

Your characters’ clothes should be made with the materials they have available. Think about what plants and animals are native to that region. If, for example, everyone is wearing bear furs, but there are no bears in their country, this will pull the reader out of the story and make them wonder where the bear furs came from. The only exception to this is if the materials were imported from another place. In that case, you should clearly state, “The bear furs were from Farawayland.”

Where societies build their settlements depends on the geography of your world. People want to live where it is easiest to survive. Because human beings need water to stay alive, most towns and cities are near a body of water. If you’re not writing about humans, forget I said that! Oceans, lakes and rivers can also be a highway for ships. Place your settlements along a coastline to facilitate travel between them. 

A town might develop due to nearby resources, such as metal deposits, wood, plentiful fish, or magic crystals. Remember that this is fantasy − you can make up a resource that doesn’t exist on Earth. Another reason to settle somewhere is that it is especially good for growing crops. People living in fertile areas tend to be wealthier and healthier than people who need to buy food from other places. The same principle applies to other natural resources. If a country monopolizes an essential product, it will be wealthy. 

If your characters are living in a very barren, infertile place, why? Explain why anyone would live there. Maybe they were exiled from society, or they want to isolate themselves. 

With every part of your world, ask yourself why things are the way they are. If you can’t answer that question, think about it. Come up with a justification for anything illogical. Make sure to explain it clearly on the page. Then the reader will see your world as a real, fully developed place.


About the author
Gemma started writing in an old notebook at the age of thirteen, and hasn’t stopped since. She is working on her second fantasy novel with the hope of being published someday. She also loves to write poetry. Good LGBTQ representation is something she wants to see more of, so she puts it in her own stories. When Gemma isn’t writing, she can be found reading, taking long walks through muddy fields, making Youtube videos, or singing along badly to her favourite music. Her friends suffer through her long rants about dragons and magic systems, and sometimes even join in. Her cat tries to help her write by walking across the keyboard. Gemma resides in British Columbia, Canada. You can find her on Youtube at: