Typically, when I think of the setting of fantasy books, the image that comes to mind is medieval: girls in long dresses, curses, castles, dragons, dungeons…you get the picture. But fantasy settings can actually span the whole course of history, plus some more. In fact, the settings that you draw inspiration from in creating your fantasy world can be any culture and any time in history.
So before you decide to stick with tradition, why don’t you take a look at the wide range of possible settings that fantasy has to offer. Here’s a list of the pros & cons of fantastic times and places to get your imagination fired up.
- Examples: Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, Eragon by Christopher Paolini, Ranger’s Apprentice series by John Flanagan, most books by Robin McKinley
- Pros: Lots of traditions and ideas in literature to draw on. Plenty of examples to study. Also, the medieval setting is perfect for fairy tales with their usual delightful magic.
- Cons: can be very, very, very extremely cliché. You can exploit these clichés, as Patricia C. Wrede did in her hilariously witty Enchanted Forest Chronicles. However, if your story is the same old-same old that readers have read so many times before, they might get rather bored.
- Examples: Castle in the Air (part of Diana Wynne Jones’s Howl’s Moving Castle series), The Book of Wonders by Jasmine Richards
- Pros: much less cliché than a medieval fantasy. Plenty of atmosphere.
- Cons: needs careful research. Also, since Arabian culture is so tied to Islamic culture, there may be religious complications or overtones in your setting. Plus, you’re pretty much forced to use a genie or two.
- Examples: Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale (Mongolian fantasy), Eon (which I don’t recommend, incidentally, but it is an example of Oriental-style fantasy)
- Pros: very unique, even more than Arabian. Works well with dragons and the color red.
- Cons: Again, it does require some research to make it seem authentically Oriental. Plus, again, the major religions of either Buddhism or ancestor worship really clash with the Christian worldview and faith.
- Examples: Kane Chronicles by Rick Riordan (which are technically modern fantasies, but they’re the closest I could think of to Egyptian)
- Pros: As with Oriental fantasy, it’s very unique—so unique I couldn’t even think of a true example of one. Plus, those pyramids are just begging for fantastic explanations, right?
- Cons: Again, there’s the Ancient Egyptian religion to deal with. It’s a very messy mythology that doesn’t really make sense, but a book set in Egypt without Egyptian mythology seems incomplete.
5. Ancient Greek/Roman
- Examples: Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan (again, technically modern fantasy, but with a few elements of the ancient settings as well)
- Pros: Once again, it’s unusual and not entirely cliché, although it does seem like Ancient Greece has been done a lot. Personally, I think it would be fascinating to take just a few elements from this time period—togas, for example—and insert them into a medieval fantasy world just to see the damage they’d cause.
- Cons: It requires research, of course, just like most other settings. And as with Egyptian fantasy, there’s a whole load of mythology to deal with and explain or eradicate (which also begs the question, can/should Christians write a non-Christian mythology? But maybe more on that question in my next post).
6. Other Historical Time Periods
- Examples: Peter’s Angel by Aubrey Hansen (soon-to-be-released, set in a fantasy setting that’s much like the American Revolution), The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge (a beautiful book written in flowing old style set in mid-1800s England), The Fetch by Laura Whitcomb (ties in the Russian Revolution and WWI)
- Pros: Tons of freedom to explore elements of history and setting from any time in history that strikes your fancy, whether Aztecs and Incas or African legends or Indian tales or WWII-era fantasy. If you can dream it, you can write it. Sweet deal, right?
- Cons: The more obscure the time period you use, the less people will be familiar with it and the more you’ll have to research and carefully explain everything.
- Examples of Crossover: Chronicles of Narnia, Inkheart series by Cornelia Funke
- Pros: not as much research involved and less explanation required. Much easier for modern readers to relate to modern characters in a modern world.
- Cons: Let’s face it: these two types of fantasy have been done over and over again. They’re almost as popular as medieval fantasy, if not more so. Still, popularity has its reasons, so even though it’s cliché it’s a popular cliché.
- Tip: If you’d like to write modern fantasy, try setting your story in an unusual but modern setting, like what Susan Cooper did by setting her Dark is Rising series in Scotland. That added a lot of atmosphere and character to her stories that many other modern fantasies lack.
8. A Whole New World
- Examples: Princess Academy by Shannon Hale, The Lord of the Rings (although it does stem from medieval fantasy in some ways), A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket
- Pros: You get to create your own world, unconnected from any culture on earth! What could be more exciting for a writer than pure world-creation?
- Cons: You have to create a whole entire world. Isn’t that a little much to ask of a mere human? Shouldn’t we leave world-building to God? Theological questions aside, creating a cohesive and non-cliché world is a huge task, so don’t start on it lightly. It’s often easier to take a certain time or place as a starting point and build from there rather than creating from scratch.
Since we’re talking about fantasy, it’s impossible to summarize all possible settings in one post. So why don’t you share your story’s setting, plus any inspirations you may have gotten from historical times and places. I look forward to hearing your thoughts!