Writing Unconventional Fantasy Settings

Whether you’re writing a short story, ghostwriting or have a freelancing assignment within the fantasy genre, at some point you’re going to come face-to-face with that age-old question: “Has this been written before?”

In my opinion, there is no other genre that has been saturated with conventional themes and standardized characters than fantasy. Lord of the Rings may have set the bar in modern times, but fantasy has been around since ancient times. Legends, epic poems, and heroic tales written to herald the greatness of kings have sprung up from the central idea of what fantasy is all about – the hero’s quest.

With the success of Lord of the Rings, many authors attempt to pay tribute to the work (either intentionally or unintentionally) by using its setting as a starting point. So what does a “fresh” fantasy setting entail?

If you think about what the standard conventions are in fantasy, much of the setting turns into its own “convention.” Dark forests, high mountains, scorching deserts and small villages are often expected in fantasy, and are so common that they can’t be ignored. Instead of trying to twist these elements into something compelling, the way to creating something “fresh” is to either build your setting around the races you plan on including, or to flesh out your setting around the mythology or gods after you decide the theme and mood of your story.

Another piece to your setting is the mood you are trying to convey. Think about how powerful certain landmarks can be like ancient temples, rushing waterfalls, underground caverns and rolling meadows. These items can fuel your setting details to enhance or create your mood and make it unique depending upon how you describe these elements. A meadow filled with spring flowers offers your readers a much different picture than a dead landscape scattered with dry leaves.

If you’re still concerned that your setting is not unique enough, remember that the story – your story – is like a gorgeous tapestry filled with thousands of threads. And just like any other story, the way you describe your setting can make all the difference.

Happy writing!

2 Responses to Writing Unconventional Fantasy Settings
  1. Joe Cooke

    Dear Monica,

    Unconventional settings and stories in the fantasy genre is a dichotomy. Some of us love to write works that stretch the boundaries of the traditional (i.e. not including talking animals, dragons and magic in our work) – but it seems that publishers want more of what has sold before (and of course I understand the economics of that.) My fans love my fantasy (i.e. Elysen) and yet my agent couldn’t get any large publishers interested in the series. (I recently terminated my agreement with that agent due to other issues.)

    If we write stories that are outside the bounds of the tried-and-true, how do we get them to market?

  2. Monica Valentinelli


    I think your comment is exactly right. Here, I was speaking to the phenomenon that in many cases “new” authors have the tendency to mimic what’s already out there, but can’t quite connect the dots on bringing it to market.

    For your situation, I feel that there is a way to “get them to market,” and I will be happy to address that in a separate blog post next week. 🙂

Monica Valentinelli is a writer, editor, and game developer. Her portfolio includes stories, games, comics, essays, and pop culture books.

In addition to her own worlds, she has worked on a number of different properties including Firefly, Vampire: the Masquerade, Shadowrun, Hunter: the Vigil, Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, and Robert E. Howard’s Conan.

Looking for Monica’s books and games that are still in print? Visit Monica Valentinelli on Amazon’s Author Central or a bookstore and game store near you.

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