Eight Great Tips On How To Build A Sophisticated Fantasy World (Part I)

Now that we have finished assessing the five most crucial questions that writers must ask themselves, we can look at eight great tips on how to build a sophisticated fantasy world.

When approaching this topic, the obvious place to begin is with our own world. Earth is a planet that is rich in diversity and complexity. This is mirrored in its geography, climates, and cultures; all of which is reflected in the map.

It is incredible to think that this map is our world (as in Planet Earth). When viewed upside down, it looks entirely different, like it could be Middle-Earth.

In short, maps tell a story. In the conventional British-European maps, Britain and Europe have the best real estate by being at the top and middle of the world. This makes them seem like the most important places on the planet. Conversely, in 2018, as part of a #getNZonthemap campaign, Tourism New Zealand turned the map upside down and put New Zealand in the top-centre of the map for the same reason.

Therefore, when writers decide that they want to build a map for their fantasy worlds, they must take into account all of the above (and more). Plus, one other factor: linkage to the plot.

Tip 1 – Decide The Key Locations For The Plot

At the outset of drawing their maps, writers must determine the key locations for the plot. They must decide where the main protagonist will be at the start of the story (call it Location A) and where he/she must be at the end (call it Location Z). In David Eddings’ The Belgariad series, Garion, our central protagonist, starts at Faldar’s Farm (Location A). Through the course of the five books, he ends up fighting Torak at Cthol Mishrak (Location Z).

Moreover, once writers have determined Locations A and Z, they can note down where other significant events will happen in the novel (Locations B, C and D, etc…). So, in The Belgariad, Locations B, C and D could be considered Cherek, Arendia and Cthol Murgos because crucial events take place there.

Writers can place a significant happening anywhere, of course. But there should be a logic behind why they place a significant event at a particular location. Above all, the occurrence cannot happen anywhere else in order to move the plot forward.

Tip 2 – Use Non-Visited Locations To Affect The Plot

The second of the eight great tips on how to build a sophisticated fantasy world centres around using non-visited locations to affect the story. When writers create a world, they must accept that their main characters will not be able to visit all the locations on the map. This is neither possible nor desirable, as a story is not supposed to be a tour-guide of a fantasy world (although Eddings tries damn hard in his novels).

Still, locations that are not visited by the characters can enrich the world and have an impact on the plot.

Tip 2 – Example 1

In A Song Of Ice & Fire (ASOIAF), the reader has yet to go Asshai. But through Melisandre, the reader gets a look into this mystical city. Through her, we learn that the people of Asshai believe in R’hillor, the Fire God, as well as the prophecy of the Prince That Was Promised.

The second of eight great tips on how to build a sophisticated fantasy world is by looking at Asshai and how it affects the plot in ASOIAF.

Although, the reader has not been to Asshai, we gain a sense for the mysteries of the city, mostly through Melisandre. More pertinent to the story, the city’s influence has an impact on events. (Fan art by ReneAigner)

What’s more, Melisandre converts King Stannis Baratheon to her Faith and seduces him into believing that he is the promised prince. This illustrates that a faraway location can impact the plot, as Asshai’s influence has dire consequences for Stannis and his family.

Furthermore, Asshai is where Melisandre learned her dark magic. This is pivotal in the murder of King Renly Baratheon in A Clash Of Kings, and the resurrection of Jon Snow in Season VI of Game of Thrones.

Tip 2 – Example 2

Another example of a how a non-visited place can influence the plot is the Gurkish Empire in Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law trilogy. Before the beginning of the story, the Gurkish crippled Colonel Sand Dan Glotka and turned Ferro Maljinn into a sex slave.

We learn a lot about the Gurkish through them; how it has affected them. This is a plot device. Both characters understandably hate the Gurkish and do their utmost to thwart the Gurkish throughout the trilogy.

Tip 3 – Determine How The Landscape and The Climate Force POV Characters To Make Critical Decisions

The third of eight great tips on how to build a sophisticated fantasy world is that writers must create varying landscapes and climates in their world. Writers are free to decide how hot or cold, rainy or sunny, hilly or flat, or grassy or deserted they want to make their world. These add depth to the world, and provide writers with a tool to have consequence on the plot.

For instance, if a way into a country is by going over a dangerous mountain, the main character will be faced with a decision on whether to use that route or try another one.

Tip 3 – Example 1

In The Fellowship of the Ring, the characters try to pass over peak of Caradhras. But when it becomes apparent that the mountain is near impassable, Frodo decides to turn around and take the route through the Mines of Moria instead. This decision has corollary as Gandalf falls into the abyss of Khazad-Dûm.

The second of eight great tips on how to build a sophisticated fantasy world is by looking at Caradhras and how it impacts the plot.

In The Lord of the Rings, the fellowship try to take the dangerous route known as The Pass of Caradhras. But the weather and height of the mountain forces them to turn around, which has consequences for the plot. (Fan art by headlessgirl.)

Tip 3 – Example 2

Landscape and climate, however, do not necessarily have to force the main character to make a decision at a particular moment in the story. They can establish borders between countries, and illustrate the difficulties that one country has conquering another.

For instance, in Christopher Paolini’s The Inheritance Cycle, the elves dwell in the (enormous) forest of Du Weldenvarden. The villainous King Galbatorix would have a hard time if he dared invade it. This is because the forest would provide the elves with ample opportunities to lay traps, hide and ambush Galbatorix’s army. It is for these reasons (as well as magical ones) that Galbatorix does not try to conquer the forest.

The forest of Du Weldenvarden in The Inheritance Cycle is so large and vast that it would be too dangerous for King Galbatorix to invade it. Thus, the elves are safe there.

Tip 3 – Example 3

A mountain and a forest can explain why countries would be hesitant to invade another land by having to pass over/through them. On the other hand, if the terrain is relatively open and lush with crops and livestock, writers can use this as a reason for why another kingdom would want to cross into these lands.

During the War of the Five Kings in ASOIAF, most of the fighting takes place in the Riverlands. This is because: first, it is sandwiched between everything and everything else; and, second, the landscape enables King Robb Stark and Lord Tywin Lannister to feed their armies.

Tip 4 – Decide How The Climate And The Landscape Affect Geopolitics (And The Plot)

The fourth of eight great tips on how to build a sophisticated fantasy world is by using the climate and the landscape to affect the geopolitics of the various countries. Unquestionably, climate and landscape affect the political outlook of rulers. If a country has a natural frontier (a river, a sea, a forest, or a mountain) for a border, they behave very differently to rulers that have an open frontier for a border. Similarly, if a country has a rainy climate with plenty of grain and livestock, its people act differently to those who dwell in an extreme climate where food is scarce.

The same divergence in mentality should be reflected in the characters in a fantasy world. Above-all, these factors must impact the plot.

Tip 4 – Example 1

In the Inheritance Cycle, the small Kingdom of Surda lies to the south of Galbatorix’s mighty empire. Most of Surda’s border with the empire is open terrain. Therefore, it is small wonder that Lady Nasuada, the ruler of Surda, spends much of her time worried sick about the security of her kingdom.

Her fears explain why in Brisingr she sends Eragon to the dwarf kingdom of Tronjheim without his dragon. Sapphira is Nasuada’s only weapon to deter Galbatorix from invading.

Tip 4 – Example 2

Likewise, in ASOIAF, the Ironmen live on the Iron Islands. These are small, desolate isles that can barely feed its inhabitants. Thus, it is no surprise that the Greyjoys encourage their people to pillage and reave Westeros’ west coast.

The fourth of eight great tips on how to build a sophisticated fantasy world is by looking at the Iron Islands and how they impact the plot.

The Iron Islands have little by way to feed its inhabitants and have a wealthy mainland close by. Is it any surprise that the islanders take to reaving and pillaging the westen coast of Westeros in order to take what they don’t have?

In A Clash Of Kings, Lord Balon Greyjoy takes this a step further after his son, Theon, returns. Lord Balon orders the invasion of the Kingdom in the North, while King Robb Stark fights the Lannisters in the south. It is to Theon’s shame (and regret) that he goes through with his biological father’s plans and seizes Winterfell. Lord Balon’s and Theon’s decisions have terrible consequences for Theon. Furthermore, they force King Robb to turn around so that he can re-take the North from the Ironmen (which has tragic consequences for him as well).

Nevertheless, it must be noted that the climate and the landscape of the Iron Islands are not the key determinants for why Lord Balon turns his ire on the North. But they do create a political mentality for him that has bearing on the novel.

Tip 5 – Create History And Mythology For A Location, And Use Them To Impact The Plot

The fifth of the eight great tips on how to build a sophisticated fantasy world entails that writers should give each location a history (or histories to be more accurate) and a mythology. Just as people have come from somewhere, the same is true for the DNA of a country.

History and mythology add layers to a country and its peoples. But the challenge for the writer is to make the history and the mythology of a place relevant to the plot.

Tip 5 – Example 1

Coming back to The Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf decides to take the Pass of Caradhras because he does not want to go into Moria. He knows that, historically, the dwarves dug too greedily and too deep. They awoke the Balrog, a demon of the ancient world.

This gives us an insight into the (rapacious) mindset of the dwarves and about Gandalf’s fears. What’s more, after agreeing to Frodo’s decision to go into Moria, Gandalf squares up to the Balrog to his demise.

Tip 5 – Example 2

Similarly, and coming back to ASOIAF, King Robb decides against re-entering the North via the Vale of Arryn. This is because he would have had to pass through the Bloody Gate. King Robb knows that in the Age of Heroes, thousands of years ago, a dozen armies tried to smash down the gate. But instead of breaking it down, they all failed and splattered their blood against it; hence where the gate’s name originates.

King Robb refuses to let his armies suffer the same fate. Thus, he decides to try his luck and take Moat Cailin from the south.

The fifth of eight great tips on how to build a sophisticated fantasy world is by looking at the Bloody Gate and they impacts the plot.

The Bloody Gate that guards the entrance to the Eyrie. Legend has it that a dozen armies smashed themselves against it, but did not break it. It is for this reason that King Robb Stark does not try his luck against it in order to return to the North.

End of Part I

Thank you very much for reading this blog piece. I hope you have found it interesting and that it helps to make the writing journey more enjoyable for you.


PS: If you wish to read future tips on writing, including Part II of this topic and exclusive articles for subscribers, please fill out the form below.

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