Writing a fantasy novel involves many considerations: Worldbuilding, avoiding clichés of the genre, using popular elements such as magic originally and more. These 34 must-visit fantasy writing resources will help you with every aspect from creating fantasy maps to naming your fantasy characters.
General advice on worldbuilding
Many fantasy writers working on their first (or even second or third) novels struggle with worldbuilding. If you’re wondering how to create a believable fantasy world, one that avoids clichés and provides readers with enough detail to keep them enthralled, these links and resources provide excellent advice:
The Worldbuilding Stack Exchange is a website similar to Quora (where users ask the community questions and the most helpful replies are upvoted). Yet the focus of the website is on worldbuilding for fiction writers. Writers share and get knowledge about culture, science and other real-world elements that go into fantasy and science fiction.
World Building Academy, a site that has the tagline ‘create worlds, change lives’, provides plenty of helpful worldbuilding advice.
In this post for the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Patricia C. Wrede lists useful questions you should ask yourself while planning and fleshing out your fictional fantasy world. Wrede’s questions cover important elements such as history, climate and the inhabitants of your fantasy universe.
James Whitbrook at Io9 shares advice on overdone clichés of fantasy writing to avoid in your worldbuilding.
Chuck Wendig’s ’25 things you should know about worldbuilding’ contains great tips. Here’s one: ‘Don’t describe every family crest, guild sigil, hairstyle, nipple clamp, or blade of grass in the world.’ It’s good advice to make sure your worldbuilding serves your story rather than brings in irrelevant information.
In this interview, fantasy and SF writer Laurence MacNaughton did for MileHiCon in Colorado, the writer shares some useful fantasy worldbuilding advice. His cardinal rule? ‘If you make something up, it needs to play directly into the story.’ This is a point both he and Wendig emphasize.
In this essay, one of the great masters of fantasy and science fiction shares insights into writing believable fantasy worlds. Ursula le Guin, famous author of the Earthsea Trilogy, says ‘Fantasy, which creates a world, must be strictly coherent to its own terms, or it loses all plausibility. The rules that govern how things work in the imagined world cannot be changed during the story.’
Margaret Atwood shares some insights into how she creates fictional worlds in this blog post by Joe Berkowitz. Her insights relate to her speculative fiction, but also apply to fantasy writing. She suggests, for example, that you can borrow animal or human behaviours in the real world and use them slightly altered to form the basis of another world, its people and fictional creatures.
In The Paris Review’s short memorial piece on the passing of Sir Terry Pratchett, the literary journal shares some of his best advice for worldbuilding effectively. One piece of advice: Don’t be overwrought in your inventions. As Pratchett says: ‘It only takes a tweak to make the whole world new.’
What’s in a name? Create imaginative names for your fantasy world
Your fantasy characters might have names typical of a town or nation in your fantasy world (for example the hobbits in The Lord of the Rings have names such as Frodo and Bilbo and Sam while the elves have more regal names such as Arwen). They might have common names we find in everyday life if your fantasy world exists in parallel to our own. Examples: Harry Potter, Lucy and Susan in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books. Whether you want to give your characters mythical or everyday names, these resources will help you:
‘What’s in a Name?’ is an A to Z of names in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter fantasy series and their origins. Rowling is a master of creating memorable names, and this will give you some insight into how you can find inspiration for your own fantasy characters’ names.
If you want to find fantasy names for characters or mythical creatures quickly, Fantasy Name Generators offers tools to find names for classic fantasy races such as dwarves and elves as well as generators for place names. Need a Germanic dwarf name or a mythical-sounding name for a dragon or other fantastical creature? Find an exact match or use the results as phonetic guidelines for creating your own.
Make sure that your chosen names don’t have unwanted connotations. This guide over at Obsidian Bookshelf provides a number of useful pointers on naming characters in fantasy writing.
In this article from 2010, Imogen Russell Williams provides sound advice on naming characters. Says Williams, ‘Names with too evident meanings, which alert you early to a character’s nature à la Dickens, are a mixed blessing — it’s hard to take someone seriously if he’s called Mr Badcrook.’
Andre Cruz offers practical tips on choosing characters’ names that could apply to any genre, not only fantasy protagonists or villains. One suggestion: write down any important themes in your book and then use a baby name website to see if you can find any first names that carry relevant (but subtle) connotations. The name ‘Judith’, for example, derives from Hebrew and means ‘she will be praised’ – a fitting name for triumphant heroine.
Writing a fantasy world: Physical details
The physical details of your fictional fantasy world are important for creating an immersive sense of place different from the reader’s own. Think of the greenness of the shire compared to the desolate, post-industrial wasteland where Sauron resides in The Lord of the Rings. Thinking about the physical details of your world means thinking not only about the layout of the land but how the land itself looks and works. This includes landscape, fauna and flora as well as geography – where is each setting in your story in relation to other towns or lands?
Let fantasy landscapes inspire you: Deviant Art, the online community of artists, has many beautiful fantasy landscape images that can help you imagine own settings. Simply looking through fantastical images and noting down any geological or visual elements you like can help you form a clearer idea of your fantasy novel’s locations.
Something as small as having a definite sense of climate can make your fantasy world real. For example, in a tropical climate temperatures are hotter and there is more humidity. If your fantasy world is a lush tropical region, this will affect how characters dress, where they build their lodgings and more.
Michael James Liljenberg discusses the geological and botanical side of creating a fantasy or SF world. As he says ‘the physical world you build for your story will affect the civilizations and characters in both subtle and dramatic ways’. He includes a useful bullet list of questions to ask yourself when creating a fantasy map.
Speaking of maps, the David Rumsey Cartography Associates’ map collection includes over 30 000 images of historical maps. These maps can provide inspiration for map illustrations that give readers an immediate feel for your fantasy world. With this online tool, you can even overlay historical maps and contemporary ones to see how geology, borders and land features have shifted.
Writing a fantasy novel: Government
Decide how social structure and governance in your fantasy world will work. Kingdoms featuring monarchies are one of the most popular forms of social order in fantasy writing (as in George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series). You might want to take another approach if you’d like your novel to be particularly original. Rationality Wiki explains each type of government, and many descriptions link to pages that give more detailed history and explanations, type by type.
In his piece ‘Worldbuilding: Creating Fictional Cultures’, fantasy author J.S. Morin shares some useful tips on creating society and culture for your fantasy fiction. Morin suggests ‘loosely basing your government on something that has been tried out on Earth (successfully or not)’. This will help you avoid over-complicating the politics of your world with a whole new system invented from scratch.
Fantasy and SF writer Jill Williamson lists and describes the many types of government you can use for your fantasy writing. She asks useful questions you can ask of your world: ‘Who controls the food and water? The weapons? If there is a disease, who controls the medicine?’
Creating your fantasy culture
Creating whole new cultures for your fantasy story can be tricky. Madeleine Bauman’s blog post looks at Greek mythology and how different Gods had different associations and purposes. Reading stories from ancient global mythologies can give you a good idea of how to invent your own belief system when you start writing a fantasy novel.
This concise document outlines the basic structure of cultural practices – for example, cultural practices are things that ‘represent the knowledge of what to do and where’ for a particular culture. Etiquette around eating or sharing food or following a particular rite of passage for coming of age are all cultural practices. If your fantasy world shows different peoples living in different geographic regions, think about how their cultural practices might differ and what implications this might have for tension or story development.
Alyssa Hollingsworth shares ten useful questions to ask about your fantasy world’s culture. How do you make your world seem as real as our own. Our world that has seen many changing tides of events? As Hollingsworth puts it, ask yourself: ‘How did this culture come into being? How has it changed between then and the start of the novel?’
Mind your language: Creating other words
Many fantasy writers have added to the richness of their novels by inventing languages that are specific to particular tribes or nationalities. A group in your fantasy novel might have particular idioms or proverbs, or styles of greeting. These resources will help you think about language in your fantasy writing and how you can use it to add a sense of era or to underline important aspects of your fantasy culture (for example, a warrior-like people might have a very different way of greeting one another to a more peaceful civilization). Here are some useful resources for using language creatively:
Roberta Osborn provides detailed advice on using fictional languages in fantasy writing. Her advice includes keeping a list of all the words you invent so you can remember spellings and keep track on how many you’ve used and their meanings. She also recommends making your made-up words resemble as much as possible words with similar meanings in real-world language, so that the sound fits the sense to readers’ ears. Avoid ‘blorpspargs’ and ‘glipflorps’ (unless parodying technical language or word invention in your genre).
If you want to get technical and make up an entire language of your own, the Language Construction Kit is a useful free resource. Do keep in mind that you mustn’t let the fun of invention distract you from getting stuck into actually writing and finishing your novel.
Creating fantasy animals
Besides the people that populate your fantasy world, you might want to include fantastical creatures that add biodiversity (and a dose of magic or exoticism). Remember that many mythical creatures are clichés. Dragons feature in many fantasy worlds. Think about how you can make fantasy creatures your own. For example, in the Harry Potter books. J.K. Rowling has a dragon guard the vault of a powerful family in the wizard bank Gringotts, combining an ancient mythical creature with a modern setting in an original manner.
This list of mythical creatures can inspire you. It provides explanations on the origins and history of many magical or otherworldly creatures.
Springhole offers useful tips on writing fantasy fiction that includes animals. One tip: ask yourself what environmental and ecological impact your creature might make.
Another website that lists and describes mythical creatures lets you sort creatures by appearance (size and similarity to real-world animals), as well as culture of origin (such as Greek or Mayan).
Ashley Lange at Elfwood provides a handy guide to creating realistic fantasy animals and creatures. One useful tip: Identify your non-human fantasy species’ purpose (do your animals serve as guides/guardians/environmental hazards/food sources or any combination of the above?)
Resources for (re)inventing magic for your fantasy novel
Mages, witches, wizards and more: Magic has been a core feature of many famous fantasy novels. In C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, a child puts a magical ring on her finger and finds herself in a wood between worlds. In the Lord of the Rings the wizard Gandalf carries a staff that he uses to channel his magical powers. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books update the wands and wizards format, splicing spells and incantations with a modern-day, non-magical world. These resources give advice on how to write fantasy fiction that uses some form of magic:
Magic in your fantasy fiction should follow a system that obeys its own internal logic. This impressive table by Io9 describes the workings of magic systems in over 20 famous novels and series. This can provide helpful inspiration when you create your own magic system.
Philip Martin’s guide to using magic in your fantasy story includes helpful tips such as making sure that your magic system explicitly drives the action of your story. This will make sure your magic doesn’t distract from your novel’s key themes and events.
Writer Holly Lisle wrote this practical list of tips for writing magic into your fantasy novel. One good piece of advice: Don’t make it too easy. Another: Everything comes from something – your magic system will be harder to believe if it’s too convenient and doesn’t have explicable origins.
What resources have you found helpful in writing fantasy fiction? Share any relevant and helpful ones in the comments.