One of the most critical choices you need to make when writing your fantasy novel is the setting in which the story will take place. The most basic options for this choice include making up a completely new world for your story, setting your story in the real world (with certain modifications, of course), or a hybrid of the two. How do you choose wisely from among these basic options? This article will give you some guidance on creating the setting for your fantasy novel.
First-Time Fantasy Novel Writers: Beware Your Choice of Setting!
This needs to start off with a word of caution for first-time fantasy novel writers. You can take it or leave it, but please listen. There are lots of good reasons to make the setting of your fantasy novel an entirely new world no one has ever before experienced. It’s clearly very liberating to start from scratch and let your imagination run wild with what you want this world to be.
Tolkien introduced us to the lands of his fictional Middle-earth in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and it was still just a small portion of the world he was creating in his mind, called Arda. George R. R. Martin also created an entirely new world in his A Song of Fire and Ice series of novels, otherwise known as Game of Thrones. His world doesn’t even have a name, and yet it has had a huge impact on the fantasy genre (not to mention incredible success as an HBO television series). All we know of it is the three discovered continents of Westeros, Essos, and Sothoryos.
If you’re feeling especially ambitious and really love the idea of worldbuilding (a topic about which entire books have been written), then by all means go for it. But you might also be biting off more than you ought to try and chew if it’s your first fantasy novel. Creating a whole new world is not a small undertaking. In fact, if you’re going to do it right, it will probably double the amount of time it takes you to write your first fantasy novel. Why? For the simple reason that you really have to nail down a lot of different details about your new world and then constantly refer back to them in order to stay consistent. This is more work than you might think! You basically have to know your fantasy world as well as you know your own neighborhood.
The Hybrid Approach to Setting
The hybrid approach of mixing the “real” world with a made-up world is in order if you’ve chosen “portal fantasy” as your sub-genre. In this approach, some of your story is based in the real world, but your main character and possibly some of the supporting characters cross through some kind of portal to another made-up world. This is what happens in books such as The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis,The Neverending Story by Michael Ende, Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, and The Magicians trilogy by Lev Grossman (which has also been turned into a great television series on the SyFy network).
Once again, however, you have to put a very significant amount of time into creating the other world in which your characters spend time, whether it’s a little or a lot of the story. In some cases, authors even create whole new languages for their fantasy worlds. Talk about a TON of work – that would definitely qualify!
The Real World with Modifications
Probably the best choice for fantasy novel writing newbies is to set your story in the real world and then layer in the fantasy elements you need to make your story engaging – magic, supernatural powers, monsters, creatures, otherworldly beings, and so on.
You also have to decide if your real-world setting is in the present time or some other time period. Choosing to set your fantasy novel in a different time also presents an array of challenges around making sure you get the details right of what life was like for people of a different time, whether past or future. The perfect way to help you do this is to read other well-crafted books set in the same period, whether fantasy or not. You’ll pick up on all kinds of details about the setting you can incorporate into your fantasy novel.
Setting is Critical to Your Fantasy Novel
Whichever route you decide to take, make no mistake that presenting a compelling story depends in large part upon presenting a well-crafted setting that is every bit as important as the characters in your story. Think about how rich and detailed the setting of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is in the Harry Potter books.
When you think of Stephen King, what comes to mind are his many novels in the horror genre, but he also put together an incredible series of eight fantasy novels collectively referred to as The Dark Tower series. He created a whole new world (called All-World), the general feel of which is based on the American Old West, and then layers in a magical component. He also created elements of a unique language called “High Speech” in his fantasy world. And it’s a portal fantasy where in the main character, travels to different worlds through special doorways on his quest to reach The Dark Tower. Elements of the real world also come into play, indicating that the setting is an alternate or parallel universe and in the future. That’s a lot of details to work out, and it took him eight books to do it!
If you go all-in on the worldbuilding route, keep in mind that you can easily get so wrapped up into building out the details of your world that you never actually write your fantasy novel! This has happened to many aspiring authors. Yes, the setting is as important as your characters and plot, but not more important! One suggestion to keep from getting lost and stuck in your fantasy world is to work out the broad strokes of it and then fill in the needed details as you write your story. Remember to keep a separate log of notes about your fantasy world as a reference you keep returning to for the sake of consistency.
When it comes to creating the setting for your first fantasy novel, your basic set of choices is fairly limited, but each one takes you down a very different path in terms of the amount of time and effort you’ll have to put in to make your setting both realistic and compelling. Choose wisely by taking on what you can handle while still making steady progress on writing your fantasy novel!