Buckle up, writers, because Bethany Meyer is about to deliver a Masterclass on fantasy settings! If you've been feeling uninspired, I promise that you won't be after reading this.
Why You’re Choosing a Woodland Setting (And What To Do Instead!)
Fantasy is a prevalent genre in the fiction-writing world, and inside of it, the classic woodsy mountain setting is equally popular. Nostalgic stories like The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings likely made this setting popular with a lot of us, but by now the epic forest setting is getting increasingly worn out. Readers now more often reach for brand-new unique and exciting settings.
Think of the demigod palace of Strange the Dreamer, or the Fold of Shadow and Bone literally splitting their world in half. Stunning! Whimsical! Memorable! They make me excited to world- build just thinking about them.
But before we jump into the worldbuilding, let’s take a deeper dive into why fantasy writers seem to use the forest as their default backdrop.
Raised on stories like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Eragon, or The Last Unicorn, many of us think back on woodland settings with nostalgia, and we may even consider such a setting to be the expectation for fantasy. There’s also a chance that you, like me, were raised in an area crowded with forests, so maybe they’re an easy setting to reference.
Forest settings aren’t overly complicated to describe. Everyone knows what a forest looks like, and how it usually behaves. Forests are also known to be pretty by default, so you don’t have to put a lot of work into describing why your setting is a good choice. Forests are often a classic and safe choice, which could explain why we gravitate to them automatically.
As settings go, the woods have a lot of your characters’ needs taken care of out of the gate. They’re hungry? Look, a rabbit! Mushrooms! Fruit! They’re thirsty? What do you know, we found a freshwater spring! Do they need a safe place to stay for the night? Don’t worry, forests have a limitless supply of caves, fallen logs, and other safe nooks and crannies good for hiding in. Unless you’ve specifically written your forest to be extra challenging for your characters, their journey shouldn’t be too hard.
4. Lack of inspiration… for now.
When starting out a new story, choosing the correct setting is often a work in progress. Worldbuilding might not come naturally to you. Or maybe you haven’t thought deeply about your setting just yet. There’s no problem with that. All that’s needed is some digging to find what setting will really serve your story, and don’t worry… that’s exactly what I came here to do.
Before we go on, allow me to add a small note: I don’t boo the forest setting altogether. I do discourage it as a default, especially with the wealth of one-of-a-kind possibilities at our fingertips. But, and pay attention here, there is exactly one(1) set of circumstances under which you absolutely must keep your woodland setting:
When it’s the perfect setting for your story.
Your story’s setting matters immensely. It’s the foundation on which your story rests. Nothing could be more important, and that’s precisely why I encourage you not to just lay down any old foundation. Your backdrop is the playing field into which you release your characters. Your characters live in this world. Their world shapes them, and through them, the story. All settings affect the stories that happen within them.
It’s for this precise reason that I’m telling you: Evaluate your setting, and if the woodland setting is exactly what your story needs, the thing that will make it sparkle, don’t you dare let me talk you out of it.
With that being said, if you do choose to seek a different setting, let’s take a look at other options that are available to us.
1. Choose a different familiar setting
I was raised in an area with a lot of forests, but that’s not all my life experience has to offer. I also have experience living near the ocean. On a farm. In a huge house. Near the capital city of my country. I can use all of these experiences to my advantage, and better yet, from this wealth of possibilities, I can look for settings that really inspire me.
For example, going out on the beach always inspires me. Hunting for shells and sea glass excites my creative juices every time. What if instead of battling a dragon in a cave on a mountain, my characters were searching for a sea monster in the caverns by the sea? Or looking for lost treasure in the sandy cliffs?
2. Showcase your characters’ capabilities
The simple truth is that your characters’ needs should never be conveniently supplied for. As true travelers, they have to prepare for their journey. What will they need to survive the trek through the desert? The rainforest? The salt flats? Your characters will have different needs in each setting, but this is your chance to let their qualities shine! Who will have the foresight to bring extra matches? Who knows how to hunt and skin that animal we saw in the shadows? Will they hire a guide, and how can he or she serve the story? I love preparing for these parts of the story; the mountain of possibilities is staggering.
3. Watch travel shows and explore your own world
Travel shows are a great way to get a feel for another place, and they’re always a great source of inspiration for me. Specifically, I recommend Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown. I take a lot of notes watching his show as the episodes tend to give me great writing inspiration. Every episode of Bourdain features a different small region of our world and describes not only the setting, but the culture and people, in glistening detail. If you can, travel in person as well! You’ll find all sorts of little corners and detours that provide great story fodder. The ideas are everywhere if you’re looking.
4. Write a forest after all, and make it sparkle
As I said before, if a forest is exactly the setting that will best serve your story, that’s exactly what you should stick to. But do something for me, won’t you? Make it great. Don’t just make any forest, make it your forest. Include unique elements that make you excited. Maybe the trees are really made of magical stone. Maybe the water is alive and takes control of your characters’ minds when they drink it. Maybe the forest demands daily sacrifices of bread and honey to allow your hero safe passage. Make it a forest to remember. Make it stick in peoples’ heads. Don’t let them forget you easily.
And most of all, write exactly the kind of story that you want to read. Make it great. You’ve got it in you–I know it.
Bethany Meyer is the self-published author of Robbing Centaurs and Other Bad Ideas and World Saving and Other Disasters. Currently she’s battling the trilogy’s finale. Between skirmishes, she loves to make other writers laugh on the internet, paint, and drink coffee–sometimes too much coffee.
You can find her on Instagram @scribbledfiction, on Twitter @ScribbldFiction, and on Goodreads as Bethany Meyer. Check out her Etsy Shop, too, where she sells signed copies of her books + some of the most awesome stickers you'll ever lay eyes on!
Before you go...
Explore my online bookshop! Everything is 15% off ($5 order minimum)! You'll find my Christian fantasy novels, bookmarks, art prints, stickers, and many more bookish treasures to enjoy.
Free shipping on all bookmarks, art prints, and stickers!
Are you an author who would be interested in doing a guest post?
Please contact me, either on my website or on social media @2125Books