How to create a fantasy world from scratch
An author who’s been enthralled with fantasy stories from a young age—and has also penned a series—gives us a crash course in building fantasy worlds.
by Zachary Hagen
I love to read and write fantasy. A simple statement, but you may wonder why. And I can explain in the words of Belle from Disney’s animated classic Beauty and the Beast: “Well, it’s my favorite! Far off places, daring sword fights, magic spells, a prince in disguise!” Although I suppose not every fantasy story has a prince in disguise—I know my books so far don’t—there is still something every fantasy I’ve ever read has in common: far off places.
To become a fantasy writer is to become a creator. Yes, all writers create, but fantasy and sci-fi writers especially have to create more than just a plot and characters to play it out. We writers of the fantastical must create entire worlds—out of nothing—in which our stories are to take place. We must be creators, and while we won’t ever see our worlds actually come to life in any real sense, we must make it so that readers believe that the worlds we create are real.
I submit for your consideration the world of Terra Aeternitas from my own series, The Eternal Chronicles. This is a flat planet suspended in what its inhabitants call “the ether,” populated on both sides of what is essentially a disk. Think of it as a coin or one of those two-sided compact discs if you’re as old as I am and remember listening to audiobooks on CD. On one side of the planet is Lux Terra, and on the other, Nox Terra. Both sides are inhabited by different creatures, and the mysteries of the night enchant Nox Terra with more magic, which earned it the title “Realm of Magic.” It fell into obscurity during the age when passage between the two was sealed by the deity that created it all, the Great Spirit Aelon.
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I haven’t even begun to describe the people that live there, and already the world I have helped you to imagine is something interesting and novel. Even apart from the plot of my series, there is a rich lore beneath it that extends into the far past with histories of nations rising and falling, mythic figures, and a magic system that evolved over time to fuel a second industrial revolution, giving the Lux Terrans a source of clean, renewable energy.
There are so many wonderful ideas out there, but with that comes a hard truth: nothing you come up with will be 100% original.
These ideas are the products of hours of worldbuilding and creating a lore and system that made sense. The “how” of worldbuilding is fascinating and enjoyable to experience. This is how I did it, but I do caution you, reader, to not think of my process as dogma and the only solution. As unique as every world will be, so too are the creators. Let my process guide and inform, but don’t think that you can’t reinvent some things for yourself and your own process.
There are so many wonderful ideas out there. With that comes a hard truth: nothing you come up with will be one hundred percent original. There will be inspirations and borrowed ideas. Even the plots we create can be put into certain archetypes most of the time. The good news is that’s totally fine. Creativity for humanity is learning how to create a patchwork quilt of ideas that’s never been seen before. Allow your favorite shows, movies, songs, and books to plant seeds of ingenuity in you. Allow cultures and the world to add spice and richness to your ideas. Write down things you think are awesome about these things and keep them close. Some of my inspiration came from The Inheritance Cycle, The Chronicles of Narnia, and Avatar: the Last Airbender.
Crafting the foundation
Everyone starts somewhere. Once you know what pieces and ideas you are inspired by, start matching pieces together. Some things will work well together, and others won’t. When you have a vague idea about the world, tell yourself its origin story. Did it evolve? Was it created? Is the world you’ve created without beginning and eternal? What historical and political events shaped your world into what it is now? Maybe you answer these questions as part of building for your story, and maybe that is the story. Either way, creating a lore that is consistent and cohesive is all about telling yourself about it. Let the pieces fall together and don’t be afraid to ask “What if?” questions often.
Your story will need to know how certain things happen in your world. Depending on your particular story, you may need to design political hierarchies, magic systems, transportation and sewage systems, industries, and whatever else lends itself to your plot. For example, my books have a magitechnology industry dominated by two competing companies, where one is controlled by the protagonists and one is controlled by the antagonists. This detail adds quite a bit of depth and richness to my story. That being said, I only reveal what is necessary for the plot, but knowing about these things in advance can help you avoid creating plot holes.
The overlay and creatures
Once you have built a world, you can populate it with different races or creatures and whatever and whoever you want. Are there different people groups of the same species, or are they different species? Do some people possess magic or special abilities? How and why? Here is where you can dig into some of your plot and figure out how to build characters that feel like a product of their own world.
This is the privilege of writers. We can create in ways that few dare. As you embark on your own journey, whether that’s creating a world for readers to enjoy or for you and your friends to enjoy during a role-playing game, I hope that these tips help you to create a world that feels fresh, inviting, exciting, and above all, truly real.
Zachary Hagen is a Minnesota-based fantasy author and editor. He lives there with his wife, Claudia, and their dog, Flynn. When he isn’t busy writing his next book or working with an editing client, you can often find him walking around his neighborhood or hiking.
From a young age Zachary was enthralled with the world of story. From the stories his parents read to him from his blue bedtime story books (if you know, you know) to the first two series that he read, The Chronicles of Narnia and A Series of Unfortunate Events, Zachary’s tastes continued to develop throughout his years of reading. The influences for his first series, The Eternal Chronicles, include Christopher Paolini, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and others.
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