3 Tips to Create an Engaging Fantasy Setting

3 Tips to Create an Engaging Fantasy Setting

By Mya Lewis

1. Examine the real world.

To begin making your fantasy setting compelling, you will need to make it stand out. Start by looking at the real world, at its environment and cultures. What makes them stand out? Depending on where you are, there are different things you might encounter. You aren’t going to see a lion in Australia or a great white shark chilling in the Amazon river. Your world should have solid regional differences as well. Take elements from reality and merge them into something entirely new. Think about what’s been done before. Elves and fairies have been done to death. What makes a trope boring and overused, and what would turn it on its head? If it doesn’t excite you, don’t write it. If you’re sick of reading medieval-inspired fantasy, don’t write something that mirrors medieval-inspired fantasy!

2. Don’t bore with detail.

Don’t bore your reader with pages of exposition on how the world was created, or by describing every blade of grass. Instead, let the setting unfold gradually on the page. Note the battles that were fought in the open field as the character passes by them. Make mention of how the trees look and why they’re unique, but only while you’re in the forest, and only for a moment. Giving snippets of information will be like giving the reader a little treat, a sneak peek inside the world building. This will make the setting seem more real and vivid, like our own world, which is full of surprises.

3. And lastly, most importantly, add danger.

Make the setting filled with fresh and unique challenges. Think about our world, and how difficult it would be to attempt to cross it all on just your feet. To make a compelling setting, you need the same element as you do to make a compelling plot: a healthy dose of suspense and intrigue. Perhaps those innocent-looking bunnies frolicking at your feet aren’t so innocent after all. Maybe the ground underneath your feet has a nasty habit of devouring people every day at exactly three a.m. but only if you’re wearing green and only if it’s rained recently. …Maybe not quite like that. But your setting needs to have rules and challenges interspersed throughout.

But what if your fantasy setting isn’t in the jungle or some wild mystical world? What if it’s as simple as inside a house or down a mythical alleyway? The same elements apply. Ask yourself, where is the danger? And what makes that danger such a threat? There could be conflicts inside that house that your character wishes to avoid, or muggers in that alleyway that pose a safety concern to anyone wishing to walk down the street in peace. In any setting, there is always danger, and identifying it is what makes the story compelling.

Further Reading…

3 Ways to Get More Out of Your World-Building

3 Ways to Get More Out of Your World-Building

If you’re a fantasy or sci-fi author, one of the most important things for you to develop is your story’s world. While this is both fun and meaningful in its own right, your world should be more than just a backdrop for your characters’ story, and there’s so much more you can do with it. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

1. Add Conflict

Are there threats unique to your world that could create serious obstacles and keep your characters from reaching their goals? Maybe your characters need to get through a jungle, but there’s a flower that grows on the trees that’s poisonous to the touch and none of them knows about it, so one of them gets sick and it sets them back. Or maybe they do know about it, but an animal attack forced them back and one of them touched it by mistake, and the only antidote is back the way they came. World-building is a great starting point for adding conflict to your story’s middle.

And that’s just minor conflicts. If you’re writing fantasy, chances are your main conflict has something to do with the world in which it’s set. In my current project calligraphers have the ability, but not the permission, to rewrite time, and when a calligrapher does rewrite time his entire guild is forced to face the anger of the ancient dragons who are responsible for keeping time undamaged. The primary conflict is entirely unique to the world, with not only the dragons but also the time-cementing ink that the calligraphers use. Not all fantasy plots are tied so closely to the world—you can put an evil overlord in just about any setting—but when the plot and world-building are so closely interwoven it’s generally more engaging for the reader.

2. Deepen Characters

When developing characters, think about where in your world they come from. What dreams are they likely to have, judging from the culture they grew up in? What biases will they have? How do they go with or against the grain in their surroundings? What skills would they have developed from the environment they grew up in, and how do those skills help or hinder them in the story?

A character in a culture where calligraphers are held in high esteem, for instance, may have more of a desire–or more outside pressure–to become a calligrapher than to become something that might otherwise be considered more useful, like a warrior or a tailor. Or a character raised inside a jungle might be totally lost when her family moves into a town just outside the jungle.

The world your character grows up in will have a huge impact on who they are as a person, so don’t leave it out of your considerations.

3. Add Interest to Mundane Scenes

Say you have a scene that’s a conversation between two characters, and you can tell as you’re writing it that it’s turning out really flat. One of the ways you can spruce it up is by looking to your world-building for inspiration. What is the setting of the scene? What unique elements of your world could you include? Maybe it’s in a character’s office and they have a magical globe that’s distracting the main character from the conversation. Or maybe they are in a forest and there are tiny fairies flittering around in the way. Not only will these little details bring your scene to life, they’ll bring your world to life as well.

Further Reading

·         10 Tips for Writing Worldbuilding by Elle McFadzean

·         The Best World Building Questionnaire Ever by Hannah Truelove

·         10 Tips for Unique, Creative World-Building by Hannah Heath

Do you enjoy world-building, or do you find it a necessary evil? How have you used world-building to add to another aspect of your storytelling? What’s your favorite thing about world-building?

To read more on world-building, check out R.M. Archer’s blog, Scribes & Archers.

3 Tips for Writing an Ensemble Cast

3 Tips for Writing an Ensemble Cast

I personally really enjoy an ensemble cast in a story, and they get bonus points in my book if they’re pushed together by circumstances rather than by choice. One of my favorite things about the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie is seeing how the Guardians come together and how utterly dysfunctional they are in the beginning.

The question is: how do we write such dynamic groupings in our own work? How do we engage our readers with mismatched casts without just annoying them or coming up short?

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how to write a good monarch featured image

How to Write a Good Monarch

Last week I wrote about how to write a tyrant. This week I will write about what makes a good monarch or leader.

Level Headed

The ideal monarch is calm and focussed. He or she does not allow emotions to easily sway them.

Good War Strategist

This in of itself does not make a good leader or monarch. Robert Baratheon was a great soldier in his day, but he made a terrible king. He drank and whored himself to an early-ish grave. (Let’s face it he wasn’t young, but he could have easily reigned for another decade if he had been a bit more clever.) Another great war strategist was Robb Stark, also from Game of Thrones. He won every battle he faced but it was his personal choices that undid him. If you don’t already know about the Red Wedding then I have to ask, have you been hiding under a rock these past 6 years?


Ned Stark from Game of Thrones was a paragon of honour, but it led to his death. A good monarch should know when to be honest and when to lie, but they ought to always keep their vows. Without honour how can you subjects or other kings and queens trust you?

A Sense of Justice

A pessimist (or a realist, depending how you look at it) may say there is no justice in the world. So it’s up to the monarch to ensure that the laws are just and that the weak are protected. This is not always easy as justice can look different to different people. It is up to the monarch to ensure that the evil are punished and victims are compensated.

Does What is Necessary

Ink Exchange by Melissa Marr book cover

A good monarch cares about their subjects and does what they can to protect them, even when such choices are difficult.

Of course a monarch can still do this and be a villain if they do not care for others outside of their own country. Irial from Melissa Marr’s Wicked Lovely series is a good example of this. In Marr’s series faeries exist and each court is often at odds with each other. As King of the Dark Court, Irial is at odds with the Summer Court in Ink Exchange — the second book of the series. The Dark Court are known for their dark appetites and their cruelty. In order to keep his court strong Irial created the curse that bound the Summer King’s powers. On one hand this clearly makes Irial an antagonist to the Summer King, but as the novel is in 3rd person POV with 3 characters, including Irial, he is actually a protagonist and we’re given insight into the fact that he only cursed the Summer King for the sake of his own subjects, who needed the Summer Court weak in order to thrive.


A Good Monarch is Kind
King Arthur from Fate/Zero, a Japanese anime

A good monarch is kind, not only to their own subjects, but to people form other kingdoms. A good example of this is King Harrow from The Dragon Prince. In Season 2 of the animated TV show, the two queens of Duren, Annika and Neha, make a supplication to King Harrow of Katolis, asking for food due to their own country’s lack of resources. Rather than turn them away, King Harrow proposes to share his food, and in their suffering as Katolis does not have enough food to feed both kingdoms. One might consider this a bad thing, as Harrow has sentenced thousands of his own kingdom to die slowly from hunger, but the act of humanity he shows in sharing makes him a good monarch in my opinion. For those who have seen The Dragon Prince you know that is not the end of the story, and they do indeed find a way of getting more food, though at great cost.

Who is your favourite monarch from fiction, or history, and why? Let me know in the comments below.

How to Write a Tyrant Featured Image

How to Write a Tyrant

Fantasy is filled with kings and queens, both kind and cruel alike. Today we will focus on the cruel ones and dissect what characteristics make a truly tyrannical leader and how to write a tyrant.

Narcissism & Selfishness

Portrait of a businessman looking at himself in the mirror

A narcissist is a person who has an excessive interest in or admiration of themselves. It is a personality disorder, but nowadays it is used interchangeably to mean a self-centered individual. This can lead to confusion, but in this article I will use it to refer to the disorder.

Characteristics of of Narcissistic Personality Disorder include but is not limited to:

  • Frequent lies and exaggerations
  • Rarely admits flaws
  • Aggressive when criticised
  • Rule breaking
  • Manipulation
  • They are emotionally abusive
  • Extremely jealous
  • Believe they are special and only relate to other special people

Only 1% of the world is diagnosed with NPD. The rest are just selfish individuals. Some psychiatrists, however, believe the disorder exists on a spectrum, verging from mildly narcistic to pathological. In order to write a tyrant I advise you showcase at least 3 of the above symptoms.

Here is an article that explains the difference between narcissism and selfishness. Click here to read it.


Not every hedonist is a tyrant, but most tyrants do give into their sexual urges. We can see this through multiple wives or concubines, and frequent orgies, such as is the case with Roman Emperor, Caligula. While such sexual pleasures can be healthy and consensual, we know that tyrants do not often accept the word ‘no’. Historically, practices like prima nocta existed which allowed rulers to sleep with subordinate women, often on the night of their wedding, before they slept with their husbands. While it is possible to sleep around and be an effective ruler, in order to write a tyrant, your tyrant should focus solely on their own wants and desires pursing sexual partners and leave matters of state to others.

Lack of Empathy

Ramsay Snow Bolton

You forgot to ask one question! You forgot to ask me if I’m a liar! I’m afraid, I am. Everything I told you is a lie. This isn’t happening to you for a reason. Well, one reason; I enjoy it!

-Ramsay Bolton from Game of Thrones

Lack of empathy is a hallmark trait of those with ASPD, or Anti-social Personality Disorder. Those afflicted with it do not know how to put themselves in the place of others and feel what they might be feeling.

Characters like Joffrey Baratheon and Ramsay Bolton are infamous for their cruelty. This is because they simply don’t know how to empathise. Of course, a character can have little to no empathy and not actively torture people. In this case the characterisation would have to be a bit more subtle. Perhaps your king or queen doesn’t spend much time with their children because they know they can never love them. Or maybe they don’t know how to say the right words to their partner when they are going through a hard time. My point is, not every person with ASPD is cold-hearted murderer. Sometimes they’re the CEO of a successful company, or someone who enforces the law, or yes, a king or queen.

Iron Fist

Emperor Nero
Portrait of roman emperor Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus

Tyrants never allow for criticism of their governing. Emperor Tiberius infamously began a series of trials known as the Treason Trials, which meant that citizens were arrested and sentenced to die for simply saying something against the emperor.

Tyrants will disregard centuries of tradition in order to put into place laws and traditions of their own that will better serve themselves. A good example of this was Henry VIII. He undid centuries of Catholicism to become a protestant in order to marry Anne Boleyn, and so he could become the head of the church and amass more wealth.