What’s the most overlooked stage of writing fantasy?
I might say character development, plot, or world-building, but I think it’s something more foundational:
Now, before you groan and shrink into a corner, recalling horrid memories of school papers and science projects, let me assure you: Researching for fantasy is a lot of fun! (Also, it’s nothing like school, so dispel those foul memories back to the shadow.)
So, why does research get overlooked in fantasy?
We all know that it’s an important part of the writing process, especially for genres like historical or science fiction. However, perhaps because fantasy is a genre based in the make-believe, we prioritize it less, thinking that we can simply invent the details of our world.
Truth is, research is just as important for fantasy as for any other genre. This is particularly the case for high fantasy. If you’re developing a fictional world, it has to be plausible and believable, or else readers will see through the holes in your world-building and take your book less seriously.
A believable world grounds readers in your story. An unbelievable world takes them out of the story. You do not want this.
So, what areas should you research before writing your fantasy novel? Here are some great places to start:
If your fantasy world is well-developed, it will inevitably have a history of its own. It might be tempting to create your history as a casually-laid-out sequence of events. But history is much more than this.
Instead, research real history from a broad perspective. Study the processes of time. How long might it take for a kingdom to grow to a specific size? How do culture, worldview, religion, and scientific perspectives influence societies across generations?
Don’t just memorize what happened in our past (as school uselessly taught us to do). Instead, study the far more important – and frankly, far more interesting – question of why.
Why did the Roman Empire fall? Why was Alexander the Great able to conquer so much land? Why did feudalism form, and why did it fall apart? Answering these questions will make you far wiser for creating a fictional history that makes sense.
Study the structure of different societies, both past and present. What are the various kinds of governments? What leads to their creation? How are cities built and managed? How are they affected by economics, policies, and varying kinds of laws?
As with all these topics, you don’t have to study everything, obviously. That would take a lifetime! But follow your curiosity. Ask questions, and seek out answers like a detective. Pursue those questions that will be most relevant to your own world, or that most peak your interest.
Culture is something that is often misunderstood. Too many times, people see culture as a surface-level flavoring to a social group, akin to dressing on a salad. They make a list of art styles, food, clothing, and music, and say, “This is culture!”
No, my friends. This is not culture. And this mindset can lead to the creation of shallow, unrealistic cultures in fantasy.
Rather, these things are the expression of culture. It’s the after-affect or result of culture, if you will. True culture is based in the mindset, worldview, and value systems of a society. When developing a culture, this is where you must start.
Explore different real-life cultures for inspiration, looking not just into the way they eat and dress, but into their perspective. How do they express love? How do they see life and death? What matters to them most? How does this translate into behavior, customs, expressions, and art?
Also, keep in mind that the physical climate of the society will largely influence how they dress, eat, and function. What kind of food is available? How do they make their clothes? What customs and traditions help them survive?
It’s common for fantasy writers to create languages for their worlds, in the tradition of Tolkien. This is well and good, but please: Don’t go for the same sources of inspiration that Tolkien took! We’ve all heard Elvish and Elvish-like tongues a million times.
There are nearly endless sources of inspiration for beautiful, unique languages that you can create. See Arabic, German, Japanese, Hindi, Spanish, Swahili, and Russian, for example. Or even better, research a less-studied language like Danish, Hawaiian, Kirundi, Navajo, or Sinhala, or a dead language like Ancient Egyptian, Latin, or Sanskrit.
Draw inspiration from multiple languages as you’re building grammar, vocabulary, accents, and writing systems. You’ll be surprised at the fun, original results you’ll come up with.
You can’t create a map by just arbitrarily drawing mountains, rivers, forests, and political lines. Well, you can, but the results may not very realistic. It’s best to understand how geological systems work, and how they affect each other.
If part of your map is cold, why? If a forest is deciduous instead of tropical, why? If it has two seasons instead of four, why?
I’m fortunate to have a grandfather who used to be a weatherman for the navy, and I’ve spent hours drilling him on questions that have helped me tremendously in making my own fantasy map more realistic. If you don’t have an expert on hand, read up on the basics online, or borrow a book from the library. You don’t need to understand geology deeply, but a surface-level knowledge will help guide you in making a world that makes sense on a physical level.
If this feels like a lot of work… good! Building a rounded, believable world is a lot of work. If you want readers to feel fully immersed in your world, it shouldn’t be done lightly. Fortunately, though, it’s very enjoyable work.
You’ll find that the more you research real-world history, societies, culture, language, and geology, the more ideas you’ll find for your own world. Your findings will feed your inspiration and creativity, and give you seeds for an even more rounded, unique world in which to set your story.
Are there any tools or methods you use for research when creating your fantasy worlds? What’s your favorite part of the process? Share in the comments below!