What to Research When Writing Fantasy

What to Research When Writing Fantasy

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:

Research.

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.)

Gandalf meme: Go 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:

History

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.

Societies

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.

Japanese temple

Culture

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?

Language

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.

Dreamcatcher

Geology

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.

In conclusion…

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.

For discussion…

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!


Fantasy icons made by Freepik from www.flaticon.com is licensed by CC 3.0 BY.
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23 Responses

  1. saraletourneau
    | Reply

    Yes to everything. 😀 And like you said, it’s impossible to study EVERYTHING right away, but it’s good to research as much as possible, and as time allows. You do have to start writing the story at some point – but that doesn’t mean you ever stop researching or world-building. You simply hit the “pause” button on it for a while.

    When I world-build, the first thing I look at is, what defines this race or setting? How does their location (biome, latitude, climate) influence or affect their way of life, from the food they eat to their building materials and types of dwellings? How do their values or history / past influence things as well? Most importantly, why? With world-building, there needs to be a reason for everything. It’s pretty much everything you discussed here, though I think my world-building has (hopefully) become clearer as I’ve continued working on the WIP and researching (or fixing) certain bits I hadn’t thought of before.

    Languages. PRETTIES. 😀 I wanted the Fei (or Fey) in my world to have a unique, exotic language that I hadn’t read or heard before in fantasy. It blends Hebrew, Hindu, Finnish, and Japanese… which sounds really weird on paper, but I was meticulous about the vowel and consonant sounds, the cadence, and other things, and even invented words on my own once I got a handle on things. So in the end, their words don’t really look like their sources of inspiration; they sound… well, Fei.

    It’s a similar case with the Mountain Folk in the same story. Theirs is a mix of German, Dutch, Scandinavian tongues, and a bit of Russian – which, when combined, matches the folk’s ruggedness in physique, demeanor, and (in some cases) personality.

    And… I’m pretty much geeking out now, so I’ll stop here. XD Great article, Brianna!

    • Brianna da Silva
      | Reply

      Sara, I LOVE your comment so much. AHH YOU GET ME.

      And you’re so right… there does come a time when you need to press the “pause” button! I kind of wish I had mentioned this in the blog post, now. It’s easy to keep researching and preparing and using that as an excuse to procrastinate the actual writing process. O.o But the truth is, research never stops… so it’s not a very good excuse after all!

      I absolutely love your approach, and this just makes me all the more excited to read your book, when it is eventually finished. ^_^ I can tell you naturally put a lot of thought into your world-building, which I thoroughly appreciate in fantasy. And that is so cool how you developed the Fei language! That is honestly so similar to my own process. I always want my languages to come out sounding like their own thing; by giving them lots of unexpected, seemingly unrelated influences, they end up as a beautiful, unique blend. I look forward to experiencing your languages more. 🙂

      Ah. I’m geeking out now, too. #AllTheWorldBuildingHappiness

  2. Nerdybirdy @ Daydreaming Books
    | Reply

    I am currently in the midst of plotting one. This is really going to help. Thank you so much!

    • Brianna da Silva
      | Reply

      I’m so glad this is helpful! That makes me fantastically happy to hear! ^_^

  3. oakorca
    | Reply

    Great advice. Thank you!

  4. Shannon Noel Brady
    | Reply

    Such an interesting post! I liked your point about following your curiosity – what you’re most interested in researching will alert you to the things you’ll most want to write about (which in turn will make the writing better). If your world takes place in some Medieval-esque kings-and-castles society, but researching them bores you to tears, that’s a sign that maybe your book shouldn’t be set there. Maybe you discover you’re more curious about Feudal Japan or Colonial America. Or maybe you’ll stick with your castle setting, but you’ll discover the kings aren’t very interesting – turns out peasant life in the country is much more intriguing to you. Who knows!

    LOVED your section on culture. The meanings embedded in the culture are much more interesting than the surface level, and they will have real, concrete impacts on characters from that culture. It also ties into your point from the history section about why’s. WHY does this culture behave in this way? WHY do they wear these types of clothes?

    Another awesome post, Brianna!

    • Brianna da Silva
      | Reply

      Thank you for your comment, Shannon! ^_^ That’s a really good point about curiosity. It’ll inform you of where your interests lie, and your work will always turn out better the more your heart is in it. 🙂 And yes, YES, I love what you said about how cultures impact characters, too. It can have a very deep impact on your story. Thinking about culture thoroughly adds another rich layer of depth. ^_^

  5. Bethany A. Jennings
    | Reply

    Yes!! Such good thoughts!

    A really good tool I know is Janeen Ippolito’s “World-Building from the Inside Out” – there’s a manual and a workbook too, and they’re so good for these kinds of deep questions.

    • Brianna da Silva
      | Reply

      I’m not familiar with this book… thanks for passing it on! 🙂

  6. Stephanie Peace
    | Reply

    ^^^ THIS. ALL OF THIS!!!
    It’s exactly what I needed, really, because I’ve been trying to world-build, but I keep feeling stumped & overwhelmed with the idea of making everything from scratch. I love the points you’ve made in this post! Thank you! ❤

    • Brianna da Silva
      | Reply

      I’m so happy to hear this!!! The blog post has served its purpose in life! xD Thank you for letting me know it was helpful! ^_^ <3

  7. Mel
    | Reply

    This is great advice. I am about a month into working on a fantasy novel, and am in the research process right now. (I am very new to the genre, so I’ve been gathering information from my brother-in-law’s D&D group.)

    • Brianna da Silva
      | Reply

      Glad to hear this was helpful! ^_^

  8. Kris
    | Reply

    Thanks for the great post!

    I’m in the research and mapmaking phase right now. I thought I’d share another resource in case someone reading this finds it useful: https://www.cartographersguild.com/content.php People are really friendly there, but everyone needs to beware of the river police. They have tons of tutorials on techtonic plates (e.g., where mountains should go and how islands ought to look), rivers, etc. They also have a forum where you can post your WIP map for critique. The comments people leave are thoughtful and useful, not mean.

    I found your tips regarding language development, climate, and culture incredibly useful because there were a few aspects I hadn’t thought about – thanks again!

    • Brianna da Silva
      | Reply

      Thanks for the kind post, Kris, and for the resource! I’m definitely checking that out. :O

  9. Paleostone
    | Reply

    Paleostone

    As you may note from my logo I am into earth history. I am a Geologist and have great fun making up maps. When researching your landforms start with Geomorphology. That is the study of landforms. The most important part of a map. It will control where people live. On Earth the vast majority of the population lives with 200 miles of major water forms. This is because water was and is the least energy cost method of transportation. Run up a sail, turn it carefully and let the wind blow. The oldest precip of Geology is the Law of Uniformity. It says that if physics causes earth to behave a certain way know it always has been that way. For instance if water run down hill today than it ran downhill 3 billion years ago. Gravitation effects have not changed. The same would be true of other worlds. A wind would not pick up heavy rocks and throw them around with out first picking up the sand and pebbles around the rocks.

    A few simple things to remember, yes rivers can run from south to north, the Nile does. Rivers always run down hill and if two rivers come together they meet in a y shape. The point of the y where the v meets the tail, always points down stream. The inside of a curve in the river has the slowest water and is the shallowest (the river drops sediment as it slows down) the outside curve is fastest and is eroding the banks so that is where you will have fallen trees etc. Different rivers have different characteristics based on their gradient and the land they drain. The Mississippi drains comparitively flat land and is known as the Big Muddy. It has a huge delta into the Gulf of Mexico which is flat, waterlogged and growing. Look at real maps. Steal ideas from our world.

    Glaciated valleys are u shaped, river valleys are v shaped. Volcanoes and earthquakes are much more common on the edges of continents then in the center. Yellowstone hot springs and gysers as well as the Maridian fault, which has it’s epicenter near Madrid, Mo, are notable examples. More typical is the ring of fire that surrounds the pacific plate from Japan down around to Chili and up through California to Alaska. There is another plate boundry between India and the rest of Asia which created the Himilayan mountains and causes earthquakes in Nepal.

    Seasons are not created by how close the earth is to the sun. In fact the earth is closer to the sun during the northern hemispheres winter. The seasons are caused by a 23.? degree tilt of the earth’s axis. If your world has seasons then the seasons must go along with the changes in the length of day vs night caused by a tilt. The less tilt the less dramatic the difference in seasons and the more uniform the temps in any one place but the more dramatic the change in temp from pole to equator.

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    • Brianna da Silva
      | Reply

      Hi Paleostone! Thank you for your long and insightful comment! It’s really helpful!

  10. Mark Thomas
    | Reply

    Thanks for your thoughts on this – I’m currently polishing my first novel, a fantasy set across multiple layers, nations and therefore cultures, which is challenging too. Keeping track of all the different mindsets and cultural priorities when disparate characters come together isn’t always easy!

  11. Ilse Mul
    | Reply

    Thank you for these wonderful insights, Brianna! I’ve started both research and world building for my first novel Dragon Rider’s Seer last year when I was in Camp NaNo July. I found I needed to to know more about Parabataì and before I knew it, I wasn’t writing my story, but digging deep into history instead. I contacted a historian at the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden (Netherlands) to talk about Parabataì and found out there was actually hardly anything known about that, besides it actually being real back in the Roman Days.
    From there I researched further, went into more detail about the life back then (and medieval times), about cultures, the way of life, and more things like that. I always was interested in history, but this was different, like you said. This wasn’t just simply learning facts. This was seeing what was actually there, learning about life in a deeper way and see how that could be implemented (if at all) in my novel.

    I’ve started using Stephanie Cortell Bryant’s Magical World Builder tool to dig deeper into my world and I found it very fun to do. Your insights will give that extra flavor, I think, to that world building process in general and to my story in particular! Thanks for that 🙂

    During my research and world building I found that, even though, I already had written an outline (albeit a rough outline), I got a lot of inspiration for my storyline and characters. I even got some new characters due to the world building process and my Antagonist now had a good background, motive and, as it turns out, she’s an evil manipulating Seer, but no ones finds out until it’s too late. And that all due to a world building process I haven’t even finished yet 😀

    Language is something I haven’t dived into yet, simply because I think I might spend too much time on creating a language instead of actually writing and world building (knowing myself 😀 )

    Geology is actually an interesting factor in my story because I’ve got Seers who can actually change things. And Angels who have changed things in the past. It’s fun to see how things develop when you take these into account. It’s a fun consequence of magic that sometimes goes wrong (intentional or not).

    Thanks again for all the insights! Happy writing!

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