The Magic of Writing a Fantasy Setting

September 22, 2023

Discworld, Narnia, The Forgotten Realms, Hogwarts, Oz, Neverland, Westeros… what is the fantasy genre without its incredible worlds?

Honestly, nothing. At least nothing more than people dressed up in robes and armor killing each other and going on really long walks.

That might be an ogre-sized exaggeration, but it illustrates a very critical point: fantasy settings are an important part of fantasy books.

More than that, they are an incredible part of it. These settings give us a world to get lost in filled with magic, wondrous creatures, epic journeys, and a dragon’s horde worth of lore and history.

I don’t need to sell you on these magical places, though, right? If you’re here, odds are good you’re a fantasy author writing a fantasy book filled with fantasy people in a fantasy world (all that repetition is intentional, I swear). And odds are just as good that you have some favorite settings of your own.

Now I’m going to equip you with the tools to make one of your own for your readers to claim as their favorite.

On this adventure, we’re going to talk about:

  • The basics of fantasy and fantasy settings
  • The key aspects of fantasy worldbuilding
  • Visualizing your fantasy world
  • Some tips and tricks to help you bring magic to life

Grab your weapon, prepare your spells, and let’s set off on our quest.

Understanding Setting and the Fantasy Genre

No matter your genre, a setting serves as the backdrop against which the narrative unfolds. It encompasses the physical environment, the time period, and the cultural context in which the story takes place. 

Setting plays a pivotal role in immersing readers into your story's world, and it is no different in the realm of fantasy literature. However, when it comes to fantasy settings, there is an added layer of enchantment and boundless possibilities that distinguish them from settings in other genres.

Fantasy settings, by their very nature, transcend the confines of reality and transport readers to realms where magic, mythical creatures, and extraordinary phenomena exist. 

In fantasy worlds, your setting becomes a canvas for boundless imagination and the exploration of limitless possibilities. Sounds whimsical, right?

Because it is.

Your setting in your fantasy novel is a playground, and we’re going to be climbing, sliding, and monkey-barring our way all over the place.

What sets fantasy settings apart from other genres is the infusion of magical, supernatural, or mythological elements that cannot be explained within the bounds of our current understanding. These elements add a sense of wonder, mystery, and escapism to the narrative

Whether it's the presence of mythical creatures, arcane spells, or ancient prophecies, fantasy settings push the boundaries of what is considered possible, allowing our readers to venture into uncharted territories of the imagination.

You can create vast continents, sprawling cities, treacherous landscapes, and ethereal realms that captivate readers and lure them into the most incredible recesses of your mind. If you get the setting right, of course.

And beyond its role as a mere backdrop, the setting in your fantasy tale often takes on a character of its own. It becomes an integral part of the narrative, shaping the plot, influencing character development, and evoking emotions. 

The setting can serve as a source of conflict, a catalyst for adventure, or a reflection of the main characters' inner struggles. It sets the stage for epic quests, ancient prophecies, and magical encounters, creating a sense of wonder and enchantment for readers to indulge in.

So if I ever hear you say “it’s just the setting” or something like that, I’m cursing you and your bloodline.

Key Aspects of Fantasy Worldbuilding

There’s a lot that goes into building a brand-new fantasy world. Even if you’re writing low fantasy—or a story taking place in our actual world—you still have a ton of things to develop.

You can truly spend years fine-tuning the minutiae of your made-up world, all the way down to the single-celled organisms and the unique magic they have access to thanks to a teeny-tiny witch a few centuries ago.

And while I don’t suggest you get that specific (unless it’s a key element to your plot), it should serve as a warning about Worldbuilder’s Disease.

This specific malady is most insidious amongst speculative fiction and fantasy writers though, so be wary. It’s when you spend so much time crafting unnecessary elements of your world that you use it as an excuse not to write.

My advice? Lay down the fundamentals of the aspects we’re about to cover that you need for your plot, then let the rest evolve as you write. So let’s figure out what those fundamentals are.

Geography and Environment

The geographical and environmental aspects of a fantasy world lay the foundation for its physical landscape, providing a sense of scale, diversity, and atmosphere. More than that, though, the geography influences how cultures and civilizations develop, just like real life.

Here are some key geographic and environmental elements to keep in mind.

The Larger World and Land Masses

Designing the larger world and its land masses is an essential starting point. Think about the size, shape, and composition of continents, islands, and other geographic features.

Determine the placement of mountains, rivers, forests, deserts, marshlands, farmland, and oceans, as these elements will influence travel, resource distribution, and the overall feel of the world.

Climate and Weather

Consider the climate and weather patterns in your fantasy world. What are the prevailing temperatures, seasons, and weather phenomena? This will affect the flora, fauna, and the daily lives of its inhabitants.

Extreme climates can add depth and challenge to your story, while unique weather events can enhance the atmosphere and create dramatic moments. That said, don’t make every single area contain an extreme weather incident and nothing else, as that will get old quick.

Landscapes and Biomes

Crafting diverse landscapes and biomes is vital to create a visually captivating and ecologically rich world. Include a variety of terrains such as lush forests, towering mountains, sprawling plains, mysterious swamps, or other unique settings.

Each biome can support distinct flora and fauna and provide different natural resources for its inhabitants, affecting the survival and livelihoods of different cultures and species.

Culture and Society

Culture and society breathe life into a fantasy world, shaping the beliefs, values, and interactions of its inhabitants. Without them, you don’t really have a setting the characters can interact with in a deep way.

Check out the following elements within this category:

Societal Structures

What social structures govern different communities within your world? Explore various forms of governance, hierarchies, social classes, and power dynamics.

Is it money that determines status? Elections? Magic? Military might?

Consider how societal structures influence the distribution of wealth, access to resources, and the roles of different groups within the society.

Religion and Belief Systems

Religion and belief systems are essential aspects of culture that provide depth and meaning to your world.

In some worlds, gods and goddesses can even influence the world or provide power to their followers. Do your gods have a tangible effect on your characters?

Create diverse belief systems, gods, and rituals that shape the worldview of your characters. Think about how religion affects daily life, moral codes, and conflicts within the society.

Customs and Traditions

Customs and traditions add richness and authenticity to your world. Do your characters have unique practices, ceremonies, festivals, and rites of passage within their different cultures?

Tip: they should!

These customs can provide insight into societal values, norms, and interpersonal relationships, adding depth and realism to your characters and their interactions.

History and Lore

Every fantasy setting has some sort of history and lore to give it a sense of depth, providing a backstory that shapes the present and influences the future.

Whether you go Tolkien level and write a literal bible, get a little more intense like Eoin Colfer creating his own language (admittedly, this falls under culture, but you get the point), or just a few key events and ideas to get you going, every fantasy story needs this.

Here are the key history and lore elements:

Timeline and Chronology

Construct a timeline that outlines major historical events, eras, and shifts within your fictional world. Always ask yourself why these matters to your current story.

Mapping these events out helps establish a sense of continuity and allows you to trace the origins of conflicts, alliances, and key developments throughout the world's history.

You can use software like Aeon Timeline or World Anvil if you want to go all out (and pay for it) or a corkboard and recipe cards.

Mythology and Legends

What’s more inspiring than myths and legends to inspire your heroes and readers?

Think about mythology and legends that can help form the cultural fabric of your world. These stories can explain the creation of the world, the origins of magical phenomena, or are just the source material for what the bard’s singing in a dingy, middle-of-nowhere tavern.

Mythology adds layers of meaning to the belief systems of your world's inhabitants.

Historical Events

I know we talked about making a timeline, but you probably want to add more details to major historical events, their impact and fallout, and how the world functions because of them.

Identify significant historical events that have shaped your world and its societies, including wars, political upheavals, or the rise and fall of empires. Historical events create a sense of context and inform the current state of affairs, driving conflicts and character motivations.

Magic and Supernatural

Magic and supernatural elements are fundamental to fantasy settings. They add wonder, intrigue, epic fights, incredible moments, and extraordinary possibilities.

But how do we make those real? So glad you asked.

Magic Systems

Create a well-defined magic system that governs the use and limitations of magical abilities within your world. Define the rules, sources, and costs of magic, as well as its impact on society and individuals.

Pro tip: Consistency and logical constraints help maintain believability within the world you've crafted.

Honestly, creating your own magic system is worthy of its own article. So we wrote it for you.

Supernatural Beings

Introduce supernatural beings like mythical creatures, spirits, or deities. Consider their roles, relationships with mortals, and the impact they have on the world.

Seriously, how would our world change if vampires were a real thing and cosmic beings could bend the elements to their will?

These beings can shape the narrative, influence character arcs, and add an element of mystique and awe to your story. And they’re freakin’ cool!

Magical Artifacts

While part of your magic system, magical artifacts have the potential to be individually influential on your setting and characters.

Design unique and powerful magical artifacts that hold significance within your world. These artifacts can possess extraordinary abilities, drive quests, or play crucial roles in shaping the storyline. Consider their origins, histories, and the legends surrounding them.

Dos and Don’ts of Writing a Fantasy Setting

Before I let you go, here are some quick dos and don’ts to really drive home some key aspects of building your fantasy setting.

  1. DO create a unique and immersive world. Let your imagination run wild and create a setting that feels distinct and captivating. Infuse it with rich details, vibrant cultures, and breathtaking landscapes to transport readers to a fantastical realm. Seriously, create something that will knock their socks off.
  2. DON'T rely on clichés. Avoid overusing common fantasy tropes or relying solely on familiar archetypes. The haunted marsh or whimsical fae realm is okay, but what are you adding to make it fresh?
  3. DO establish consistent rules for magic. If your fantasy setting involves magic, ensure that you establish clear rules and limitations for its use. Consistency in how magic operates will enhance believability and prevent plot holes or deus ex machina moments.
  4. DON'T neglect internal consistency. Your fantasy world must follow its own internal logic and maintain consistency throughout the narrative. Seriously. Avoid introducing elements or events that contradict established rules or disrupt the established worldbuilding.
  5. DO incorporate cultural diversity. Embrace diversity in your fantasy world by including various cultures, traditions, and belief systems. This adds depth, realism, and opportunities for compelling conflicts and interactions between different groups.
  6. DON'T overload with unnecessary information. While it's essential to develop a rich world, don’t infodump! Introduce details of your setting gradually and integrate them naturally into the narrative, allowing readers to explore and discover the setting organically.
  7. DO pay attention to worldbuilding details. Focus on small, intricate details that bring your fantasy setting to life. Consider aspects like local customs, regional dialects, unique flora and fauna, or even culinary traditions. These details make the world feel lived-in and authentic. (But don’t dump all that info in three pages at once.)
  8. DON'T forget the human element. Despite the fantastical elements, remember to focus on relatable characters and their emotional journeys. Balancing the extraordinary setting with human experiences and emotions will help readers connect and invest in the story.

My last DO? Write your fantasy adventure with a magic tool that helps you on your quest: Dabble.

Okay, maybe it isn’t technically magic, but Dabble is pretty darn close to it.

With Dabble, you can keep all your worldbuilding notes just one click away from your manuscript so they’re there exactly when you need them without dungeon-diving for one specific piece of info. Even if you write your whole bible there.

On top of that, Dabble backs all your work up to the cloud so you don’t suddenly lose your last 50,000 words. I’ve been there. It is devastating.

And that’s just the start.

You can discover all Dabble’s features and try them all for free for fourteen days, no credit card or gold required, by clicking here. Best of luck on your quest, adventurer.