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June 30, 2024 12:00
Headshot of Andrea Stewart with books. Fantasy settings for you to consider for your next novel.
fantasy
meet the team

Seven Best Fantasy Settings For Your Novel

Andrea Stewart. Author and The Novelry Team Member
Andrea Stewart
July 16, 2023
July 16, 2023

If you’re beginning to create your own fantasy world, or are some way into the writing of your magical tome already, the good news is there’s a broad range of fantasy settings to consider for your novel. Whether you’re writing fantasy set in the modern world with just a few magical elements, or high fantasy set in a land like Middle Earth with talking animals and fantastical kingdoms, or even a sci-fi novel set in another galaxy in the distant future, the setting is much more than simply a landscape where your action happens.

On a technical level, your fantasy setting will often inform the sub-genre where your novel will sit. On the page, it paints a vivid picture for your reader, and often – in great books – it feels like a character in itself.

On our blog today, our writing coach Andrea Stewart takes us on an intergalactic, interdimensional tour of typical fantasy fiction settings. From some of the best fantasy settings to the best examples of fantasy works, take a break from reality to explore these wonderful fantasy worlds with Andrea as our tour guide.

Right, it’s time to step through the portal...

Why I love writing my own fantasy world

I’m best known for my epic fantasy series, The Drowning Empire, though I’ve also sold short stories that range from sci fi, to contemporary fantasy, to simply speculative. People often ask me, ‘Will you write more in this fantasy world?’ and I always have to say, ‘Maybe someday.’ To me, half the fun of writing is living vicariously in different worlds and eras.

The longest I’ve ever spent in one setting was while writing The Drowning Empire; each of my other stories takes place elsewhere – whether that’s in our world with slight fantastical tweaks, in entirely different worlds, or even in space or on other planets. I love to dive into a new place, understanding the way the setting feels to my characters, the sights and smells they experience, the people and problems they encounter.

I don’t want to just help readers empathize with my characters; I want to sweep them away to an entirely new world, to let them travel without ever having to leave their homes. When it comes to fantasy and science fiction, there are so many different places you can take your readers.

What makes a fantasy setting?

Fantasy novels can be so broad. When a lot of people hear the word ‘fantasy’ they often imagine a land with swords, horses, dragons, castles and elves. Whenever I hear these assumptions, I want to vehemently protest that this is only a subset of fantasy! While the roots of so much of the fantasy genre began in medieval Europe, this tree has grown far past those roots, and we’re all the richer for it.

For a deeper dive into world-building, take a look at this brilliant blog on world-building by our SFF editor Craig Leyenaar. If you’re interested in naming conventions in fantasy books, Samantha Shannon – author of The Priory of the Orange Tree – wrote this blog on language in fantasy works for The Novelry.

So what are the basic types of fantasy settings and fantasy worlds?

1. Second-world fantasy

A large proportion of fantasy settings are second-world fantasy, which means that the story does not take place in our world. This sort of setting can be anything you can dream up. Would you like your world to have trees that grow winged creatures like fruit? Have at it – this is your completely blank sandbox, primarily because this isn’t our world. Your only limiting factor is internal consistency. To use examples from our wonderful coaches, both The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri and Dragonfall by L.R. Lam are set in secondary worlds.

While people often think of fantasy as including magic, second-world fantasy can also be set in low-magic or no-magic worlds.

2. Historical fantasy settings

If you’re writing in a historical fantasy setting, your story is taking place in our world, at some point during our history, but with an added fantastical element. It can be set in any place in our world, at any time during our past.

Naomi Novik’s His Majesty’s Dragon is set during the Napoleonic wars, with the addition of dragons. And don’t think you have to stick to a European setting. The Adventures of Amina Al-Sirafi by Shannon Chakraborty is set in a medieval Indian Ocean, with sorcerers and demons thrown into the mix.

While a good amount of research is needed to write historical fantasy (how long, exactly, would it take someone to sail from Morocco to England? And did they have any guns during that time period? When exactly did potatoes arrive in Europe?), you’ll still have a lot of wiggle room as far as imagining your setting.

3. Contemporary or urban fantasy settings

If your book isn’t taking place in a different world, and it’s not taking place in the past, you’re most likely writing in a contemporary or urban fantasy setting. Urban fantasy specifically takes place in a city environment. Julia Vee and Ken Bebelle’s The Ebony Gate is a great example of this. It takes place in modern-day San Francisco, with ghosts and dragon magic. The city is meticulously depicted, feeling like a living and breathing part of the story.

Often the city the book is taking place in feels like a character in and of itself.

Contemporary fantasy is a larger umbrella, and encompasses any fantasy taking place in a modern environment. Lev Grossman’s The Magicians has a contemporary fantasy setting. It takes place in the modern day, with magic and magicians; however, the story is not centred around a particular city.

fantasy settings for a novel

What makes a science fiction setting?

While a science fiction setting can feel quite fantastical, the speculative elements are science-based rather than magic-based. These are settings that are futuristic and deal with the impact of some future or current technology on the world (or sometimes solar system, or galaxy, or universe, or multiple universes –depending on how large your science fictional setting is).

Although you may feel you’re more limited in science fiction since it must be science-based, the old adage from Arthur C. Clarke applies: ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’ You’ll want to make sure your recognizable technology and science is well-researched and behaves correctly; however, you’ll have a little more leeway with unrecognizable technology and unknown scientific phenomena.

In Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, a wormhole plays a key role in many of the storylines. Is that how a real-life wormhole would actually behave? We’re not sure, but it at least behaves consistently, so we believe it could exist in that manner.

4. Near-future setting

It’s Earth as we know it, or sometimes even the Moon or Mars, except things have changed a little bit from our current day. Technology has advanced, or current technology has had some greater impact in the future.

The Martian by Andy Weir is a great example of a story with a near-future setting. The setting hops between Mars and Earth, and it takes place in the year 2035. This is very near-future. The technology they use is similar to our own, though extrapolated into the future from current plans and knowledge. The spaceship they use to get to Mars has artificial gravity as created by centrifugal force – a technology that hasn’t yet been utilized for any spacefaring vehicle. It should theoretically work. We haven’t sent a person to Mars yet, though theoretically we could.

Near-future settings often contain technology suggested by current theories.

5. Far-future setting

This is where you can start to see technology that is perhaps explained in less detail or feels more unfamiliar. It’s improbable that the people of the 1900s could have foreseen the invention of the smartphone, or the internet, or large language models. Likewise, in a far-future setting, you may have technology that functions the way magic does in fantasy. The reader may get some fundamental rules by which your far-future technology works, but we don’t understand the underlying nuts and bolts. Oftentimes, we don’t need to.

Pandora’s Star by Peter F. Hamilton begins in a near-future setting before jumping forward into the far future. A key concept of this book is that people have figured out a way to create stable wormholes, which allows them to link far-flung places and makes travel near-instantaneous. Some of the book takes place on Earth, while some of it takes place on other planets. This leads into our next science fiction setting…

6. Alien planet settings

Science fiction, especially in a far-future setting, doesn’t have to take place on Earth or on any of our known planets. The galaxy is vast, the universe even more so. Some science fiction books never return to Earth at all. Some begin on planets populated by aliens, or populated by people who colonized it – either recently or a long time ago. In A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge, most of the story takes place on an alien planet populated by creatures who live in packs of hive minds.

7. In space

Sometimes a science fiction setting isn’t on a planet at all. Sometimes a science fiction story is set in space. This could mean your characters spend most of their time on a space station or a spaceship, such as in Becky Chambers’s Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. Or, as in our own writing coach Katie Khan’s novel Hold Back the Stars, all or part of your story might take place in just the empty black, with very little to separate your characters from the void.

setting for fantasy fiction
Write your fantasy fiction novel with the fantasy writing course program at The Novelry. Click here to find out more.

 

Are These the Only Possible Settings In Science Fiction and Fantasy?

It’s also important to note that there are some books that combine more than one type of setting.

Jade City by Fonda Lee takes place in a setting with similar technology to ours. They have guns, they have cars, they have jet planes. Yet the world is not ours; the geography is fundamentally different. The history and economics are its own. Magic also exists in this world. This book has a contemporary second-world fantasy setting. It’s an unusual setting, although as Lee’s trilogy shows us, it can be used effectively to tell a grand and sweeping story.

And we cannot forget science fantasy settings, which have long been a staple of speculative fiction. Star Wars is a classic example, although a more recent example would be Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir. There are space shuttles and multiple planets; there are also swords and necromantic magic. The author blends science fiction and fantasy together and since the setting is internally consistent, you can easily suspend your disbelief.

Mix and match as best suits your story. Combining elements is often the way to create something that feels fresh.

Want to write something in an urban fantasy setting but also in space? Go ahead and build that gritty, multicultural space station with an underlying magic system. Want to write a far-future fantasy where people have rejected technology and returned to a feudal society? Sure, Erika Johansen did it in The Queen of the Tearling.

While some typical fantasy settings are more common than others, these genres invite us to speculate. So speculate.

The only limit is your imagination.

Someone writing in a notebook
Andrea Stewart. Author and The Novelry Team Member
Andrea Stewart

Andrea Stewart is the Sunday Times bestselling, award-winning author of the Drowning Empire trilogy (The Bone Shard Daughter, The Bone Shard Emperor and The Bone Shard War) and a finalist for numerous awards, including the Goodreads Choice Award and the British Fantasy Award.

Members of The Novelry team