I was trying to work on a fantasy novel the other night, and instead ended up spending something like six hours researching tools used in medieval farming. Because, you know, all fantasy needs to take place in a world that could realistically pass for thirteenth century western Europe, right?
And then it hit me. What am I doing? Why am I wasting all of this time making sure the fantasy world I’m filling with characters–the world I’m supposedly creating–is identical to a world that has already existed? Seriously. Who cares if I get a small detail about farming in medieval times wrong?
This is, after all, another world. It’s not thirteenth century western Europe, and it’s time we (and by that I mean ‘I’) start understanding that as writers, we are allowed to create our own worlds when writing fantasy, and that means we don’t have to follow any worldbuilding rules at all.
You make the rules
This is still difficult for me to grasp, but it’s the truth. As long as your novel isn’t taking place on Earth in a past or present time frame, you can literally do anything you want with your setting. You can turn the feudal system on its head, reverse or eliminate medieval gender roles, forget about kings and queens and knights.
In other words, if you’re writing fantasy, it doesn’t mean you have to use the rules set in Middle Earth or King Arthur’s Britain.
But what about muh elves?
What about your elves? This is also a problem I struggle with. So much fantasy incorporates legendary creatures, who were created by fairy tales, defined by Tolkien, and given details and rules by Dungeons & Dragons.
This is a difficult mindset to break. I know, when writing fantasy, I’m constantly asking myself if an elf would “really do that” as if elves really exist. What I’m actually doing, of course, is asking if that’s how an elf (or dwarf, or whatever) would act in D&D.
While it may not necessarily be a bad thing to have your fictional races act like the stereotype, after all, it’s what readers are used to, it would certainly be more fun to toss the stereotypes aside and have some of the fantasy creatures do things a typical fantasy reader wouldn’t expect.
Or maybe even better, create your own fantasy creatures and races. Nobody ever said your world has to be populated by elves, minotaurs, and dragons.
But whatever you do, just have fun with it. Don’t sweat the details as they would pertain to our world, and worry about the details that affect the realism in your own.
Do you write fantasy? How to you tackle this stuff? Is your world patterned after the middle ages, or did you create the entire thing from scratch? Leave a comment and let us know!