Friday, August 17, 2012

Fantasy Settings Around the World

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.

1. Medieval
  • 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.

2. Arabian
  • 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.

3. Oriental
  • 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.

4. Egyptian
  • 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.

7. Modern/Crossover
  • Examples of Modern-only: Percy Jackson series (see above), Raising Dragons by Bryan Davis, The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel series by Michael Scott, The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper
  • 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!


  1. About Letting God create the worlds for us, God is a creator. We are made in his image, so it's natural that we would want to create as well. But as Tolkien or CS Lewis said, we don't create it, we discover it. We're co-creating with what God created. So yeah. But I think we should only make up a world if we already have the ideas for it and it is different from earth in a few ways.
    I'll be looking up a few of those books!

    I'm inspired by the Renaissance period, and half of my other world is a bit like it.

    1. Hmm, great point there! We use the imagination God has given us and co-create. Also, the Renaissance period is so fascinating! Half of your world is like it? Ooh, intriguing :)

  2. Almost all of my fantasy is set in its own world separate from ours, but I still love experimenting with elements of real-world cultures in the civilizations I build. In my first novel, one country's culture has some very Dark-Age European elements to it. Another one has some Greek/Atlantis flavor mixed in. Another one has more of an 18th century England feel. I'm also working on stories flavored with elements of Swiss culture, Asian/Native American, Eastern European, and others.
    I don't think historical and/or cultural accuracy is a terribly huge deal in cases like this. Of course, if the author makes it clear that this is historical fantasy, why then solid research and facts will matter. But for example, in the case of Shannon Hale's Book of a Thousand Days, while the Mongolian influence was obvious, I wasn't concerned about historical accuracy or lack thereof because it is a fantasy story. If a work of historical fiction contained historical inaccuracies, that would be different. But in the case of fantasy I'm perfectly okay with an author just taking a few basic facts about a culture and taking liberties with it to create something fresh and new.

    1. Here's an interesting question: do you suppose it's possible for a fantasy world to ever be completely free of elements of the cultures of our own world? Probably impossible...

      Anyway, Dark-Age European - nice! Greek/Atlantis? Very cool! I love stories with an Atlantian touch! Swiss culture? Ooh, interesting! Wow, sounds like you've definitely got a lot of diverse influences in your worlds.

      Good point about historical accuracy - getting the events in historically accurate ways is definitely not usually necessary (although in a book like The Fetch, history is vitally important to the story!). Anyway, my point above was more being accurate to the flavors of the culture that you're borrowing from rather than specific historical events. For example, if I were to write a world based on ancient India, I'd need to do some research and see what ancient India was like in the first place!

      Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts!

  3. You raised some really great points. I always go straight to midevil, too! One setting I didn't see on here was futuristic fantasy set in a future world, such as Hilari Bell's Raven Duet. Just thought it was worth mentioning. :)

    1. Futuristic fantasy? Now that sounds fascinating! But how is that different from scifi? I don't guess I've read anything yet in that genre. I'll look Raven Duet up. Thanks for the addition :)

    2. Would Hunger Games count as futuristic fantasy? I'm pretty sure it's not sci-fi, and it's definitely set in the future. (:

      Great post, by the way! Most of my stories are set in a world a built, with a touch of medieval flare. I used to think they were medieval, but that was before I really considered what medieval culture was like.

    3. I wouldn't categorize Hunger Games as any sort of fantasy, because it doesn't have any non-scientific elements (no mythical creatures, no magic, no unbelievable). I would call it sci-fi or dystopian. Of course, such categorizations are really individual!

      Medieval flare...interesting! It's rare to find a book that's entirely Medieval, true, although the book Inkspell is quite close to Medieval Italy.

      Thanks for the comment, Abby! :)


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