How To Create The Ultimate Fantasy World (Eight Tips)

The best place to start when determining how to create the ultimate fantasy world 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.

how to create the ultimate fantasy world - map flipped upside down
The map of Earth, flipped upside down and turned. It looks very different when the southern hemisphere is on top.

In short, maps tell a story. In the conventional, Mercator map, 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, 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 tip on how to create the ultimate 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

how to create the ultimate fantasy world - Asshai
The mystical city of Asshai By The Shadow.

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.

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 tip on how to create the ultimate fantasy world: writers must create varying landscapes and climates. 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.

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 map of Alagaesia from The Inheritance Cycle.

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 tip on how to create the ultimate 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

how to create the ultimate fantasy world - the iron islands
The Iron Islands on the west coast of Westeros.

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.

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 tip on how to create the ultimate fantasy world – 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

how to create the ultimate fantasy world - the bloody gate
The Bloody Gate that got its name for a reason, and stops King Robb from trying his luck against it.

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.

Tip 6 – Give Places In The World Emotive or Evocative Names

The name of a place, by itself, has to tell the reader a story. On Earth, every country, city, town, river, forest, etc… has a name, and every place has acquired its name for a reason. That reason holds a story, and the writer should aim to evoke an image and a tale in the names of his/her locations.

This applies regardless of whether the writer is naming worlds, kingdoms or empires; cities, towns, villages or castles; or forests, mountains, seas or rivers.

6A. Worlds, Kingdoms And Empires

Tip 6A on how to create the ultimate fantasy world is that writers must be creative when coming up with names for worlds, kingdoms and/or empires. They can choose any name they like; however, again, they should aim to give them evocative names.

Worlds

When it comes to worlds, JRR Tolkien named his world as Middle-Earth; Terry Pratchett named his as Discworld; and George RR Martin named his as The Known World. Each of the names of their worlds either evokes an image of a medieval-like Earth, or a planet on a disc, or a map that still has wonders to behold beyond what is known.

Kingdoms And Empires

For kingdoms and empires, though, it is much harder to give them evocative names.  Raymond E Feist names his countries as The Kingdom, The Great Empire of Kesh, and Lesser Kesh. All three names give an indication of their size and importance within the world (and it is obvious from the name that the Kesh are a people).

David Eddings did something similar with his world, as he named countries as the Kingdom of Riva, the Kingdom of Cherek, the Seven Kingdoms of Karanda, and the Dalasian Protectorates. All of these, again, give the reader an indication of the size of the respective countries.

General Rules Naming Worlds, Kingdoms and Empires

Thus, as a general rule, putting the word ‘kingdom,’ or ‘empire,’ or ‘protectorate,’ or ‘free city’ (or something else of that ilk) before or after the name of the main people or god of that country should suffice.

I would personally like to add one other feature about designing the map/world here. If writers wish their maps to bear some semblance to Earth, they should create names for countries that resemble their counterparts on Earth in their correct location on Earth. So, western countries should have names that would sound apt for a country in the West, while countries to the near and far east should have names that would be fitting for those parts of the world.

It is for these reasons that George RR Martin names his kingdom in the west as Westeros, while there is a kingdom to the distant east called Yi Ti that is meant to resemble medieval China. (But this also has the additional implication that the founders of Westeros were west of something. If they had believed that Westeros were in the centre of the world, they would not have called it ‘Westeros.’)

6B. Cities, Towns, Counties, Villages And Castles

Like with naming a world, naming a city, town, county, village and/or a castle must be emotive and evoke an image and a story in the reader’s mind. For example, in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, some of the most evocative names are The Shire, which conjures up images of a rural people working on the land; and Helm’s Deep, where an image springs to mind of a stronghold that would have high walls that would cost many lives to seize.

how to create the ultimate fantasy map - narnia
The map of Narnia.

Similarly, CS Lewis for The Chronicles of Narnia often adopted names such as Witch’s Castle and The Stone Table. Lewis wrote his Narnia series for children, so the names are somewhat risible to an adult audience. Nevertheless, Witch’s Castle produces an image of a nasty place where the evil witch dwells; and The Stone Table does what it says on the tin (so to speak), by evoking an image of a stone table, where key decisions (that have consequence for the plot) are made.

How To Use Non-Emotive Names

However, writers should not limit themselves to names that automatically conjure up an image in the reader’s mind. Rather, they should name a few places (at maximum) that have unique connotations to the story. This is another tip on how to create the ultimate fantasy world.

Tip 6B – Example 1

Hobbiton is unique to LOTR as it is the village where hobbits (who only exist in Tolkien’s world) generally come from, including our main protagonists Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin.

Tip 6B – Example 2

Casterly Rock, though, has an altogether different and darker reason for its name. It is the ancestral fortress of House Lannister, based on the top of a large rock alike the one in Gibraltar. According to Westerosi lore, Casterly Rock belonged to House Casterly thousands of years ago (hence the name). But Lann the Clever (whom the Lannisters descend from) hoodwinked the Casterlys out of their own home and slaughtered them.

Yet, the Lannisters kept the Casterly part in the name of their fortress for good reason: to warn others, who dared trifle with them, that the Lannisters have cunning, brute strength and ruthlessness as part of their arsenal.

Casterly Rock. It might be the ancestral stronghold of the Lannisters, but there is a reason they kept the Casterly (of House Casterly) in the name…

6C. Forests, Seas, Rivers and Mountains

Again, all such names have to evoke an image or an emotion in the reader’s mind.

Forests

For example, in George RR Martin’s Known World, he names two of his forests as The Kingswoods and the Wolfswood. The Kingswood gets its name because it is near the capital and where the King hunts; while The Wolfswood is called thus as it is in the North, near Winterfell and where the wolves reside (both actual wolves and the Stark ones).

Rivers

For the names of the rivers, Martin is no different. One, he has named a river north of The Wall as the Milk River. Of course, the river’s water is not literally made of milk. Rather, this is how it looks to observers since its surface is frozen all year round.

Two, south of the wall Martin has named the river that flows through King’s Landing as the Blackwater Rush. It implies a foul, brown waterway travelling at speed through the capital.

Seas

Naturally, Martin is not the only author who has used evocative names on his map. Joe Abercrombie, in his First Law trilogy, used some highly emotive and evocative names when naming some of his seas.

One he names as the Circle Sea, as its circular waters surround the Kingdom of Midderland. Similarly, he names another as the Sea of Knives, thereby conjuring up images in the reader’s mind of knife-like, sharp rocks that stick out of shallow waters (ready to break the keels of ships).

Mountains And Hills

Tolkien was not averse to using emotive names either to form Middle-Earth as well; in fact, he saved some his most evocative names for his mountains. The Lonely Mountain invokes an image of a sole mountain in the middle of a flat terrain, with nothing of comparison within eye-range; while the Misty Mountains raise images of fog covering a set of frowning mountains, as if to give the range a shadowy, foreboding aura.

In a very different way, Brandon Sanderson in his Stormlight Archives gives one sets of hills an emotive name too because he names them as the Unclaimed Hills. Here, he gives the reader the idea that the hills are warred over, with kingdom after kingdom trying to conquer them, while tribes (and other monstrous creatures) ambush soldiers to make holding the hills impossible. Thus, they are unclaimed because it is practically impossible to do so.

Tip 7 – Be Consistent With The Language Of The Places

The seventh tip on how to create the ultimate fantasy world centres around being consistent with the language of the name of the places that writers create.

Years ago, I read an interview with a fantasy author who used different (made up) languages while explaining how he named the places on his map. Then, I read a critique of his work. This critic explained why this was not a wise idea. I would tend to agree with this critic because names written in another (made up) language do not evoke an image in the reader’s mind.

This is the case even if writers have created their own language for the story and translate the name into the ‘Common Tongue’ for the reader.

Sadly, translations do not have the same impact upon the reader as the ‘Common Tongue.’ Also, if there is a translation why would writers bother using the made up name in the first place? To me, this defeats the purpose of the made up name.

Tip 8 – Know When To Use Exotic-Sounding Names For Locations

It is tempting for writers to be creative and give a city, a river, a castle, a mountain, etc… a made up, exotic name (that borders on the unpronounceable). Credit where credit to writers who come up with these names as they be highly imaginative, genius and/or amusing.

However, there is a problem with exotic, made up names for places: they emote and tell the reader nothing about the history and the location of the place. Therefore, alas, such names are best avoided.

Why Exotic-Sound Names Sound Cool On Earth

In our world, exotic names may sound exotic. But that’s probably because they are foreign.

Take, for instance, the Nile in Egypt. It might sound like an exotic, great name for a river. But it comes originally from the Hebrew word – Nahul – which means river, and has been adapted into its present form by the peoples who have lived in Egypt over the millennia. So, actually, the Nile just means ‘the river,’ which isn’t all that exotic when put like that.

Similarly, Burkhan Khaldun, the old name for the Khentii Khan mountains in Mongolia, may sound exotic. But Burkhan Khaldun just means ‘sacred mountains’ or something of that ilk. Again, when phrased this way, that particular mountain range no longer sounds quite so cool anymore.

When To Use Exotic-Sounding Names

Just to clarify, this does not mean that you cannot or should not ever use exotic-sounding names for places. The final tip on how to create the ultimate fantasy world is to use exotic-sounding names sparingly and to denote context to the place. This includes using the words city, desert, mountain, forest, river, kingdom or any word that signifies what the place physically is.

Examples – Asshai By The Shadow & The Jai-Pur Desert (in Raymond E Feist’s World)

To give some examples of what I mean, let’s look at the Jai-Pur Desert in Raymond E Feist’s world, and Asshai By The Shadow In George RR Martin’s, as both showcase how to give an evocative edge to exotic names.

The Jai-Pur Desert gives us the impression of a blisteringly hot stretch of open terrain that could be anywhere between the Sahara desert and the Indian Subcontinent on Earth; while the name Asshai By The Shadow gives the city a dark feel, literally because the city has mountains casting their shadows over it, and metaphorically so to give the place a mystical, ominous dread.

End

I hope you have enjoyed these eight tips on how to create the ultimate fantasy world, and that the tips help you. I want to reassure you that creating a world is no simple to task and my map took me close to a decade to draw and name (and I am still making alterations to it).

Nevertheless, I have greatly enjoyed creating my world and making it as complex and as sophisticated as possible. I hope that the same is true for you.

Paul

PS: For more weekly writing tips (written and videos), such as next week’s four reasons why boredom is good for you and your narrative, fill in the short form below:

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