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Building Fantasy Worlds with RF Long

Writing.ie | Magazine | Interviews | Speculative Fiction

By R F Long

R.F. Long always had a thing for fantasy, romance and ancient mysteries. The combination was bound to cause trouble. In university she studied English Literature, History of Religions and Celtic Civilisation, which just compounded the problem.

Her fantasy and paranormal romance novels and novellas are currently available from Samhain publishing, online and in good bookshops.

She is represented by Suzie Townsend of FinePrint Literary Management in New York.

Ruth’s contemporary YA fantasy MAY QUEEN is coming soon from Dial Books for Young Readers. Her website is www.rflong.com and can be found on Twitter as @RFLong.

Here Ruth shares with writing.ie the fantasy worlds at you can find at your fingertips…..

As writers, we create. And to me, as a fantasy writer, there’s nothing more creative than a story that crafts a whole new world, with cultures, species, folklore and traditions unique to it. A world I, as a reader, can get completely lost in. The type that leaves me blinking at the end of the book, wondering where all that time went and what’s that funny thing in the corner of the living room with the moving pictures on it. The wonder of writing is to be able to take readers to the places we create in our minds. Being able to share our dreams. Fantasy is the most rewarding type of fiction I know.

But fantasy requires a lot more work than people think. You’re already asking readers to suspend disbelief when telling a fictionally story. With fantasy, you’re asking for a lot more. So your fantasy world must be flawless, logical, and follow rules to the letter. Think of a swan, all grace, poise and beauty above the water, feet paddling away furiously out of sight underneath.

So here are some guidelines for constructing fantasy worlds. (Not rules. Not really. Well, maybe one or two.)

First Question: What type of fantasy are you writing?

Types of fantasy – epic/S&S/Urban/Paranormal Romance/ etc.

As fantasy grows and evolves, as with all genres, the parameters change and adapt. There are many types of fantasies now at the reader’s disposal and each of these sub-genres have their own rules, norms and reader-expectations. Let’s take a look at a few.

Stand by, I’m going to make some sweeping generalisations.


We all know (and probably love) this type of fantasy. Prime examples are Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time, George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. They tend to be the big multivolume stories with a cast of hundreds (if not thousands). The stories are set primarily in an entirely created “other” world, often having detailed maps, histories and details of cultures on which the author draws to create a sense of “other” reality for the reader. Broad themes of good versus evil are dominant, of quests carried out by groups of people and the concept of sacrifice for the greater good. The ultimate evil threatens the whole world.

Swords & Sorcery

S&S can feel very close to the epic or high fantasy stories, also being set in other worlds, however the threat and quest often revolves around the personal needs and desires of an individual. Battles tend to be personal and they involve high adventure, swordfighting and romance. The term was initially coined to describe the world of Robert E. Howard (Conan, Kull etc). By the late 80s writers such as Marion Zimmer Bradley subtly (and not so subtly) shifted the position of heroines in such stories from damsels-in-distress to damsels-quite-able-to-take-care-of-themselves-thanks-very-much.


Urban Fantasy is generally defined as fantastic stories taking place in a city or urban setting. That tends to mean its set in our world rather than a secondary world (although this is not a strict definition) where magical or fantastic elements coexist with humans. This coexistence can be secret or in the open. Contemporary fantasy is a crossover sub-genre (that which is definitively set in our world) as is Paranormal Romance (more below). Think Charles de Lint, Emma Bull, Ilona Andrews, Neil Gaiman and many more. This is another genre where the female characters have become stronger over recent years and the kick-ass heroine is pretty much taking over.

Paranormal Romance

Paranormal romances are cross-genre books which include paranormal elements in our world and the main focus of which is a romance between a human and a paranormal creature. It finds its roots in gothic fiction and often blend other sub genres as well. Whereas in Urban Fantasy the main focus of the story is the battle between good and evil, or simply the battle to survive, the focus in a paranormal romance is whether the lover will end up together. This doesn’t exclude the other story elements as a happily ever after will be hard to pull off if evil wins or one of them dies (although, it being fantasy, that’s not impossible!)

Fantasy Romance

Essentially Fantasy romance is to Epic and S&S what Paranormal Romance is to Urban fantasy. As both Epic and S&S often have a strong romance subplot anyway, they stand very close to each other and the difference tends to be highlighted through a shift in emphasis.

Historical Fantasy

Stories where fantastic element exist in the human world or are brought there in a previous period in time. Many of these stories will also be alternative history (where introducing the magical elements changes historical events). However, if the elements are secret this need not be the case. Many stories play on the idea that magical/fantastic elements always existed in our world without our knowledge and impact key moments in history. Historical fantasy stories should be set in recognisable periods from our history rather than in an “other” world unless transfer of civilsations has occurred (ie a group from feudal china settled in an alternate reality). Celtic, Arthurian, Medieval, and even Steampunk(more below) can also be historical fantasy. Lian Herne, Katherine Kerr, Naomi Novak, Guy Gavriel Kay

Steampunk and Space Opera

Technically Steampunk and Space Opera are subgenres of Science fiction but more and more crossover is happening and fantastic elements are being introduced to these tales as well. Steampunk is generally set in the Victorian period but with advanced technology (Gail Carriger, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, China Miéville), while Space Opera is a space set adventure (such as Star Wars) often involving the same amount of swashbuckling and romance as Swords & Sorcery.

So these are the sub-genres, but the rule “follow no rule off a cliff” also applies to genres. As can be seen above, they are constantly shifting, adapting and changing. Don’t get hung up on genre. Just love what you’re writing and make it fresh.

Market forces

How long is a fantasy novel? How long should my story be?

A story should be as long as it needs to be to fully tell the story… BUT….

And it’s a big but for a reason.

It is very hard to look at the huge, multivolume, doorstop tomes on shelves and imagine that to write fantasy, especially epic fantasy, we should be writing to that length. The problem for a beginner writer is that the people producing these huge series are generally experienced and well established writers with a reliable track record of sales. General guidelines given by agents and publishers set a novel (even a fantasy novel) as being between 80,000 words and 120,000 words with 100,000 words as a preferred length. That’s roughly between 300 and 400 hundred pages. Colleen Lindsay has a super post on this aThe Swivet – which you should read.

There are always exceptions to the rules, but the rules are still there for a reason. It’s MUCH easier if you follow them.

With the advent of epublishing a whole rake of new markets has opened up from fiction from 12,000 words upwards. As with any market, research it thoroughly first but from first hand experience this is an exciting and fulfilling way of approaching publication.

Making it all up – Researching Fantasy Worlds

We’ll start with common misconception number one. Writing fantasy is easy, isn’t it? I mean you don’t have to research. You just make stuff up. It’s all castles and dragons after all.

Not so.

As a writer you’re creating an entire world for your reader. This is a key point. It’s not for yourself. Or not just for yourself, especially if you want to pursue publication. You are communicating ideas, talking to your reader and THEY are the ones who have to be able to understand your world – completely and utterly as if they have walked into it and are living ‘the dream’.

How do you achieve this sense of reality in an unreal or created world?

I don’t want to frighten you, but you start with research. Lots of it. Research into absolutely everything:

Anthropology, religion, politics, architecture, geography… The list is actually endless when you start playing god with new worlds – its scary, but its also great fun to build a world from scratch.

You are going to develop and to create a totally new mindset a value system that will operate flawlessly for your characters and so draw your reader into your world.

How do you do this?

Let’s start with what interests you – have you always been fascinated by Mayan culture or the Murghal Empire? How about Eastern philosophy? Use something that interests you as your starting point and read around the subject area, look for articles on the Internet. Wikipedia can form a great jumping off point, but remember to check out the References, Further Reading and External Links section as well. Your aim is to expand your horizons beyond castles and dragons.

Highlight the items that light a bulb in your head, those that jump out at you and list them on a separate sheet. Even if they are totally unrelated, add in all the interesting bits. Your list will grow and when you feel you’ve got enough, go back over it and filter it for a second time, look for links between the elements you have noted and let your imagination roll. Given human nature I am constantly amazed at the similarities in legends used to explain elements in human existence. For example, most cultures have some form of vampire legends, flood legends etc. Look for patterns in your notes, recurrences of certain elements. Find new ways of linking disparate elements. Highlight those that appear to be already there and ask yourself what might cause such a link. The answer might be as simple as a common human need for an explanation, or it might be something more sinister from which a dozen stories can spring.

Think how you can turn the expected on its head to create the unexpected. As Mima (a writing friend of mine and prolific author in her own right) recently put it, why would dragons value the same thing as an American teenager? Wouldn’t it be more interesting to have an American teenager interact with a dragon culture that has a Buddhist (or insert something else non-white-middle class-Christian) worldview?

What’s important is the story, grabbing the reader’s attention and holding it.

Wherever you go you are absorbing information – you know what you know, you can find out what you don’t.

Keep alert. Visit museums. Browse through Encyclopedias of World Mythologies. Watch all those gloriously strange documentaries on TV. Ideas can come from anywhere and they have a habit of mixing together in new ways. This is the origin of the plotbunny – A tempting idea for a story that hares off into strange territory upon pursuit. Known for breeding rapidly and dividing a writer’s attention to the point of achieving nothing at all. (unword.com) . For more cautionary information on plot bunnies and the terrible things they do to your brain, I have post on my website – When Plotbunnies Attack.

Writing fantasy is not so much “write what you know”, but “write what you love” because that will make you want to go out and discover it and that will come across in your writing. Interest is a key point. You’re not going to write about something that doesn’t passionately interest you. No point in trawling through a million books which leave you uninspired. Your interest will transfer to your reader, but so will your disinterest. Better to let them see the things you love, so they will love it too.

Try this: List six past experiences that you can draw on to create your fantasy world

What elements of these past experiences can help you in worldbuilding? (hint: ever been on holiday? Ever visited a ruined house? Ever dug something up in the garden? – all your experiences help you in worldbuilding)

Now think about what culture you would consider the most magical? The most intriguing? The most secretive? Think outside the box – Not just familiar ones like Celtic, Norse, Greek or Roman. Perhaps take a look at sites such as The Wikipedia entry for World Heritage Sites for a jumping off point. What about combining cultures to create something “new”.

And if your interest truly lies in a well-used culture, how can you make it different? What twist can you bring to it to make it fresh? What could you combine together? Remember that any story you have to tell is YOUR story. You will always tell it differently to the next person. So trust in your story and in your voice as a writer.

And start writing. There’s a point where you need to stop researching and that’s vital to remember. You can also research and write at the same time. I tend to work that way, getting a basic grounding to begin with and then looking things up as they go along when those things are relevant.

If you’d like to delve a bit deeper into the intricacies of worldbuilding here are some sites and blogposts that have helped me.

Further Reading:

Wikipedia Worldbuilding

Patricia C. Wrede’s guide on the SFWA website

Holly Lisle’s Questions on Worldbuilding

Sarah A. Hoyt’s 10 Commandments of Worldbuilding

©RF Long for writing.ie

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