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How to create a fantasy world that everyone will believe

Learning how to create a fantasy world that feels real to readers is easy when you follow these five steps:

Learning how to create a fantasy world that feels real to readers is easy when you follow these five steps:

5 steps to build your fantasy world:

  1. Plan the lie of the land
  2. Give your fantasy world concrete rules
  3. Think about the tone of your fantasy world
  4. Plan magic, religious, social and political systems
  5. Learn how to create a believable world via plot

Plan the lie of the land

Creating a solid, believable physical world is the first step.

The reason some fantasy novelists use maps is because the act of physically mapping the world grounds or anchors it.

You don’t have to draw maps; you can make notes instead, but the point is that you need to have a sense of your world as a physical place that has boundaries.

Learn how to make an outline for a book and develop story elements such as setting and plot points.

Give your fantasy world concrete rules

Just because this is fantasy and not science fiction does not mean that your world can lack rules or simply have arbitrary conditions imposed upon it.

Maintaining consistency throughout your world building and writing is crucial.

This adherence to rules will permeate every aspect of your fictional world, but to start with, be sure you are consistent. Whether you base your fantasy world on legend or real history such as medieval Europe, feudal Japan or another culture, or invent it entirely out of your own head, every aspect must be consistent with the world you’ve created.

If your fantasy world possesses a technology that seems out of step with its background, you need to have a good explanation for this, for example.

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Think about the tone of your fantasy world

Another thing to keep in mind is the tone of your novel.

For example, if you’re writing a novel of high fantasy steeped in Celtic legend, you might write in a way that recalls the language of fairy tales and legends.

Your readers do not necessarily want to begin in a world with its roots in ancient sagas and suddenly find themselves slogging through the bleak and murderous darkness of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series. Maintaining a consistent tone is critical for believability throughout your fantasy novel.

This consistency of tone will be reflected in your characters as well. The values of the world will motivate your characters. In a world where honour and loyalty are considered of highest importance, for example, this will affect the choices characters make and social hierarchy. In a world that has other primary values, society might be organised differently.

Of course, you can create characters whose values differ significantly from that of their world, but that difference is likely to be a source of conflict.

Plan magic, religious, social and political systems

Most fantasy involves magic, and rules are important here as well. You can create any kind of magical system that you like, but the key here is that it does need to be some kind of system. Whether it is based on numbers, plants, words or something else, whether characters study for years to become proficient in it or are born with the ability, it needs to be consistent. Characters cannot suddenly develop new abilities or go outside that system.

Learn how to create a believable world via plot

The key to creating a believable fantasy world is keeping in mind that ‘fantasy’ does not mean ‘anything goes’.

In addition to keeping rules and consistency in mind as mentioned above, the story also usually cannot rely upon a deus ex machina to resolve its conflicts just because it’s fantasy. ‘Deus ex machina’ is the phrase for a plot device that seemingly comes out of nowhere. This can be clumsily or more effectively done. Some have argued that the eagles’ rescue of Sam and Frodo at Mount Doom in Tolkien’s Return of the King is a deus ex machina.

Another example would be the frequent intervention of the gods in Greek myth. Contemporary readers may accept the former but would be frustrated by the latter. Use of a deus ex machina is always risky as it might stretch suspension of disbelief which can turn readers off.

The ‘setting’ section of Now Novel’s story builder will help you to come up with detail for your fictional world, making it easier to flesh out a fantasy world that feels believable and alluring. Find quick story ideas and see your fantasy world come to life.

By Bridget McNulty

Bridget McNulty is a published author, content strategist, writer, editor and speaker. She is the co-founder of two non-profits: Sweet Life Diabetes Community, South Africa's largest online diabetes community, and the Diabetes Alliance, a coalition of all the organisations working in diabetes in South Africa. She is also the co-founder of Now Novel: an online novel-writing course where she coaches aspiring writers to start - and finish! - their novels. Bridget believes in the power of storytelling to create meaningful change.

22 replies on “How to create a fantasy world that everyone will believe”

I am writing a fantasy series and the main species in the world it is based it are the Elves, Dwarves, Werewolves, Orcs and Undead. I know these have been used in so many other books and movies though, so should i still use them?

Hi there, thank you for your question. It depends, each of these types in fantasy lore typically inhabits a different sort of place, so do you envisage your world being large enough to contain all types? Of course some authors (Pratchett comes to mind) also satirize fantasy tropes and might blend elves and other types without explaining their co-existence very extensively.

The main thing I’d suggest is to make your version of these types. Elves with pointy ears and green caps, for example, are so familiar. What hasn’t an elf been or done? So by all means use them, yet also if possible avoid using them in a way that reads as a cut and paste of exactly how they’ve been envisioned elsewhere – make it your own. I hope this helps.

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