Creating a fantasy world

Creating a Fantasy World: A Guide for Writers

Fantasy has never been hotter.

Books like Fourth Wing, House of Flame and Shadow, The Stormlight Archive series, Babylon, Of Blood and Ash, and more, are sweeping social media, being turned into adaptations, and exciting readers everywhere. Long loved books such as Percy Jackson and the Olympians, The Witcher, Shadow and Bone, and The Wheel of Time have been converted into high budget series for the masses…

And these examples are just the edge. Fantasy is literally the stuff of dreams. It is the escape from the ordinary, bringing readers and viewers into realms they’d never imagined before.

Which brings you here. You’re eager to make a fantasy world of your own. But where do you start?

1. The first step to creating a fantasy world: How fantastical?

IN THE BEGINNING, you, the author, will create the light and the dark, the stars and the sea and the skies. You are playing God, and it can be a lot of fun. The more you plan and think about your world, the stronger it will be. So, let’s start with the first question:

Do you want your fantasy to be intense and all-encompassing, or applied with a lighter touch?

Some fantasy is set in a world which looks very similar to ours – it may even be Earth – and there are only a few magical elements which shift it into the world of fantasy. This is commonly known at ‘low fantasy’. Perhaps everything is normal except there are dragons, or a pair of special typewriters which can communicate through mystical means.

Other fantasies are rooted in the real world, but still create colourful and vivid fantastical worlds, such as Harry Potter or The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, which contain magical powers, fantastical creatures and hidden histories.

And at the furthest end of the scale are alternate universes where all the bets are off, and they bear only the most passing resemblance to our known world. Geography, weather, sentient beings, wild animals, physical and mental powers and even science itself might work differently in this ‘high fantasy’ world.

Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash

Basing your fantasy in the real world with just a few elements of magic might seem easier at first glance, but that doesn’t mean you don’t need to put in the work in order to make your world feel real and consistent. Even in fantasy based in a world similar to our own, you still have to establish the rules of any forms or magic or other fantastical elements, and decide how the world does differ from our own.

For example, In Harry Potter, the rules of magic say it runs in families. There’s technically no cost to doing magic: any wizard can do as much magic as they want, with no consequences. Magic can be done anywhere, but there are social structures like schools and political ministries to regulate it.

In Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, magic is used as a weapon of war. Set in Napoleonic England, wizards assist Generals against the French, with magic firing beside the other soldiers’ bullets.

On the other hand, you may be excited to create a world which is bears minimal resemblance to our own. If you wish, then everything can be invented.

You’re not on Earth. These aren’t humans. Technically. Of course, it’s still a book for human Earthlings, so the lengths to which you invent are up to you. If you’ve a four-legged animal that was domesticated by your main species, used to plow fields and carry that species on its back, and has a mane and eats hay, call this “invented” animal a horse. Because it’s a horse.

Yes, Frank Herbert spends dozens of chapters in his Dune books meticulously imagining the lifecycle of his invented sandworms, but it’s telling that this was cut from the recent films (no sandtrouts on screen there!).

Ultimately, every aspect of your world can be created, but you also need to keep in mind how much invention your readers can process. And also, how it will impact your story and your characters, as those questions are paramount.

Sanderson’s Cosmere is a great example of an interconnected universe of books, each with its own fantasy world. The Stormlight books are set on Roshar, with a very different set of physical laws and magic from Scadrial, the world of the Mistborn series. These are planets in the same invented universe, and magic allows transport between them and Sanderson’s dozen other worlds.

2. Creating a fantasy world: Physics, magic and rules

There are no hard and fast rules when you create your fantasy world. However, all of your readers are human beings used to Earth. For that reason, even in the most crazily-imagined fantasy universe, most authors choose to adopt a number of elements from our laws of science.

Gravity pulls you down when you jump. Food gives you energy, sleep brings you rest. In fact, overall the vast majority of popular fantasy books succeed not by trying to reinvent as much as possible, but by keeping many familiar elements. The people are still people, even if they’re elves or hobbits. The world is inspired by Earth, even if it isn’t Earth. Harry Potter and Percy Jackson are regular kids, until they aren’t.

  • What is different from the universe we know?
  • Why is it different?
  • Will those differences affect the characters and plot?

Whatever differences you focus on, they need to affect your plot and your characters. Creating a world where the ground is jelly might be fun, but it’s only worth doing if your plot or characters will be changed by that fact.

In the aforementioned Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, for example, Susanne Clarke envisions England during Napoleon’s reign. The only difference is that magic exists, and can be used in warfare. That minor difference sets the entire conflict into motion. In Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, the world is as we know it, except the legends of old myths and gods are all real. Not only that, but they are all in America and they’re pissed – and determined to fight modernity and technology.

Focus on rules that matter to your plot and character. This includes magic and its cost. Fantasy does not need to contain magic – Watership Down is a fantasy with rabbits and its own quest-like journey, but no magic – but it often does.

The best magic systems often involve cost. If everyone has unlimited magic, what’s to stop everyone from using it nonstop? In Sanderson’s Mistborn books, magic is an energy similar to the way we draw energy from batteries. The fuel is metals, which can be depleted, resulting in weariness. It’s a clear, easily understood magic system that is central to both plot and characters. In Lord of the Rings, magic is actually a very minor part of the story. The only central magical force is the Ring’s growing evil. Since this element is the only one pivotal to the plot, it’s the only magic explained at length. Other details, such as the extent of Gandalf’s wizard skills are never fully explored.

Photo by Almos Bechtold on Unsplash

3. The motivation: What has inspired your fantasy world?

This might go hand-in-hand with the previous step. As you’re compiling your rules and your concept of magic, pay attention to what worlds you’re drawing from – both real and imagined. When Frank Herbert wrote Dune, he began with an idea of fighting over individual sand dunes. He was inspired by dunes he’d seen in Oregon. He then moved on to envision a single desert-covered world. This led him to research other desert stories. Christianity, Judaism and Islam all have ties to stories of deserts and messiahs, and this led Herbert to reinterpret the Hero’s Journey arc with an antihero messiah.

As you craft your world, think about what’s inspired you. Following Tolkien’s massive success, many fantasies draw their inspiration from medieval Europe. Swords and mountains, trolls and magic. However, in recent years a growing body of work has intentionally drawn inspiration from other, far more diverse cultures. Many publishers and editors are specifically noting how saturated European-inspired fantasies have been in the market, and are seeking diverse books, For example, the picture below is Machu Picchu, a literal city in the clouds. Perhaps a fun, non-European inspiration.

Photo by Tomas Sobek on Unsplash

You do not have to model your world on any culture at all, but it will be impossible to not be influenced by your experiences of the real world, so recognising that and harnessing it will be wiser than being oblivious to that fact.

4. Enhancing a fantasy world: The entire history of everything

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Konstantin Stanislavski proposed a new acting style, which would eventually become known as “method acting.” He argued that actors onstage needed to know everything about a character. Not just what was in the script, or even happened during the play. An actor needed to know the character’s entire story, every memory, every like and dislike, every sight, sound, and smell they’d ever experienced, in order to fully become that character onstage. He knew only a sliver of this experience would be seen, but that sliver needed to be grounded in the character’s deeper past.

As daunting as that might sound, it’s only a sliver of what you, the author, must now do. In a similar manner, it can be extremely powerful to envision and broad and detailed history of your world. You don’t necessarily need thousands of pages of notes, but you need to give it a good deal of thought. Natural history, geology, evolution, cultures rising and falling. The vast majority won’t make it on the page, but the more you know the stronger your worldbuilding will be.

For example, if you’ve a portal, have people been through it before? In the Narnia books, Lewis envisions a magical world that Jesus builds to help kids learn about Christianity. The old man in the first book written has been to Narnia before and remembers its creation, affecting his choices when the Pevensies stumble back through Wardrobe. In Good Omens, Aziraphale and Crowley are an Angel and Demon who’ve been affecting life on Earth in tiny ways for ages, all while forming a relationship that will ultimately lead towards their bungling of the Antichrist.

This is because real life isn’t a set of isolated incidents. Likewise, your characters and story are not happening in a vacuum. They should be occurring in the middle of a longer, far more complex narrative. This is another place where it can be interesting to start thinking about differences from Earth.

On Earth, patriarchies dominate history. Maybe they don’t in your world. On Earth, Western religions arose from a monotheistic base, and often fight. Eastern religions arose very differently. What is religion in your world, and why?

Things to consider:

  • Gender roles
  • Race relations
  • Class systems (rich vs poor) and how they started
  • How many cultures inhabit your world (is it really a monoculture…?)
  • What wars have been fought, and why?
  • How are resources distributed?
  • What foods are eaten?

The more effort you put into thinking about all of these details the richer your world will become. The more lush and varied and nuanced and ultimately real your fantasy world will be.

Photo by Evgeni Tcherkasski on Unsplash

5. Visualising your fantasy world: Drawing a map

This can be fun. Some writing methods encourage you to draw a map and then write your story, but if you’re putting in rivers, mountains, and continents, you’re already being influenced. Does your world even have rivers, mountains, and continents? How have these resources shaped culture? Know the rules and history first, and then start playing with the map.

Photo by Patrick Fobian on Unsplash

As you draw the map, think about how your map has influenced the events that led to your story. A desert world will have different customs to a water world. Mountains tend to divide societies, as do rivers, yet perhaps they don’t need to?


  • Does geology work similar to Earth?
  • Are you creating an entire planet, or just a small section?
  • How do people travel around your world?
  • How has technology evolved, and how has geography influenced it?

6. Ready to go further?

As you create your fantasy world, consider diving into our Worldbuilding technique, which also ties into the software from Novel Factory.

As you take more notes, consider these key points:

  • How does geography affect the culture of your main character
  • What sorts of foods does the character eat? What do they hate?
  • What sorts of norms are expected in terms of gender, family, and sex?
  • What is one problem that arose in your world’s history that can directly impact your main character?
  • What is one problem in your world’s culture that can directly impact your main character?
  • How does magic affect your main character?

Remember, the more you plan, the stronger your world will be.

Photo by Ricardo Cruz on Unsplash

All writers draw inspiration from other writers. That’s fine, but remember to make the world your own. For some unique worlds try reading:

  1. Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James
  2. The Last Bloodcarver by Vanessa Le
  3. The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty
  4. The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart
  5. Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri
  6. The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang
  7. The Rage of Dragons by Evan Winter
  8. The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri

But don’t stop there. Don’t limit your reading to just fantasy! Read in every genre. Try looking at picture books (Aaron Becker’s wordless trilogy manages to build entire vivid worlds without a single word of text!) Travel, live, and dream. Inspiration comes from everywhere, and it’s your job to synthesise that, reinterpret it, and transform it into a unique world with a captivating story.

And that’s all!

Now dive into your imagination, and have fun!

Author bio: Christopher Mannino is an author of fantasy and nonfiction. He has four books out, and many more coming soon. His book on parenting releases autumn, 2025. He is also a regular contributor for Business Insider.