Friday, November 11, 2016

9 Different Descriptive Settings to Use In Your Fantasy Novel (Without Using Forests)

Has anyone else here noticed that forests always show up in fantasy novels? I have. It seems that almost every fantasy book I've ever read is either set in a forest or has characters that spend a large amount of time living in or traveling through a forest.

Incidentally, these forests are generally made up of only trees and, if the writer is feeling really creative, or wants to scrape up their character a bit, this large group of trees may also have "bramble."

Occasionally you get a mountain or two, generally some kind of rebel base with treacherous paths. And maybe a forest at the base. Because forests are the lifeblood of fantasy novels.
9 Different Descriptive Settings to Use In Your Fantasy Novel (Without Using Forests)
But what about tundras, guys? Or deserts? Or meadows? Or beaches or prairies, wetlands, glaciers, jungles, rice terraces, vales? What about those? Why don't those ever make it into books?

Stop the descriptive setting discrimination! Kill your forestcentricity. If you find yourself in the middle of building a fantasy world, stop and think about what you want to world to look like. Do you want it to be one big mess of forests, with the occasional mountain and river? Or do you want it to be a developed world with interesting terrains for your character to traverse?

If you said yes to the latter, here are some interesting and underused settings to use in your fantasy novel:

1. Karsts
A karst is a landscape formed from the erosion of limestone (or other soluble stone), producing underground rivers, towers, caves, and sinkholes. They're quite beautiful, and can exist both inland and right on (or in) an ocean or lake: 
They can be dangerous, as sometimes the ground can be eroding right beneath you and you won't even know it. People fall through the ground or get their houses sucked into a massive rabbit hole. On the upside, they're great for spelunking. I'm sure Lucius Fox could set you up. 

2. Cold Deserts
We all know about sandy, windy, hot deserts. But what about cold deserts? Technically, a desert isn't just a dry, hot place. It's defined as a barren area of land with harsh living conditions and very little precipitation. That's right, folks. Antarctica is a desert. That being said, cold deserts aren't necessarily just miles and miles of ice and snow. They can have sturdy shrubs, wildflowers, and lichen, among other things. Take a look: 

3. Tropical Rainforests
I'm always surprised at how anything tropics-related never make it into fantasy novels. I think it has to do with the fact that many fantasy books are eurocentric, a topic that A.Z. Anthony wrote about here (don't forget to follow his blog while you're over there. It's great). But, honestly, tropical rainforests are beautiful. I'm not including pictures because there were too many gorgeous ones and I couldn't decide which to put in. Also, I'm pretty sure we've all heard of tropical rainforests. If not, go google it. 

4. Salt Flats
Large areas of flat land covered in salt, this is one of the parts of our world that looks like it might belong on another planet: 
Think of the economical impact this could have in a fictional world. Forget the kingdom with the jewel mines. Think how powerful a king would be if he monopolized the largest salt flats in the world. Salt could become a type of currency. Pretty interesting, right? 

5. Wetlands
Generally, these show up in books as massive bogs full of dead people and flies that like to eat hobbit. While they can be dangerous, they can also be beautiful. 
In a fictional world, a wetland could be a very prosperous area where special foods are grown. But sure, they could also be the place where all your exiles are cast into. 

6. Archipelagos
This, to me, was one of my favorite parts of The Wizards of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin. Wizards running around islands and sailing boats? Yes, please! Not only are archipelagos beautiful, but they have a vast array of interesting creatures: fish, sharks, corals, sea stars, gulls. It's also worth noting that some peoples prefer to live near an archipelago, but not actually on them. Which means they live in boats or houses anchored off shore. Think of the possibilities:  
If you have time and are searching for writing inspiration, look up the Bajau Laut. They're actual sea nomads. It's amazing. 

7. Tundras
A region where the sub soil is always frozen or semi-frozen. There are no trees and, because of how windy tundras generally are, all of the plants grow very low to the ground. 
The tundra that I've been to (Glacier National Park in Montana) had beautiful little flowers all over the place, along with very short grass. And marmots. Don't forget about the marmots. 

8. Mesas, Buttes, Hoodoos, and Spires
I don't know exactly what category these fall into. What? I only pretend to know everything. But, regardless of what geological subset they belong to, these are amazing. They're stunning soft rock formations carved out by wind or water, and can often be vibrant reds. Utah has some amazing ones that I've seen in person, but they can be found all over the world. 
Look up Zion National Park, specifically Angels Landing and The Narrows. That place is possibly the most gorgeous place I've been to date. I can't begin to explain to you how many story ideas it holds. So go look at pictures...or, if possible, visit it. 

9. Mangroves
These are really, really cool. It's a tidal habitat comprised of mangrove trees, which are trees that have roots both above and below ground, forming dense thickets. 
Not only could they make interesting houses, but I imagine they'd be a good way to drown people: stick 'em beneath the roots and wait for the tide to rise. What? I'm a writer. It's my job to think of stuff like that. Also, this is my way of making people think twice before leaving me angry comments. Just kidding. 

There are many, many other beautiful places to draw from. Steppes, dunes, mud flats, lava domes, glaciers, vales, many different kinds of mountains, deltas. Look them up. 

My point isn't that you can't have forests in your fantasy novels. However, you should take some time to think about the world around you. It's vast and gorgeous and complex in so many different ways. Don't you want that reflected in your fantasy world? A unique descriptive setting is a great way to do this. 

What do you think? Of all the settings listed above, which was your favorite? Which of them do you have in your book or will probably put in your book? I'd love to hear your thoughts! 

Related items: 

Enjoy this post? Take a look around. If you like what you see, don't forget to subscribe by email for a new post every Friday!
SaveSave
SaveSaveSaveSave

37 comments:

  1. Awesome posts! I have one minor problem, though. FORESTS ARE THE BEST FOREVER! Haha I guess I don't get tired of reading or writing them xD but yes. Please. Someone write a fantasy story set in a rice terrace. I'm begging!

    Also, it seems that almost every big-scale fantasy novel (epics and such) that I pick up nowadays has an arbitrary desert and an arbitrary swamp on the map. Have you noticed that at all, or is it just me?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. What? I had NO idea you felt that way about forests, Nate. =D They are pretty darn awesome and I don't get tired of reading them, either. I'd just enjoy seeing new stuff, too.

      Your comment about the deserts and swamps cracked me up. I've noticed this as well. I think people are like, "Oh, I need to fill up this space here. Ah. I know. A desert!" =|

      Delete
  2. I want to read a story with all of these settings! Or write a story. Or both! I particularly like the archipelagos and karsts ideas, and might I add canyons and ravines to the list? My current fantasy novel technically takes place in the cornfields of the Midwest/a parallel dimension with a twisted labyrinth, so I don't have much opportunity to expand on huge landscapes, but I'll be sure to keep these in mind for later. Thanks for another great post!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ah! Canyons and ravines are so cool! Definitely add those to the list.

      Cornfields and parallel dimensions sound awesome. I mean, if you don't have the opportunity to put in a ton of different landscapes, those two sound like the way to go. =D

      Thanks for the comment, Azelyn! Happy writing.

      Delete
  3. Thanks for sharing, Hannah. My series was inspired by the terrain I was going through at the time--Eastern Oregon. So the first book is set in a high desert, a blend of Eastern Oregon Canyons and the canyons of Arizona with mesas and high walls where the characters build their homes into the walls. The second book took us to the south of an inland sea where it was flat, humid, and full of farmland. Then they went northwest and found hot desert with sandhills. The third book takes place in a bog. The land is fashioned after the winter in my home. We have a river valley that floods in the winter. I figured that would be great for dragons to fly through. Book four gets into a woods, but then they make it out to tall, jagged mountains. Finally, book five takes place in all of those spots, but then settles down onto the coastal plain.
    I'll have to keep in mind the idea of karsts and archipelagoes. I know I'll be writing more and need inspiration.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. This world sounds so cool, Kandi! It makes me excited when I hear about stories that have so many different settings in them. I feel like it's a book that will give me so much to explore and learn about.

      Also, it was good that you gave your dragons a space to fly. I can just picture them:

      Baby dragon: *tries to fly, but finds there isn't enough room to take off* *cries*
      Mother dragon: It's not your fault, honey. Somebody thought we should move to the forest. There'll be trees, she said. It'll be pretty, she said. *glares*

      =D Thanks for the comment!

      Delete
    2. Thanks, Hannah. I love your picture of what happened. That is so true! I had to take that into account for a short story as well. I had a gryphon traveling with a centaur. The centaur could run through a forest, but a gryphon couldn't fly. :)

      Delete
  4. Gorgeous pictures! Thank you for the inspiration.

    I do love my forests in fantasy worlds, but I realised my WIP is mostly set in a city surrounded by farmland.

    I wonder if a lot of writers stick to forests because they know (or think they know) what they feel like and they're easy to evoke in the mind of the reader. On the page, we don't get to show gorgeous pictures of turquoise water and golden beaches. We have to describe them so they come alive to the reader. And that's so much more than the visuals and the shape of the land. It's the weather, the wildlife, the smells, the feeling of the air, the sounds, the particular difficulties and dangers travellers or inhabitants will meet in the area... These are hard to fake convincingly if you've never been to such a place (or have been there but weren't paying attention).

    I think what I'm trying to say is that I love fantasy set in strange landscapes, but the writer has to help me live the landscape, or it might as well be a forest.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's a good point! I think that makes a lot of sense. Writers don't want to take the time to create and explain a new landscape, so they just go with forests. It's a shame, too. Like you said, good descriptions include the smells, the feels, the sounds. Often writers who set their books in the forest don't even include those extra bits of detail because they assume everyone knows. But books with those details are so much more striking than when a writer leaves them out for convenience.

      So, whether you go for a forest or not, including as many different aspects of the setting as possible without bogging down the pace is a good idea.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts! I enjoyed reading them.

      Delete
  5. Great ideas. They make me want to go write more fantasy. I'll admit, I do use a lot of forests, but I think for me it's because I'm from Maryland, which is like half made up of trees. But I shall strive to add more diverse settings to my fantasy.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Rachel, I understand living with trees. I'm from Oregon. I chose my landscape to fit my creatures. What fantasy creatures do you have? I have dragons so far, and dragons can't live in forests. So, I've had to branch out.

      Delete
  6. Yes, use all the landscapes.
    That said I did have a big forest, which is slowly becoming more of a mountainous rain forest. (in my writing, not in the world)
    But I've also got my bit of city and farmland. In the sequel, I'll have more city and desert or savannah. My current book has cities and the sea.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Mountainous rain forest! That sounds fun. I'm also a fan of cities and seas...especially if they are cities by (or in) the sea. =)

      Your book sounds like it's very well developed in the setting area. Awesome job! Thanks for the comment!

      Delete
  7. Yes, use all the landscapes.
    That said I did have a big forest, which is slowly becoming more of a mountainous rain forest. (in my writing, not in the world)
    But I've also got my bit of city and farmland. In the sequel, I'll have more city and desert or savannah. My current book has cities and the sea.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Omg love this post ! :O Hhaha proof that we have such a vast vocabulary lake that's awaits us to use them :)

    Trang

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Lol! Thank you, Trang! A vast vocabulary lake indeed! Aaaand now I have plot bunnies. =)

      Delete
  9. Karsts sound amazing. New book, here I come!

    ReplyDelete
  10. LOVE this post. As a pioneer of new settings (not just in fantasy, but in many genres), I really enjoyed the ideas-- and the gorgeous pictures! Some of these hadn't occurred to me before. I agree with you that the fantasy genre needs a makeover in the diverse settings area. And forests are fine-- but authors could be more original with the KIND of forest, too; like you mentioned rain forests, or mangroves, or underwater forests. I like the way C.S. Lewis made the wood between the worlds different in The Magician's Nephew, for example.

    Anyway, sorry for rambling, but I really like this post! Thanks for sharing.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. YES. C.S. Lewis is king of interesting settings. Just look at his Space Trilogy...specifically book 2. To this day Perelandra is the most unique world I've read about.

      No apologies needed for rambling. The best ideas come from good, long rambles. =) Thanks for the great comment!

      Delete
  11. I only pretend to know everything... grinning.

    Fantastic points. Now I want to look up the sea nomads and put them in space...!

    So many great ideas, thank you!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. *grins widely back at you* You caught my reference! Nothing goes over your head...your reflexes are too fast!

      Sea nomads? In space? This sounds amazing. Where do I put my money? =D

      Delete
  12. Fantastic post, Hannah! I have to admit, two of the settings in my WIP are forests. But for a good stretch of the novel, the protagonist and her travel party are also in open grasslands / prairie, and then in an alpine tundra as they go further north. It was neat to research what kinds of wildlife appear in each biome and find ways of incorporating that into the story.

    Also, YES to archipelagoes! That setting is one of the reasons why I love the Earthsea cycle, too.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh! Grasslands are fun! And I agree: getting to write about different places is so much fun. We get to learn all sorts of new things, from the animals to the plants to how people in that area live. Thanks for the comment!

      Delete
  13. Funny, now that you mention it, a lot of my fantasy stories seem to take place in a city or simply inside a house... I like forests really but I guess this is what comes from growing up at a walking distance from the city centre :) I do have a futuristic space story set in a forest though. It just seemed like if you could teleport to any place at any time, cities would become redundant. Also the whole thing takes place at what is known in Dutch as a 'Bungalow park'. Which is basically a patch of forest littered with rental cabins, only on a much bigger scale than most of the real ones we have here because of the teleportation thing. I guess sometimes it's good to be weird :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I agree that cities would get pretty redundant. And I don't think there is anything wrong with a story taking place only inside a house (or a single room). I've seen a lot of black-and-white movies that do this quite brilliantly.

      Your massive Bungalow park sounds really neat! Plus, it has teleportation, which pretty much automatically makes it awesome. =) Keep up the awesome work!

      Delete

  14. I absolutely love this post! I'm going to go edit Writing Beyond Eurocentric Fantasy to link to this. It's the perfect follow up blog!

    You picked a lot of great settings here and I'd love to see writers take advantage of that. This world is such a huge place, and there’s so much to it, there’s no reason to pigeonhole ourselves to typical settings.

    As someone who lives near plenty of wetlands and mangroves, I’m happy to see them on this list. Wetlands, while terrible to try to traverse, are stunning. And mangroves…well mangroves have a lot of biting insects. Emphasis on a lot.

    I've included steppe, tundra, karst, swamp, forest (egads!), flood-flats(?) and jungle in my current novel. Given, book one takes place mainly on the steppe, we'll be moving to the rest of those beautiful locations in books two and three.

    Great post, I’m excited for more!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I saw that you updated the link on your site! Thank you! Very cool,

      I'm glad you mentioned the difficulties of wetlands and mangroves. That's something I wanted to touch on, but didn't have room to. Having a chase scene through a wetland would be very interesting (and grueling for the poor characters). And the biting bugs in the mangroves? Ow and ew.

      Flood flats are a great addition! I love how many cool places your book has. I'd be excited to read it. =)

      Thanks for the great comment! Happy writing!

      Delete
  15. Karsts, Salt Flats, Archipelagos and Cold deserts are my top picks.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Those are some of my favorites, too. I'm dying to try out Karsts.

      Thanks for the comment!

      Delete
  16. These are seriously cool ideas, and will definitely make an appearance in my stories (if I ever finish one)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yay! I'm sure if you keep at it, you'll have a brilliant finished story on your hands. Happy writing!

      Delete
  17. My story starts in a limestone spire, with active boiling water spouts that grow the spire taller at the middle of a crater lake inside a basalt columnar extinct volcano. The main protagonist is abducted to Giants and lives in a tower, ala Rapunzel. Various extremophiles, of larger than hippo size, live in the boiling lake, similar to tardigrades.
    Her sidekick takes her on adventures to see the world. Archipelagos surrounds a massive Bazaar island where she first encounters others, like herself, meaning her size. She believes herself to be a Giant child. she visits the Purple Islands of the tropical north. The highland steppes of the greylands in the polar south. The deserts & salt glaciers of the yellow west. The rainforests of the north greens. The high mountains & plains of the redlands. The fjords & hanging lakes of the southern white lands. The savanna of the black east lands. The mangroves & massive strangler fig tree forests of the humid blue lands. Kaarsts sound very interesting! This story started out very Eurocentric, based on a dream my daughter had, probably from watching Tangled & Jack the Giant Slayer. We have explored different cultures, ethnicities & locations to craft a unique world based on things we would like to see explored further. The reindeer people of Siberia, the Aborigines of Australia, the Maori of New Zealand, the Vikings, the Rainforest Indigenous of Brazil, the bear people of northern Japan, the Apsalooke' tribe of Montana (Crow), the Punjab of India plus others.

    ReplyDelete
  18. Hated the Earthsea cycle, but loved this blog post! Very helpful for me and my WIP!

    ReplyDelete
  19. I couldn't have stumbled across this post at a better time. I'm building my fantasy world on the basis of the nine circles of hell and these suggestions are just perfect to differentiate between the areas. I know that in South Africa we have the desert in the Northern Cape, the fynbos in the Eastern Cape, subtropical forests in Kwa-Zulu Natal and grasslands in the northern provinces. These are all excellent ideas to use within one country, but I'm looking forward to making use of your ideas to make it more diverse.

    ReplyDelete
  20. These are all awesome ideas! I really want to do something with the archipelago now. After Camp Nano I'll come up with something. :)
    My current story does have a forest, but they're not in it for very long. So far my MCs have been in a farming village by the ocean, a forest, the capital city, grassland, another fairly large city, and now the mountains.
    Honestly the mountains have been the hardest for me to describe. I live around mountains, but they're not the same kind of mountains as in my story and I'm not hiking them, so it's pretty tricky.
    I've actually not been to the ocean since before I can remember, despite a lot of my book focusing on it, but I've read a lot of books that have ocean in them, so I draw from that knowledge.

    ReplyDelete
  21. All of these are great settings for fantasy

    My current novel is going to have lots of different settings like a desert, mangrove forest, cold mountains, and prairies. There will be a few major forests, but one of them is a rainforest (another underused landscape). Also they won't be going into it much.

    I just have to make a map for my universe, then I'm good with setting.

    ReplyDelete

Google Analytics Alternative