Fantasy Worlds That Come To Life

Christian Fantasy

Step outside on a Virginia summer day, and a variety of sensations engulf you. The distinct rise-and-fall of cicada song, a multi-layered cacophony, forms the backdrop for every other sound. Strong, damp heat hangs thick in the air, a sauna formed by nature. Scents of grass clippings and honeysuckle and sun-warmed earth and leaf  pervade the air, and you cannot mistake this is the season of living things.

Just as real life settings have a strong, distinct presence, I also prefer a clear sensation of unique time and place in a fantasy novel. Sometimes fantasy worlds serve as more of a backdrop to the main thrust of the story, other times they’re as vivid and personable as the characters themselves, but whatever role they play, they’re most effective when they immerse a reader in a distinct reality. So what helps a fantasy worlds transport readers?

Pervasive wonder. When the nature and structure of the world waken a sense of awe, it’s immediately compelling–as when Aslan sings Narnia into existence and a new world begins to live and breathe before our eyes. Or when we see the unfolding of Rivendell and Lorien, hidden elven fastnesses that hint at greater realities beyond the ken of small hobbit folk. Whether in large matters or in small details, a fantasy realm that rouses wonder is one that lives long in the imagination.

Sparks of life. Some fantasy worlds brim over with a unique sense of their own reality, something that lifts them off the pages and gives them depth. This springs in part from the blending of fantastic and realistic in a way that rings true. The vinegaroons in DM Cornish’s Monster Blood Tattoo series illustrate this point. These sea-roving men remind me in some ways of the sailors of old–hard-edged and strong-willed–but their occupation comes with an additional hazard that shapes their lives. Surrounding the Half-Continent, the seas are highly corrosive. So these vinegaroons dare not hope for a long, healthy life, as the acrid spray of the sea leaves their skin scarred and damaged, and any unfortunate soul that falls overboard will likely pay with his life.  The vinegaroons feel real and fantastic all at once, as does the rest of the Half-Continent world Cornish created.

A sensation of otherness. Sometimes this sensation comes from a small aspect of the world’s construction, a turn of the phrase or unique point of view that could only be held by the inhabitants of the realm in question. Yet in the large scale, I believe this often springs from capturing the spiritual element in a meaningful way, drawing on “the other world” that truly exists. For more thoughts on this aspect, see The Spiritual Element.

By no means are these the only components that contribute to a compelling fantasy setting, but many of my favorite fantasy worlds share these things in common. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter. What draws you into a fantasy realm? What are some of your favorite fantasy settings? And if you write, how do you seek to capture a sense of uniqueness and realism in your world-building?

Image credit: abi84


  • Bethany J.
    October 24, 2011 - 4:20 pm · Reply

    Creativity is what draws me into a fantasy world…when the world doesn’t just feel like ours with a few tweaks, but rather has an all-encompassing freshness that makes me wonder about details the story doesn’t tell. J.K. Rowling’s magic world of “Harry Potter” definitely did this for me (it’s fresh on my mind as a new favorite world, since I just read the series recently). I don’t think I could pick an absolute favorite fantasy world, though (actually, if I did, it might be from an unpublished novel in progress by my awesome sister-in-law!).

    As an author, I try to delve deep into the senses when describing another world. I describe not only the sights, but the sounds, textures, smells, and tastes of the things and places the characters encounter. I once read a writing tip that said (and here I poorly paraphrase…but I can’t remember the exact words) – You should involve at least one of the 5 senses on every page of your book. I do aim for that, although I don’t go back and check all my pages to make sure. 🙂

    I am subscribed to your blog and really enjoying it, by the way! I found you though Speculative Faith. It’s such a joy to know that there are other Christian speculative fiction authors out there! 🙂

    God bless!
    Bethany J.

    • Sarah Sawyer
      October 26, 2011 - 1:38 pm · Reply

      Bethany, thanks for sharing your thoughts and for your words of encouragement! I love connecting with other Christian speculative fiction writers, so I’m glad you found me and I look forward to “seeing” you around in the future.

      I agree that creativity is vital to a strong fantasy world. Though I alluded to the fact the DM Cornish’s series drew from some real life elements, one of the things I loved most about his world was how fresh and unique it felt. The foundational concepts of his world were highly creative, and it made for a fascinating read (it also required frequent consulting of the appendix at first). 🙂

      I think you hit on something significant and sometimes overlooked when it comes to worldbuilding–delving deep into the character’s senses. It has the added benefit of conveying emotional state and personality right alongside details of the setting. Incorporating sensate information didn’t come naturally to me at first, but as I’ve more intentionally put it into practice I think it’s strengthened my writing and worldbuilding. I’m glad you brought that up.

  • Jamie T
    October 24, 2011 - 11:17 pm · Reply

    Hi, I just wanted to say thank you for the lovely comment you left at my blog! I’m always glad to meet new writers; I’m interested in learning more about writing fantasy, so I’ll be looking here at your blog for more information soon! Again, thanks for the comment! 🙂

    Love, Jamie

    • Sarah Sawyer
      October 26, 2011 - 1:39 pm · Reply

      Jamie, thank you for taking the time to stop by. I look forward to getting to know you more here and over at your blog (which I quite enjoyed). 🙂

  • Patrick J. Moore
    October 24, 2011 - 11:23 pm · Reply

    I love a rich world to adventure in. Narnia is my favorite, with Middle Earth coming in second. I think world building can be over-done though, and Tolkien definitely over did it- imo. I also really enjoy a first person POV, yet I’ve noticed that authors who write first person seem more likely to neglect their world building.

    My novel has a very unique world. The world itself is a sci-fi other planet- where evolution or creation or however it began- all started very differently. There are a handful of sentient races, and none of them human. Within this setting I’m planning to tell a first person character story. I really want to achieve a rich world to my tastes (not over-done, but just right) that will enhance this character tale.

    I’m not sure how much world I can present through first person, though. How much would we know of Middle Earth if everything we experienced came through Bilbo’s mind and senses? We’d probably know a lot more about food, and much less about the world itself. Definately something to think about.

    • Sarah Sawyer
      October 26, 2011 - 1:45 pm · Reply

      Oh, those are some great points about POV and worldbuilding. POV does make a significant difference how setting can be conveyed and shapes the course of the story.

      The masters of old handled omniscient well, but one of the reasons I often dislike modern attempts at omniscient POV is that writers tend to use it as an excuse to tell too much and give information “dumps.” On the plus side, it does allow more flexibility and those who do it well usually create vivid worlds.

      I also have a strong affinity for first person POV, and I think its possible to write a rich fantasy world from that perspective. In a way perhaps, that constraint benefits the story by forcing the writer to naturally weave in the setting, showing the world from an intimate view. It also means relying more on what the character experiences through the senses, I think, as Bethany mentioned earlier. My current WIP has parallel story lines, one in deep third, and one in first person (journal) form…I suppose time will tell if I’ve managed to capture the realities of my world in the first person sections. 🙂

      Your world sounds intriguing, by the way, and I’m excited to hear you plan to explore it through a first person story!

  • C.J.
    October 26, 2011 - 2:46 pm · Reply

    For me, I like a world that is different and curious (mainly in regards to technology). I like to experience different technology with the characters and try to figure out how the world works. I’m sure this is because I’m a tech person, but I do think it’s interesting to see a different world in terms of technology, and even what crazy ideas authors can come up with. 🙂

    • Sarah Sawyer
      October 31, 2011 - 3:12 pm · Reply

      The technology factor is an interesting one, and I think it could enhance a number of fantasy worlds, if developed in a creative fashion. Steampunk, of course, relies heavily on this, but many fantasy tales take place in a low tech world.

      If you look to science fiction though, you really get a whole new perspective on technology–like in Kerry Neitz’s DarkTrench Saga. I could grow accustomed to a space ship like DarkTrench. 🙂

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