What makes a good fantasy world?

18/03/2015 Discussions 12

What makes a good fantasy world?My all time favourite genre has to be fantasy, and one of the things I love most about it is its otherworldliness. Reading for me, and I suspect most other bookworms, is a form of escapism, and there’s no better way to escape than to go to a completely different world!

The other day I was thinking about fantasy worlds and some of the most famous examples – Middle Earth, Narnia, Westeros etc. – and started to wonder what it is that makes them so captivating. What is it that makes a fantasy world seem as if it could actually be real? And to the extent that we are willing to read hundreds of pages about it, and in many cases devour entire series set in it?

Here’s just a few of my thoughts, and I’d love to know what you think makes a good fantasy world!

  • A history and mythology

The absolute king of fantasy writing, J.R.R. Tolkien, spent years of his life crafting his imaginary world, complete with a full history spanning from its creation (in The Silmarillion) to the beginning of the Fourth Age (the end of LOTR). No other fantasy book has ever had such a well-explored world or complete history, and I think this is partly why Middle Earth seems so vivid, and is so well-loved by many.

Another world whose history seems to bring it to life is George R.R. Martin’s Westeros (well, technically it’s a continent, but whatever!), as Robert Baratheon seizing the throne from the Targaryens before the beginning of the first book sets into motion the events of the series and gives the story an interesting back drop. Before the story even begins the many families of Westeros have various alliances or conflicts with one another, and it’s interesting to see how they play out throughout the series.

As a lover of history, I am always fascinated by these kinds of fictional histories, and for me they are essential for a good fantasy world.

  • A range of cultures, languages and races

A fantasy world should, by virtue of being a world, be absolutely huge, and therefore have lots of different types of people living in it, all with their own cultures and histories and languages (kind of like our own world!). Therefore, for a fantasy world to work, for me it has to have variety, whether the different races are all human, or a variety of non-humans (eg. dwarves, elves etc.).

However, I do find the whole elf thing leads to a lot of LOTR rip-offs, as Tolkien seems to have been the inventor of the tall, ethereal and inherently good elves, so I think fantasy authors have to be really careful if one of their races is elven.

One author who I think puts a good spin on elves is Raymond E. Feist in his Riftwar Saga. His fantasy world Midkemia (apparently based on a Dungeons and Dragons game) is inhabited by two different and opposing types of elf. Whilst there are the classic Tolkien-esque good elves, there are also the moredhel, AKA ‘the Brotherhood of the Dark Path’ who are dark, evil elves. The only thing that separates the two types is the path they have chosen, good or evil, and there is a whole history behind how the different races of elves came to be (and I think there are actually more races of elves in Midkemia, eg. the Glamredhel, or ‘Mad Elves’).

  • Distinctive geography

For a fantasy world to have the kind of scope to seem like it could actually exist, for me it needs to have a varied landscape and a host of interesting places for the characters to explore. One thing I love about the fantasy genre is that you often get maps at the start of the book, and I always enjoy poring over them both before reading the story, when you know nothing about the world, and after, so you can see all the places you visited with the characters.

  • A ruling body

In most cases this is a monarchy, but it isn’t always (Harry Potter’s Ministry of Magic, for example). However, whether the ruler(s) are benevolent or tyrants, I feel like a good fantasy world needs someone in charge, because let’s face it – a world with no one in charge and no rules would just be anarchy!

Whether the main characters are the royal family/household (which happens a lot in fantasy – for example, Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy, Joe Abercrombie’s Half A King, and Raymond E. Feist’s Riftwar Saga) or evil oppressors who must be thwarted by the hero/heroine (eg. The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson, ASOIAF to a certain extent), I kind of feel like they have to be somewhere, and they have to be interesting.

  • A logical magic system

Whether a fantasy world has very little magic (as in ASOIAF) or lots (eg. Harry Potter), I feel like there has to be some kind of rules surrounding its use to make the story seem convincing and consistent. If magic has no rules and no limits, then all the problems that make up the story could just be solved in the blink of an eye – and then there’s no story.

  • Fantasy creatures

One thing every fantasy world needs is magical creatures, and extra points to authors for original inventions! One use of fantasy creatures that I particularly like is the daemons in Phillip Pullman’s Northern Lights, who are animal embodiments of people’s souls. I just like how original it is, and it gives the world a unique twist (plus it leaves me wondering what form my animal-soul counterpart would take!).

So what do you think makes a good fantasy world? 

12 Responses to “What makes a good fantasy world?”

  1. Ardelia

    I love fantasy! J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert Jordan are my fantasy author idols. Getting lost in their worlds is incredible.

    I think a good fantasy world includes songs, poems, or stories from each race – something that they tell around the campfire or in pubs over ale (or butterbeer). I guess this kind of fits in with your point about a world having its own mythology. I like for the world to have one and then for each race to have one. It makes them distinct, unique.

    Also, having the author kind of get into the economic aspect of the world is interesting, especially if each race/people have their own specialty. Like in LOTR, the dwarves got their wealth through gems, the men of Rohan through horses, etc.

    Great post! I think I’m going to have to revisit Robert Jordan’s world sooner than I had anticipated… 😉

    • Laura

      These are great points! 🙂
      I like when fantasy worlds have poems and songs too, as it really gives you an idea of the different cultures (for example the cheerful hobbit songs in LOTR gives you a good idea of what hobbits are like. Especially as they usually focus on food!). My favourite fantasy world poem definitely has to be the whole ‘One Ring to rule them all, one ring to bind them’ from LOTR, as it not only tells you the mythology of the rings of power, but seems kind of sinister, yet epic.
      I also like little things like how all the different families in A Song of Ice and Fire have their own words, like the Starks have ‘Winter is Coming’, as it kind of let’s you know what that family is about.
      And I had never really thought about the economic aspect of fantasy worlds, but it definitely makes the world more interesting and believable! I also liked when they have specific currencies, like in Harry Potter there’s the Knuts, Sickles and Galleons.

  2. Sarah H

    Fantasy is also my all time favorite genre too! I think you pretty much said all the important points that makes fantasy interesting. In general, I’ve noticed that the best fantasy novels are the one where the worldbuilding has been very researched.

    • Laura

      That is a good point! I think research is a really important part of world building – Tolkien for example knew about all sorts of languages, and based the ones he made up for LOTR on those, which I think makes them more believable. And I like when worlds are kind of based on a certain historical period because then they are recognisable, and you have an idea from the start of how the society works and the kind of weapons and things they will have.

  3. Kaitlin

    Great advice! I love to read and write fantasy, and creating a fully-formed world is crucial for the genre. If you neglect the world building, the story will suffer. It’s a lot of work so I think some writers don’t want to delve into it but if you do it’s so worth it. J.K. Rowling and Tolkien are the authors I admire most for their masterful world building skills.

    Also, all of the information you listed in important, but to really bring it to life we have to be able to experience it–what details can we see, hear, touch, taste, smell? If we can interact with the world it will feel as though it’s real.

    Great post 🙂


    • Laura

      That’s definitely true. I think the more authors appeal to the readers’ senses, the more you can imagine actually being there, so that’s a really good point! I think a lot of authors probably do avoid having to do extensive world building if possible because it is so much hard work, but it really does pay off if they do, because I think readers tend to feel more invested in worlds they could almost imagine themselves in. Thanks for commenting! 🙂

  4. Lena

    Hey! A much needed analysis, indeed. I’m with you especially on a logical magic systems, as every believable universe needs rules. And on inventiveness in terms of fantastical creatures (that’s one of the reasons I’m not a fan of CSS Lewis).

    As an anthropologist I’d also add interesting religious/philosophical system(s) that cultures build their mentality upon. Like in the Wizard of Earthsea.

    • Laura

      I agree you definitely need to see how the religious/philosophical systems in your world are reflected in the cultures of your story. We’re definitely all shaped by our beliefs and those of the people around us, so it makes sense to put that into a fictional world as well.
      I’ve never read the Wizard of Earthsea, but it’s actually been on my TBR list for ages! In fact, I’ve never read anything by Ursula K Le Guin, but I’ve always meant to check out her books 🙂

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