Designing a fantasy world

Beginning the Design:

The Known and the Unknown

One of the joys of writing fantasy fiction is that it gives you the freedom to design a world from scratch; you can let your imagination run wild creating dark forbidding forests, waterfalls, lost cities, and so on…

This page looks at the beginning of designing a fantasy world. Throughout these articles the ideas will be demonstrated by referencing a fantasy world that I designed, showing how it interacts and grows with the stories that were written – Creating the world can be just as much as writing the stories!


Fantasy World designing – Overview

staffa 9 cave inside small

The Entrance

Fantasy stories generally do not follow a simple path and may have multiple story lines to keep track off, with a number of different groups of characters that are found in different part of the same world. These groups can have stories of their own as well as stories where they interact with each other, each adding there own contribution to what is happening as the main overall story develops. And naturally they will end up in vastly different places of the world during that time: mountains, forests, cities, primitive places, …

Designing an original world for a story consists of a number of categories, including geography, history, culture, as well as the story itself.
When a world has multiple character groups, a world has to be defined sufficiently enough in different places to allow these groups to have their stories and not clash when they interact later. Rather than spend a lot of time working on any one area, it is better to put some work into some of them and build the world up between them. This is especially true of the design of the world’s geography, culture and settlements as it is these that form the background structure upon which the other aspects are based upon.

See Managing your Ideas and Plans  for tips on how to manage this information once the basic design is in place

General tip – changing the area you are working on

It is not always a bad thing to change the area being worked on. If a moment is reached where one category of the story or its world cannot go any further, then switching to another category where progress can be made for a while can be refreshing and worthwhile. Perhaps a town design has ground to a halt, but a building design within it can now be completed.

Checking the other categories may reveal that some history to one of those other categories can be added due to the presence of the building – perhaps it is a town hall that has been designed, but a different history can be added to its design layout, maybe it was a former prison that another story requires a reference for somewhere in the town. This means there could be secret escape routes to other parts of the town, or a secret dungeon long forgotten. This in turn may lead on for more ideas of the town, more stories, …

Beginning the design

Staffa entrance small

Cave to adventure

Begin by writing down anything that is already well define or is a non-changeable absolute within the world design. These may belong to any category, such as character attributes, special items, special places and so on. For each of these make as many notes as possible but do not try too hard to fill in anything missing with them, that can happen later, possibly even within a story itself.

Now starts the challenge of creating the unknown, starting with a simple geographical layout, a culture level setting for the world, and a little bit of history.

World design

The world to be designed for my stories was to be an ancient one where a major catastrophic event happened a long time ago that left a world fractured in culture. Towards the north are cities of great knowledge, places of great learning that include vast libraries and academies – and yet for all that knowledge they still do not truly know what it was that happened in the past. That is told only in myths and the truth is yet for discovering…

To the south is a range of mountains that have only one narrow valley that gives a route between the north and south. The southern side of the mountain range is a harsh place to live and is not much is known about it on the northern side.

The stories are focused in the area between the cities of the north and southern mountain range. Within this region there is some kind of law and order that is similar to that of the medieval times of England. The stories begin at a moment in time when strange events have started to occur in the world…

Important Design Point

The above may sound quite a mixed bundle, an important design point that will help the task:

keep each idea small and test how it interacts with the other ideas that you have already worked out, before taking it any further. All ideas need to be coherent with each other 

Trying it out – Does the design work

Writing a couple of paragraphs that relate to the world can test the aspect of whatever category is being designed. These paragraphs are not meant to be complete stories and should not be world-changing or contain major plot lines, but just simple enough to test out what has been created. They can be used to explore the world that contains the aspect created (whether a real item, a type of culture or a piece of history). From this, as well as adding greater detail to the aspect being tested, it can also help to get a better feeling of how the story line would flow and to what ends.

As the world grows in size and knowledge these paragraph tests can include several aspects of the world in one go, ensuring that they do interact properly.

Writing test paragraphs to see how it works

The examples here are just a couple of paragraphs that relate to the item of interest. They do not necessarily have to appear in the final story. In this instant they were used to test out parts of my own fantasy world design.

Part of a landscape description (forest) and a little of its mystery….

The forest was not a place that people chose to visit. It was known that death awaited those who entered too far into its hidden depths and that that death would be quick and sudden with only a single scream to mark your passing, your body never to be seen again. From this came the stories, passed on to all travellers around the forest, that fierce creatures lived within the forest that would swallow you whole in one swift movement.
However if you knew the truth behind the cause of the ‘sudden death’ then you could navigate through the forest more successfully and without fear of any of the ‘fierce’ creatures – since the source for those deaths was not even alive!

A little richness added to the forest – describing a Winlin….

A rustling noise caught his attention and a flock of Winlin’s hopped over and around a bush to the left of him in search of insects and berries. Furry creatures about eight inches in height, the Winlin’s legs were capable of propelling them in large leaps that could easily exceed two foot in height; they also had short stubby leathery wings which can be use to take them a short distance into the air for a few seconds. Ignoring him they carried on down the lane before jumping over another bush.

 Jenny Maryl ~  Inspiring the Imagination ~ Contact Me


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