On creating a fantasy world – Elise Holland

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By Elise Holland

The first story I wrote was a young adult novel. A 15-year-old girl finds a German soldier’s diary from World War I, and then discovers disturbing parallels between him and the boy next door. Before I started writing this story, I spent countless hours researching WWI. The research aggravated me.♥

I thought, why can’t I just sit down and write already?

It occurred to me that writing fantasy would un-shackle me from the tedious process of getting all my facts straight. If I wrote fantasy, I could make up the history. I could make up everything as I pleased. There would be no rules to bind me, right?


In building a fantasy world, you (its creator) need to follow rules all the more, or people will lose faith in your world. Logic must guide its societies, ruling structures and belief systems. And its history must inform all of that!

For example, if you got transported back in time, say, 5,000 years or so, you would notice something very different about the people there. They didn’t question authority much. The rulers had learned that tyranny was the best way to keep themselves safe from outside invaders and their own people.

At first, I drew upon this model in creating Glendoch. My initial vision was for a society that didn’t question the two royal ruling houses too much. Then I realized that I didn’t want my monarchs to be tyrants. And I wanted my other characters to be spunkier than most people living in subservient society. So I modernized things a bit. Created a history that made the Glendochians’ behavior logical.

Just like on Earth, there were crucial events that changed the way they perceived their world and their place in it. Some creatures became outcasts. Some rose to power. Some sought power while others sought peace. I didn’t write this history into my story — I just wrote it all down for my reference, and let it drive my characters’ choices.

Now let’s think about the way your world looks. The most fun way to do this is to draw from that which inspires you, haunts you or simply evokes curiosity. My world was informed by a hodgepodge of Narnia, Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen and my experience moving to Michigan from England in February. That’s right; Michigan. In February.

Coming from a tepid country that sees snow once in a blue moon. Never before had I encountered such an untamed world! I’d stare out of my window at nighttime, in awe of that magical, violet-hued world. Mind you, it was beautiful to look at. Not so much to be out in it. One day, my best friend and I decided to run barefoot through freshly fallen snow. She, too, was from a warmer climate so just as clueless as I. We quickly discovered that the snow looks soft, but is in fact sharp and pointy like little needles poking into your skin, and the cold leaves an ache in your bones long after you’re back inside. It was this magnificent yet brutal world that I wanted to recreate.

Next, what creatures inhabit your world? Here, you really get to mix things up. For example, why have an ordinary unicorn when you could have one that flies (in my world, these are called pegasorians)? You can give form to dark emotions and make them villains, like dementors in Harry Potter, or Spectres in The Golden Compass. You can take a creature that typically has a bad reputation, like a snake or a rat, and make it your protagonists’ ally. Just remember – if you want your characters to be intriguing, they still need desires, strengths and weaknesses just like characters in an ordinary world.

Lastly, if yours is an enchanted world, you must impose rules and constraints on your magical creatures. Otherwise their omnipotence is boring. They will always win. There will be no conflict! If you decide that your main character is a sorcerer, for example, you can’t have him use magic to achieve all his goals — that would be dull! What flaws, opponents or shackles get in his way? Whatever you decide, make sure they are consistent.

Above all, have fun with your creations! Draw upon what you know and love. And don’t forget the plot. There’s no sense in creating a world that is breathtaking and novel, only to have a dull story line. No matter how fantastic your world is, it’s still just the background for your story.

Elise Holland grew up in England before moving to the US in her teens. She now lives in Mill Valley, CA, with her husband, daughter, dog, and cat. In addition to fueling her tea addiction, she enjoys hiking, yoga, and spending time with family and friends.


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