Middle Earth, Narnia, the Wizarding World, Oz, Wonderland, the Final Empire, a galaxy far, far away…. these names and fantastical places transport us instantly out of our own world to somewhere entirely other. They inspire our imaginations, and send us knocking on paneled walls and opening doors, looking for another world, a more magical world, a place that will test our courage, our faith, our very mettle, and teach us to rise above our limitations and our circumstances to finish the quest, rescue someone dear to us, stand up for something we believe in, or have a chance to make some sort of difference.
That is what fantasy does. It teaches us what we wish we could be. It encourages us to strive to be better. And it teaches us that there is more than what we can see.
And this is what you want to do with your own fantasy world. But how to begin?
First, you must decide the scope of your world.
There are three basic sizes you might begin by considering as you build your fantasy realm: local, national, and global.
Many fantasy worlds are kept quite small. Several examples of this include Batman (where we stay mainly in Gotham City), or Cinderella (a single house and castle and a little bit of the surrounding area/village if we’re lucky). Quite a few fairy tales focus on a very small location, only giving us a general idea that a world might be larger.
Other worlds are absolutely massive. Star Wars (yes, I consider it to be more fantasy than sci-fi) is huge… covering an entire galaxy of planets. The Wheel of Time is another enormous world with various nations and cultures. Lord of the Rings is a bit smaller in size, but its history more than qualifies it as one of the worlds in the “large scope” category.
When deciding on a size for your world, consider your story. The length of your story, the number of characters, and the scope of your story will all play into how big you want your world to be. If you are writing a piece of flash fiction, for example, you will want to keep your world and character count incredibly focused in order to fit your story into the tiny word count. If you are writing a multi-book series, however, you may want to expand your world to give your story more depth as your characters go on their various adventures. There are exceptions, of course, but this is a good place to start.
Lets talk local for a minute:
To be honest, it is probably best to start small and familiar. Why? Because while it is interesting to craft a big, grandiose-sized world, it also makes for a lot of work that in the long-term may not matter. Remember our lesson from Brandon Sanderson: focus your attentions on the pieces of world building that will further your story and characterization. Unless you are writing a massive series that is going to be thousands of pages long and take the characters to an insane number of locations, your readers are not going to experience the entirety of your world. Even in real life, most people don’t travel more than a hundred miles from home in their lives. So ask yourself: “How much world do I really need for this story?”
Some of you know that Batman is my favorite super hero. And super heroes totally fall into the classification of “fantasy” so let’s run with it. In the Batman franchise, we’ve had some 80-odd years of story-telling, and most of those stories have stayed solidly within the single city of Gotham. Or look at Harry Potter. While a wider world does eventually get alluded to and explored a bit… most of this epic, 7-book story takes place on the school grounds of Hogwarts. Yes, there are a few other locations we get to visit, but for the most part, we travel from Harry’s home to an outdoor mall to Hogwarts, and that’s it. So keeping your story world small and local definitely doesn’t preclude a longer story with lots of characters and plenty of interest.
Dresden Files is another fabulous example of a massive story with a more local world-scope. Most of this story takes place in Chicago and the surrounding area. And yet, there is plenty to explore around the city and within the magical hierarchy within the city limits.
Starting small, with a local setting may allow you to write a fantastic story that keeps the character count small, the protagonist(s) and antagonist(s) influenced by a detailed world that they experience in their daily routines. Geopolitics may never arise in your story, but personal history, daily strife, and everyday heroics can be laser-focused within these smaller settings. (And the fate of the world can definitely still hang in the balance).
The minute detail is much easier to enjoy if you don’t have to explain the grand context. You probably aren’t going to write a story where the “fate of the world” hangs in the balance, but there are plenty of other conflicts you can choose from.
So what if I want to go a bit bigger? Well, that’s easily done… let’s move on to the “national” scale.
Of course, nations can vary in size. In our own world, the United States is 3,000 miles across, while Scotland is roughly the size of Ohio. France is only 600 miles across from north to south, but a ton of things can happen in countries of any size. If you want all the fun of playing with stories that affect a national scale, you can easily fill up dozens of books without having to look beyond the geographic borders of a single country. You can show the interactions between two or three nations/kingdoms in this scale, but you’re still not going to be able to write a compelling “global castastrophe” type story, though you are certainly welcome to try! The main story arc in this size world may not be a “take over the world” or “destroy the world” sort of story, but you could definitely be looking at a villain causing massive problems for multitudes of people at this scale.
My own story, “Stone Curse” operates at this scale. I wrote about two nations that border each other and the story proceeds to follow characters through one of the nations and presents a lot of the region in a fairly efficient narrative. For such a short story (roughly 25,000 words) the scope of the setting is actually pretty large, but it proves that you can show compelling characters with interesting dilemmas and obstacles to overcome and even elements of a quest to go on don’t have to operate at a global scale. It also shows that your word-count doesn’t have to be strictly defined by the scope of your world.
And then there’s the Grand Poobah of scale.
If you’re looking for a global scale world, one of the first things I try to consider is “how do people get around?” If people are traveling by horse they may only cover 20-60 or so miles a day. If someone is traveling across a continent (1000 – 2000 miles) that is going to take a long time. Is your story going to support all that travel time (20 – 40 days)? And what happens if they have to walk?
In fantasy, you can allow for magical transportation. In my own Minstrel’s Song series, I included dragons and dragon riders to allow for swift transportation across the ocean from one island kingdom to another in the archipelago that make up the main countries that come into play throughout the story. But in the fourth book, when the characters embark on a much longer trip to unknown southern regions of the world, it did not become possible for them to fly that far via dragonback, and so I had to let them take a ship for their quest.
You’re also going to have to consider a variety of different cultures, and possibly different cultures within each country, not every country is a single culture in our own world, after all. And you will want to make sure to have plenty of history for this world that the characters can reference to give it a feel of realism.
Now, as we continue on for the next couple of weeks, I’d like to introduce you to a world my husband and I have been building together (though, I’ll be honest and admit that he has done most of the work… I’ve been more of a consultant on this one as originally this was a world he was creating in order to play D&D in). However, as the world has grown and our time for playing D&D has decreased, we’ve played with the idea of me writing a series of stories within this world, since it’s just sitting there… ready for adventures.
While I will also be referencing some of my other stories: The Minstrel’s Song and the up-coming Turrim Archive, I thought that you might enjoy getting to peek behind the curtain… get a “back-page pass” as it were… into the creation of a fantasy realm and some of the things Derek and I do, and some of the things we think about when we build a world for me to write stories in.
Welcome to Revelod
In terms of scope, Revelod falls into the “global” definition, as Derek wanted this to be a world that actually encompassed something the size of an actual planet. It is by far the biggest world I’ve ever had to write in, and that can be a little daunting… but it also means that there is the potential for a TON of different types and sizes of stories to be told here.
Suspended within Veritoth amongst the stars is a bright blue ball of life circling its yellow sun and decorated by its twin moons. Upon the face of this planet resides the races and realms of Orimar’s greatest achievement, and his greatest sorrow. But that is a story yet to be told, or shall I say, yet to be completed.
Revelod is the home to many peoples as well as great and ancient cultures. There have been epochs of power and majesty only to be torn apart by conflicts of the mighty. Wars have ravaged this world, and great ages of power and might have shaped it, molded it, and broken it. Entire realms have been destroyed and drowned beneath the sea. Others have barely escaped destruction and banded together to defend against the next calamity, while some have been less fortunate and fallen to the evil left behind by the mighty. Throughout Revelod there is hope for some and despair for others. Some wield power with justice in their hands while others use it as a hammer to oppress the weak. But, there is always Orimar watching, guiding and serving his ultimate purpose to redeem and reclaim what is his.
Readers, what size fantasy worlds do you like best? Authors, what size fantasy world do you most enjoy writing in?
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