Identifying the Scope and Size of Your Fantasy Realm

February is Fantasy Month 2

Middle Earth, Narnia, the Wizarding World, Oz, Wonderland, the Final Empire, a galaxy far, far away…. these names and fantastical places transport us instantly out of our own world to somewhere entirely other. They inspire our imaginations, and send us knocking on paneled walls and opening doors, looking for another world, a more magical world, a place that will test our courage, our faith, our very mettle, and teach us to rise above our limitations and our circumstances to finish the quest, rescue someone dear to us, stand up for something we believe in, or have a chance to make some sort of difference.

That is what fantasy does. It teaches us what we wish we could be. It encourages us to strive to be better. And it teaches us that there is more than what we can see.

Lewis Quote

And this is what you want to do with your own fantasy world. But how to begin?

First, you must decide the scope of your world.

There are three basic sizes you might begin by considering as you build your fantasy realm: local, national, and global.

Many fantasy worlds are kept quite small. Several examples of this include Batman (where we stay mainly in Gotham City), or Cinderella (a single house and castle and a little bit of the surrounding area/village if we’re lucky). Quite a few fairy tales focus on a very small location, only giving us a general idea that a world might be larger.

Other worlds are absolutely massive. Star Wars (yes, I consider it to be more fantasy than sci-fi) is huge… covering an entire galaxy of planets. The Wheel of Time is another enormous world with various nations and cultures. Lord of the Rings is a bit smaller in size, but its history more than qualifies it as one of the worlds in the “large scope” category.

When deciding on a size for your world, consider your story. The length of your story, the number of characters, and the scope of your story will all play into how big you want your world to be. If you are writing a piece of flash fiction, for example, you will want to keep your world and character count incredibly focused in order to fit your story into the tiny word count. If you are writing a multi-book series, however, you may want to expand your world to give your story more depth as your characters go on their various adventures. There are exceptions, of course, but this is a good place to start.

Local

Lets talk local for a minute:

To be honest, it is probably best to start small and familiar. Why? Because while it is interesting to craft a big, grandiose-sized world, it also makes for a lot of work that in the long-term may not matter. Remember our lesson from Brandon Sanderson: focus your attentions on the pieces of world building that will further your story and characterization. Unless you are writing a massive series that is going to be thousands of pages long and take the characters to an insane number of locations, your readers are not going to experience the entirety of your world. Even in real life, most people don’t travel more than a hundred miles from home in their lives. So ask yourself: “How much world do I really need for this story?”

Some of you know that Batman is my favorite super hero. And super heroes totally fall into the classification of “fantasy” so let’s run with it. In the Batman franchise, we’ve had some 80-odd years of story-telling, and most of those stories have stayed solidly within the single city of Gotham. Or look at Harry Potter. While a wider world does eventually get alluded to and explored a bit… most of this epic, 7-book story takes place on the school grounds of Hogwarts. Yes, there are a few other locations we get to visit, but for the most part, we travel from Harry’s home to an outdoor mall to Hogwarts, and that’s it. So keeping your story world small and local definitely doesn’t preclude a longer story with lots of characters and plenty of interest.

Dresden Files is another fabulous example of a massive story with a more local world-scope. Most of this story takes place in Chicago and the surrounding area. And yet, there is plenty to explore around the city and within the magical hierarchy within the city limits.

Starting small, with a local setting may allow you to write a fantastic story that keeps the character count small, the protagonist(s) and antagonist(s) influenced by a detailed world that they experience in their daily routines. Geopolitics may never arise in your story, but personal history, daily strife, and everyday heroics can be laser-focused within these smaller settings. (And the fate of the world can definitely still hang in the balance).

The  minute detail is much easier to enjoy if you don’t have to explain the grand context. You probably aren’t going to write a story where the “fate of the world” hangs in the balance, but there are plenty of other conflicts you can choose from.

National

So what if I want to go a bit bigger?  Well, that’s easily done… let’s move on to the “national” scale.

Of course, nations can vary in size. In our own world, the United States is 3,000 miles across, while Scotland is roughly the size of Ohio. France is only 600 miles across from north to south, but a ton of things can happen in countries of any size. If you want all the fun of playing with stories that affect a national scale, you can easily fill up dozens of books without having to look beyond the geographic borders of a single country. You can show the interactions between two or three nations/kingdoms in this scale, but you’re still not going to be able to write a compelling “global castastrophe” type story, though you are certainly welcome to try! The main story arc in this size world may not be a “take over the world” or “destroy the world” sort of story, but you could definitely be looking at a villain causing massive problems for multitudes of people at this scale.

My own story, “Stone Curse” operates at this scale. I wrote about two nations that border each other and the story proceeds to follow characters through one of the nations and presents a lot of the region in a fairly efficient narrative. For such a short story (roughly 25,000 words) the scope of the setting is actually pretty large, but it proves that you can show compelling characters with interesting dilemmas and obstacles to overcome and even elements of a quest to go on don’t have to operate at a global scale. It also shows that your word-count doesn’t have to be strictly defined by the scope of your world.

Global

And then there’s the Grand Poobah of scale.

If you’re looking for a global scale world, one of the first things I try to consider is “how do people get around?”  If people are traveling by horse they may only cover 20-60 or so miles a day. If someone is traveling across a continent (1000 – 2000 miles) that is going to take a long time. Is your story going to support all that travel time (20 – 40 days)? And what happens if they have to walk?

In fantasy, you can allow for magical transportation. In my own Minstrel’s Song series, I included dragons and dragon riders to allow for swift transportation across the ocean from one island kingdom to another in the archipelago that make up the main countries that come into play throughout the story. But in the fourth book, when the characters embark on a much longer trip to unknown southern regions of the world, it did not become possible for them to fly that far via dragonback, and so I had to let them take a ship for their quest.

You’re also going to have to consider a variety of different cultures, and possibly different cultures within each country, not every country is a single culture in our own world, after all. And you will want to make sure to have plenty of history for this world that the characters can reference to give it a feel of realism.

Now, as we continue on for the next couple of weeks, I’d like to introduce you to a world my husband and I have been building together (though, I’ll be honest and admit that he has done most of the work… I’ve been more of a consultant on this one as originally this was a world he was creating in order to play D&D in). However, as the world has grown and our time for playing D&D has decreased, we’ve played with the idea of me writing a series of stories within this world, since it’s just sitting there… ready for adventures.

While I will also be referencing some of my other stories: The Minstrel’s Song and the up-coming Turrim Archive, I thought that you might enjoy getting to peek behind the curtain… get a “back-page pass” as it were… into the creation of a fantasy realm and some of the things Derek and I do, and some of the things we think about when we build a world for me to write stories in.

Welcome to Revelod

In terms of scope, Revelod falls into the “global” definition, as Derek wanted this to be a world that actually encompassed something the size of an actual planet. It is by far the biggest world I’ve ever had to write in, and that can be a little daunting… but it also means that there is the potential for a TON of different types and sizes of stories to be told here.

Suspended within Veritoth amongst the stars is a bright blue ball of life circling its yellow sun and decorated by its twin moons. Upon the face of this planet resides the races and realms of Orimar’s greatest achievement, and his greatest sorrow. But that is a story yet to be told, or shall I say, yet to be completed.  

Revelod is the home to many peoples as well as great and ancient cultures.  There have been epochs of power and majesty only to be torn apart by conflicts of the mighty. Wars have ravaged this world, and great ages of power and might have shaped it, molded it, and broken it. Entire realms have been destroyed and drowned beneath the sea. Others have barely escaped destruction and banded together to defend against the next calamity, while some have been less fortunate and fallen to the evil left behind by the mighty. Throughout Revelod there is hope for some and despair for others. Some wield power with justice in their hands while others use it as a hammer to oppress the weak. But, there is always Orimar watching, guiding and serving his ultimate purpose to redeem and reclaim what is his.

Mountain Segue

Readers, what size fantasy worlds do you like best? Authors, what size fantasy world do you most enjoy writing in?

Make sure to come back tomorrow, as we will be talking about maps! And don’t forget to enter the giveaway  or join the link-up if you are a blogger! (see the pinned post)

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~ jenelle

21 Comments

Chris Morcom

As to my preferences on scope…as a reader, I don’t particularly care. As long as the world is interesting and (important for me, anyway) makes sense, I’m happy. I tend to care more about the logical solidity of a world than I do about its scale.

As to when I’m writing…well. I honestly enjoy worldbuilding more than I enjoy writing stories, so its no surprise that I’ve designed a ton of different worlds and never actually finished a story in any of them–and in many cases, I did all the worldbuilding because it was an interesting idea, and I had no intention of trying to write a story in that world. When I do so, I tend to start with a few basic concepts and then steadily expand the scope–usually ending up at the national or global level.

In fact, I’ve actually been having a lot of fun with this lately–I’m preparing to start running a new Tabletop campaign in the Stars Without Number system (Interstellar Science Fantasy system that kicks up 600 years after the apocalypse). It has a toolkit for rapidly building out “worlds” for your party to visit (it does, admittedly, run a bit on the “Planet of Hats” trope)…and I’ve been having all kinds of fun throwing together world and culture concepts. I’ll share the basics of it here, because I could see something like this being a fun worldbuilding exercise for anyone.

Rolling dice to randomly determine things, you get the following bits of info: Temperature, Biosphere, Population, Technology Level, and Atmosphere Composition. Then, you roll a d100 two times against a table of ‘World Tags’ that provides the basic seed of the world’s idea. You can end up with tags that just naturally flow together like “Terraform Failure” and “Seismic Instability,” or you can get weird entertaining stuff like “Flying Cities” and “Zombies,” Or really odd things like a world with Medieval Tech that has a major shipyard in orbit. All told, it’s pretty entertaining, and I’ve had a lot of fun coming up with worlds for my players to explore.

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jenelle

That sounds like a fun way to put together a world, especially if you are looking for some very out-of-the-box sorts of things to include!

I’m totally the opposite, I much prefer writing stories to world building, but I understand the importance of world building to creating a logical base for my stories to take place inside. Lately, I’ve been having a lot of fun with flash fiction, which necessarily means I don’t have to do much world building :) but my flash pieces are beginning to beg for their own novels, so the entire thing has backfired on me a little, because now I’ll have to expand these tiny little worlds I’ve come up with! :) hahaha

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jenelle

*falls over*

Uuummm… not sure. I have some ideas for a series set in this world that could be a lot of fun, but I’m not sure what I’m going to work on after Turrim Archive. I’ve got two other stories that have been waiting for my attention for a LOOOOOOOOONG time that I’m hoping to get to – my Mars Mysteries and a newer idea called Alex Charming. But maybe after that? I do seem to be getting faster at writing, and better at writing stories that aren’t quite so enormous. (though, of course, now that I’ve said that….) hahaha.

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J. L. Mbewe

Revelod sounds epic! Your hubby and you designing a world together is really cool.
As a reader, I don’t mind so much what scale the world is as long as it serves the story and the characters well. I mention this in my blog post for today, but Sanderson said it best! Worldbuilding beyond what is necessary is something a lot of us epic fantasy writers do. Ha!
As a writer…I’ve always thought big, the known world. Although, I don’t know if you’d consider Nälu global…as I didn’t think too much about global. It really is more of a continent. That said, but current work-in-progress is global, because we are dealing with the end of the golden age of sailing and most the world has been discovered. BUT I really want to try my hand at local with a tad bit of national thrown in. I am currently world-building a fantasy setting for a cozy mystery, so definitely local, yet there are hints for the opportunity for a national setting as well.

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jenelle

He designs ‘em, I write in ‘em. It’s a process that works well for us and allows us to focus on the things we like best to do :)

Oooh, your WIP sounds EPIC!!! So excited to see what you come up with next!

Smaller worlds are harder for me. But I spent a lot of time last year writing flash fiction, and that helped SO much with learning how to get my world-scale down.

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J. L. Mbewe

Thank you! It’s funny. I used short stories to help explore different parts of the world, expanding, deepening, fleshing out the world, but I guess in a way, it was also smaller scale too. Never thought of it as scaling the world down, but I guess it did. Also, Flash fiction is so hard for me. Ha!

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jenelle

Flash fiction used to feel absolutely impossible for me. But writing for Havok has helped immensely. Their “song inspired” themes helped a ton (a story based off a song is already starting from a fairly small/short story idea) and then their editors are absolutely amazing.

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Sarah Pennington

I love fantasy worlds of all sizes, but most of my worlds tend to stay at the local or national level, especially in my more recent works. That said, eventually they’re all going to jump to the cosmic level in a sense, so . . . yeah. I have my work cut out for me. (Also, I would like to point out that global worldbuilding isn’t the highest level; cosmic worldbuilding, like we see in Sanderson’s Cosmere works, the Invisible Library series, or Bryan Davis’s DiOM/OoF/CotB multi-series, is also very much a thing. And when it’s well-done, that’s sometimes my favorite type of world to read.)

Also, I find it funny that you felt it necessary to clarify that Star Wars (in which you have a lot of special powers, strange beings, etc. and which follows note-for-note a lot of fantasy tropes) is fantasy, yet you didn’t feel the need to make the same clarification about Batman (which involves, to my understanding, primarily non- or low-superpowered characters who are just scarily skilled and comparatively few fantasy tropes).

Finally: I had forgotten that you played D&D! Now I kind of wish that I could put together an indie-author one-shot (via the internet, obviously).

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jenelle

I actually did clarify that superheroes fall into the “fantasy” category. :-D (though you’re right, I didn’t talk about Batman specifically, but I was just using him as an example of a small world, not as an example of fantasy in general) :-D

Also, true about cosmic stuff, but I kind of meant for Global to include “Global and Beyond” because I don’t think that the questions one has to ask themselves for Cosmic world building are all that different, the answers are just bigger. Instead of simply thinking about how you’re going to get from one continent to another, now you have to include some sort of portals or space travel, and you are going to be doing the global cultures/kingdoms/people groups things for multiple worlds and thinking about how they all get along or whether or not they know about each other… but again, it doesn’t really change the questions you’re asking yourself, just that you have more to create in answers. If that makes sense.

You are now the second person to recommend the Invisible Library series to me. I shall have to see about finding a copy of the first book somewhere soon. :)

Ooooh, that would be fun! We’ve played D&D over google hangouts with friends before, and that works fairly well, though it got a little too hard for us to do with a long campaign because children and schedules… if you want to try to set up a one-shot sometime with some other indie authors, we’d be all in for that.

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Sarah Pennington

I meant more like clarifying right off the bat – you clarified Star Wars as soon as you mentioned it. Anyway. Yeah. I just found it funny.

That’s fair. I think there are some additional questions, though. You have to address whether or not certain worlds can be traveled between at all, or if you can only get verbal communication, and you have to deal with how time passes between worlds, and sometimes what’s between the worlds as well. And there’s the element of whether or not the worlds were all created and populated at the same time and at the same rate.

Definitely do! I’ve yelled about it on my blog quite a bit, haha. Based on what I know of your reading habits, I don’t think it’s going to be quite as high on your favorites list as it is on mine, but I’m 99% certain you’ll enjoy it.

I’m glad to hear you’d be interested! Maybe I’ll try to do that once I finish up the semester. (Right now, I’m in one campaign, running another, and planning a one-shot so my sister and one of her friends can try D&D. Plus schoolwork. So I absolutely get what you mean about scheduling.)

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jenelle

Well, we enjoyed Guards! Guards! rather a lot, and you recommended that one, so now you’re on my “this person recommends stuff I enjoy” short list. (And it is a short list… I have… trust issues when it comes to book/movie/tv recommendations). LOL (the fact that you WRITE things I like helps a lot). :)

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jenelle

Hehe, yeah. I get so much more backlash from considering Star Wars “fantasy” and not “sci-fi” that I think it was probably more of a knee-jerk typing than anything else. Superheroes fall into a nebulous category that nobody ever knows what to do with, which means that the first person in the room to classify them as anything more usually just gets everyone else to nod along with them. :-D

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Sarah Pennington

Wow! I am honored by that, thanks! Hopefully I won’t disappoint you. xD

Ok, that’s fair. I just consider Star Wars to be very clearly space fantasy rather than sci-fi. (90% of the time, I’m pretty sure George Lucas and the other SW creators didn’t care about science.) That said, I don’t disagree with your assessment; I just found it amusing.

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beckythemothling

I love local and national level scopes the best, as far as my own writing goes, anyway. Global is a bit too big a scale for me. I kind of like writing very character-driven stuff that sometimes tends to be pretty quiet, so smaller scopes usually work better for me when I write.

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jenelle

That’s cool! I have a tendency to send my characters haring off on global adventures without thinking them through well first… which requires a lot of editing after-the-fact. But I’m getting better at writing within a smaller scope and keeping my stories more to a local or national scale. :)

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Kessie

One author who does the massive worldbuilding really well is Marc Secchia. His dragon series takes place on an island chain above a sea of toxic clouds. Every island has its own climate and culture, and their relationships with the dragons widely vary. I’m waiting for him to finish the Dragonfriend storyline so I can read it all. It starts with a girl being nearly murdered by her evil king-father and thrown into a volcano, where she meets dragons and becomes the first Dragonfriend … and dragon shifter …. and the series winds up with cosmic space dragons coming down and demanding worship, and the island world having to go to war against them, and I’m like DUDE I WANT TO READ.

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jenelle

YES!!!! I have read (and looooooved) Dragonfriend. The series isn’t finished yet?!?! I have only read the first book, but it was awesomely epic and I loved the interesting world it was set in.

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Christine

Revelod sounds so epic!!! I love that you and your husband are building it together. That’s so special. ^_^ And how fun you’re making it such a BIG place. So much room for all sorts of adventures!

As a reader, I’m honestly not picky about the size of the world. As long as it doesn’t get TOO overwhelming. Or, on the other side, too boring, I’m good! I like big, we have to save the entire world stories, or smaller save the single kingdom ones. If the plot and characters are good, I’m happy with anything!

As a writer…hmm…maybe somewhere in between? I wrote one series where an entire continent is involved, and that was a ton of fun. But some other books mostly just focus on a single area. I guess I like to mix it up. Haha.

Apparently, I’m not super picky when it comes to world size. XD

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