How to Make a Realistic Fantasy World (part 1)

Have you ever wondered what all goes into the creation of a fantasy world? Have you ever sat there stupefied while you’re reading The Lord of the Rings, wondering how on earth Tolkien came up with this whole world and made everything fit together so flawlessly? Well this month in the RADblog, I’m going to be answering some of your questions about creating a beautiful world of fantasy, a world where everything fits together and everything feels real, a world where your readers will feel like they can step right off the pages of your book and into the world you’ve created.

Now, for the sake of ease and because I’m sure every single one of you is familiar with the series, I’ll be using The Lord of the Rings as my example series, and Middle Earth as my example fantasy world. Tolkien, however, was a master at this kind of thing. He literally created languages to fit into his world. He made those languages. They can be spoken. They have correct syntax. And I’m in no way suggesting that you go that far. No, in fact, I think most of the time you won’t need to.


Step 1: The Map


Again, this is something Tolkien was amazing at doing. The Lord of the Rings’ map actually fits perfectly into Europe. It was designed to be a part of the real world. And again, I’m not suggesting you do that. Actually, I find it much more fun to make a world all my own, a world that doesn’t fit into the real one.

So to start out, get out a notebook and a pencil (or Microsoft’s Paint application, if you will), and start drawing. Make some outlines. Start with a world of water, and begin adding your continents. Of course, if you don’t want your world to be that big, then start with a landmass and add in some lakes, rivers, and tributaries. Maybe have an ocean region off to one side. Put in some mountains and forests, some snowy regions and bone-dry deserts. Let your mind go wild, let it go free.

But of course, you can’t just start drawing and expect everything to turn out perfectly on the first try. And that’s why I have some suggestions for you:

Look at some real maps. Google it. Look at maps of elevations, maps of tectonic plates, maps of mountainous regions and islands, of deserts and of rainforests, and make note of the things you see. Note that mountain ranges are generally desert on one side and forest on the other, note that landmasses often have mountains at their borders, and that mountain ranges in the center of landmasses mark the edges of tectonic plates. Note that water generally only collects in lower elevations, or in pockets within mountain ranges. Look at the way rivers flow toward the coastline, see where they spread out into many tributaries and where they’ll flow in a single line. Even take a look at the way islands tend to form in a circular shape, from a hot spot in their tectonic plate—and add all of that into your map.

From there, get creative. This is the fun part. This is the creation of your world. Don’t start thinking about who’s going to live where or where certain races need to be in order for the story in your head to make sense. Just start making a map, a detailed world that’s full of the things we have in the real world.

Add mountain ranges, cactus, and trees. Add hills and valleys, rivers and tiny lakes. Add waves in your oceans and lakes, roughen up the edges of your landmasses, and do your best to make this world look like a real one. Like the real one.

And once you’ve done that, you can start thinking about those races. Ponder what races live in which regions, and start naming regions according to the lore of those races. For Tolkien, this meant adding in Rohan and Gondor, deciding on the location of the Shire and the Lonely Mountain, naming places like Rivendell and the Mines of Moria, and making sure they all fit into the map he’d already formed. But of course, we don’t want to go too far in our map-making, so don’t get too attached to any names just yet.


Why? Because your story will be informed by your map—not the other way around. I know sometimes it feels like the story should come first, and the world should come later, but in the long run it’ll only mean more editing and tweaking of your story after it’s written. Better to get creative in your world making before really starting the book, if only to save yourself the headache.


Next time, we’ll talk some more about those races we started on in the end of our map making session!


Rani Divine
Associate Editor, etc.