Is an epic fantasy story world growing inside of you? Here are some tips on how to put it into words!
I remember being at an archaeological site in Peru eleven years ago to do remote sensing. It was a fortress of unknown origins, and a colleague and I went to help determine who built it, fought over it, defended it, and attacked it. What epic clash of civilizations was represented by the building of this military outpost? Who had wanted this territory? What did it mean to control the natural resources nearby? A colleague on that project told me he was reading a book that mirrored in epic fantasy what we were working on in real life: a struggle between kingdoms for dominance.
What we had gone to South America to solve was what George R.R. Martin wrote about in his blockbusting series (A Song of Fire and Ice) now known as Game of Thrones.
See, epics are best when they represent the politics, desires, foibles, and fantasies of real people. Epics should feel recognizable—but bigger. Sure, there might be dragons and queens and bloody weddings, but that’s just icing on the cake.
Fantasy writers get at human emotion through the fun stuff. And writers, take note: fans of fantasy are voracious readers. If you are looking to write epic fantasy or even do a retelling, it’s important to know what makes epic fantasy great, how you can learn from the masters, and how to build your story and maintain it across a series. To understand how to write epic fantasy, read on. Maybe you’ll be the next Tolkien or Martin yourself!
Find a starting point
To build a world of fantasy, first you have to decide what kind of world you’re dealing with. Is it set in modern times, the past, or the future? Is it on Earth? If not, what happened to Earth? What is the climate like? Do people speak English or other modern languages? If not, why not? If you’re in the future, questions about Earth will be more important. If you’re in the past, how are things different where you are? What are the geopolitical conditions? What is the environment like? What about society? There are so many choices to make!
If all of these choices feel overwhelming, pick a starting point. When in time does this take place? Future settings will probably make use of technology—for good or ill. That means your characters will use computers, AI, and other souped-up versions of what we have today to traverse their world. The skill sets in a place like this will be very different than in one that is in an alternate or parallel medieval Europe, like we see in Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings. In those books, brawn is a necessity. How else to wield a sword, battle-ax, horse, or other tools of the era?
Start small and expand
It actually doesn’t matter where you start, but you have to begin with at least a where/when idea. From there, you can start to expand. After all, those two choices will play a big role in the world you create. They’ll impact gender roles, how power is obtained, what skills/abilities are valued in society, and therefore where power lies. Remember, the best fantasy also has echoes of something true about life, so once you establish the place/time of your novel, work with expectations.
For instance, Tolkien’s Middle Earth (from Lord of the Rings) is similar to northwest Europe in the Middle Ages. From there, the dress, language, food, common jobs, and social dynamics are about what you’d expect from England 6,000 years ago. After that, he was able to add on the mythical elements in a way that feels “right” to a reader.
Use language to convey your world
The language that your characters use in their speech will go a long way toward setting the scene and building the world of your book. It will hint at (relative) time, place, social structure, and characterization. Whether your characters use special terms or phrases that denote their position or just things in this world that are unlike Earth, language can help you write epic fantasy that feels real enough to happen.
Take this passage from Game of Thrones as an example:
“I’ve had the cold in me too, lordling.” Gared pulled back his hood, giving Ser Waymar a good long look at the stumps where his ears had been. “Two ears, three toes, and the little finger off my left hand. I got off light. We found my brother frozen at his watch, with a smile on his face.”
Ser Waymar shrugged. “You ought dress more warmly, Gared.”
Gared glared at the lordling, the scars around his ear holes flushed red with anger where Maester Aemon had cut the ears away. “We’ll see how warm you can dress when the winter comes.” He pulled up his hood and hunched over his garron, silent and sullen.
How to use language
When I read this passage, lots of images come to mind. First is the term “lordling.” That tells me there is a clear social structure if someone refers to someone else by their station in life (i.e., as a lord). It also sounds old-fashioned. That word alone told me, the reader, a lot of information. This story might take place in the past, in a place that has royalty or something like it. The names too are unfamiliar but sound medieval and possibly northern European in origin. When you write epic fantasy, use names and terms wisely to build your world.
My other thought is that this passage is about a violent occurrence. It happened to this character, Gared, in the past, but it’s vicious. The man doesn’t have ears, but that’s not how the author put it. He talks about the mutilated stumps and scars around the “ear holes.” Whatever world this is, it’s a tough one with little mercy spared. This lets me, the reader, know that ugly things can and probably will happen in the course of this story. (And listen, even if you’re never seen or read any of Game of Thrones, you’ve probably heard a lot about the violence!)
Write the rules of the road
Finally, epic fantasy is immersive for a reason: there’s much about it that’s different from our life. As such, it can be hard to keep track of the rules of your world. This is especially true in this genre because there are likely to be mythologies, kingdoms, magic, or other circumstances that will require you to be aware of how things worked in book one—especially if you’re hoping to make a go of a series. And as always, don’t neglect to read, read, and read more to find out how the masters do it so well!