Genre Study – Fantasy: World Building, Avoiding Cliches, and New Inspiration

Ah fantasy. Click through for the best strategies for world building, how to avoid cliches, and how to bring newness to the genre.

Oh boy.


I really can’t really can’t tell you how much I love writing these genre posts…they’re just WAY. TOO. FUN.

Especially when it’s a genre I’m a HUGE fan of. I know I said historical fiction was my favorite but guys…I LOVE fantasy. Probably not as much as my friend Renee, who I swear has read almost every single fantasy book out there. But I do love it.

Actually for three main reasons:

  1. Magic is involved. !!!!!!
  2. There’s generally talking animals and as a child, that was my biggest wish, that my pets would start talking with me.
  3. This is the genre that “fairytale retellings” falls under. And guys…fairytale retellings are where it’s AT.

But this post isn’t supposed to be an ode to fantasy (although I’d love to hear what you think of fantasy and what your favorite books are in the comments below)! Let’s get to the nitty-gritty of what makes fantasy a genre, common elements in the story telling, and of course, tips and resources to get you writing unique fangirl worthy fantasy.

Fantasy is the genre of magic, castles, fair maidens (or badass ones), monarchies, lords, ladies, and any mythical creature you can dream up. If you were anything like me in the third grade, you’re a fantasy lover if you daydreamed about wandering into Narnia, or showing up in a different world where you had a talking pony, or a dragon for a pet.

But fantasy writing, as any genre can, presents its own thrills and challenges, the biggest one being every writer’s greatest dream and most dreaded task: world building.

Most writers could come up with a fantastical world within a few minutes, with the intricacies of language, animals, humans, government, buildings, and geography fairly nailed out. But it’s one thing to come up with a whole world in your head, and another to write it down in a way your reader would understand it.

Too many details and you’ve drowned your reader in info (unless your Tolkien, but he practically made Fantasy a genre, so we’ll let him break all the rules right?).

Too few details and your poor reader is left confused when someone carries on a conversation with a tulip and is taken seriously by everyone else in the scene.

But world building is where things get really fun: you are in charge of how people live, what they eat and wear and do in their spare time (if they have any). You get to decide where cities are located, the names of rivers and mountains, and imagine creatures that don’t exist in the real world.

It can truly be intoxicating.

But this leads to my number one tip:

When it comes to world building, familiarize yourself with your world first, before starting on too much of a plot.

Like I said, explaining an entire world can be tricky, but it’s even trickier if you’re in the middle of an epic battle scene and you have to look up whether or not a certain type of sword could even be made with the resources available in your fantasy land. Not only does it hold up your own writing, but knowing your fantasy world intimately beforehand helps you better guide your characters (or better understand what they’re telling you) as you go through your story.

This means you have plenty of research to do, my friend. Think of a scene where you’re characters meet a new type of creature? Do a sketch of this creature, write an pretend research paper by a scientist in your world who discovered the creature, or write a section of a history book detailing their discovery or origin. Not only is this good research for you when it comes time to deliver all this information to your reader, but it’s also a good writing exercise.

What if your main characters live in a castle, in the largest city in the land? Draw a city map (this is probably my favorite part of world building)! You can even go crazy and make it for “tourists” if you’d like. Not only do you get the lay of the land yourself, but the map will later help create a sense of place when you’re describing events and locations.

In addition to maps, you’ll need names. Whether it’s names of countries or cities, names of your characters, or names of different creatures or customs, it’s important to make them all seem like they’re from the same world. They’ll have similar sounds and letter combinations. You can even search for a name generator to help you out.

Finally, (although we could talk about world creation for literal ages) to add a special depth to your world, think about traditions that could be infused into your created culture. You can pull from what you know or create something new. In our world, we celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, with exuberance and joy. But in your world, your characters might celebrate a Naming Day or a Gifting Day or whatever else you can think up. While they may not play a large part in your overall story, adding slight references to them here and there is just one more way to make your world seem real and complete.

Let’s move on to my second tip, before we get too caught up in creating a new world…

Don’t worry about length, just tell the story.

Fantasy books tend to be members of series that go on forever. The Harry Potter Series was seven books, the Game of Thrones series isn’t even over yet, and Tolkien has innumerable books focusing on Middle Earth.

Most stories you write will tell you when they’re done. Trust them. Write your story, tell what you need to tell, and then be done. Sure, that could be seven books, or twelve, or one, but do your duty as a writer to your characters, and tell their story as true as you can. Then call it a day.

You don’t want to bore your readers with long descriptions of traditions or events that they could care less about. Give your readers enough information to understand what is going on, and trust your gut when your story is over. Don’t drag it out and have your readers wishing you’d finish the series already. Do the story justice, and do it concisely.

This is where planning ahead will help you immensely. J.K. Rowling knew the last line of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows before she wrote the first book in the series. Be like Rowling. Create and outline, a timeline, something so you keep your story’s end in sight. This will help you tell your story as you need to, without boring your readers along the way.

Tip number three: stay far away from the Tolkien based elements.

Tolkien put fantasy on the map. He made it the genre it is today. Without him, we wouldn’t have the hundreds of thousands of fantasy books we have today.


How many stories have we read with regal elves, stumpy dwarves, epic battles, and groups of men on quests to either find or get rid of a special thing? Probably too many to count. And while those are all captivating and fun story elements, let Tolkien be Tolkien. Let Middle Earth be Middle Earth. It’s more interesting to draw your fantasy story from something new.

The fantasy genre is full of cliches; a simple search or read through of a few fantasy books will tell you what they are.

Run away from them like the plague…

Whether that basing your world on a different period of time (can we get out of Medieval Europe for a while?), a series of events (Games of Thrones is based on the War of the Roses…very clever!), or a quest focused on something else entirely, there is still plenty of room for creativity and newness within the genre.

And badass female characters. Tolkien didn’t write many of those, so get on it!

What are your favorite fantasy books? What are your least favorite cliches? Let me know in the comments!



Alexis Truitt

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