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When you write in a modern day setting, you research the culture, climate, location and history of that setting. You can do the same for historical fiction or low-fantasy settings based on real places.

When you write for a high-fantasy setting none of this information exists. The history, culture, environment and peoples are entirely your own creation. How can you effectively use research to help create interesting high-fantasy settings?

Some methods I have used include:

  • Read a lot of other works in the genre. Borrow the things I like.
  • Base parts of the setting on real world cultures or locations.
  • Do no research and make it up as I go.

The problem with the first two methods is that they often result in unoriginal/boring settings that have been done to death. The third method is a lot of work and often ends with plot holes or inconsistency in world-building. Any advice people can give on how to use research to improve my high-fantasy settings is useful.

  • You are asking "how to do research?", but your real question seems to be "how to be creative?" – Alexander Apr 30 at 17:18
  • This sounds like you are already pursuing option #3 :) – Alexander May 1 at 2:52
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    It all (imho) boils down to two pathways: 1) Do research to get creative inspiration; 2) Do research to validate/substantiate your creative concept. – Alexander May 1 at 3:27
  • I'm asking because those two pathways imply a very different kind of research, really a two different questions. I can't answer #1, but may be able to make a few suggestions for #2. – Alexander May 1 at 3:37
  • @Alexander Both would be valid answers to this question. If you can support it and it's about research techniques to improve a fantasy setting it's a good answer. – linksassin May 1 at 3:42
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Base parts of the setting on real world cultures or locations.

Unless you have near-infinite time to do your worldbuilding, you're probably going to keep coming back to our world. So start there! Not in the sense of "modern-day Earth with the serial numbers filed off", but in the sense of specific examples that are already fairly detail-rich. For example:

  • If you need to show a language, think about what broad properties you want it to have, look for a known language (could be historic) that has many of those properties, and study that as a baseline, then adapt. Instead of choosing between a deep dive into constructed languages or a dozen phrases with no clear grammar structures, adapt something that already has vocabulary and grammar and sounds to your liking.

  • If you need a physical setting, learn from ones that already exist. Your story is set in the molten lava fields of the salamanders' homeland? What details can you glean from volcanoes here on Earth, both when they erupt and when they simmer for decades without erupting?

  • If you're developing a new culture, what are its defining elements and do you know any cultures that share some of those elements that you can study? How do people in nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes manage childcare? What consequences do you see in the economies of nations that are always at war?

It's fun to reason out things like this, and I can suggest a site that can help with everything from orbital mechanics to centaur clothing, but you probably don't have time to work it all out for yourself, and there are probably some analogues already here in this world that you can look to for inspiration and some implementation details.

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I think for option 2, the problem is if you research the same things everyone else researches, your fantasy will reflect that, and thus have...

unoriginal/boring settings that have been done to death

Can you research other cultures? For example, in answering someone's question about fire/ice and elements, I found this site https://fireupwaterdown.com , and from there, let's look at this post: https://fireupwaterdown.com/2015/10/14/dragons-a-force-of-nature/

Dragons aren't always fire, some are wind or rain. I think part of what made The Never Ending Story by Michael Ende stand out to me was the Luck Dragon -- instead of a typical European Dragon, Ende brought in a more eastern conception.

A cultural-sensitivity reader/advisor is a good idea -- you want to be careful you're not fetishizing the "exotic" or doing things that are done to death in other places. (Killing your particular superhero's girlfriend may make sense for the story as it is, but DO note that it's part of a larger pattern of killing superhero's girlfriends.)

But picking a few elements from another culture and having them be baseline in your fantasy may allow great new combinations. I highlight that word, because I feel that most originality is about mixing the right things together in a new way.

Black Panther, besides being part of the Marvel (fantasy) cinematic universe, also postulated an African nation without a colonialist past. The designers used elements from the real countries of Lesotho (blanket design) and Congo (rare minerals). Each tribe within Wakanda was based on details from real, sub-Saharan nations. Things were mixed, but with thought and specifics, not a random mish-mosh. (I'm white & American, so I may be missing many nuances, of course. I'm an optimist though, and assume that this was all respectfully done.)

So my advice for research is to go farther afield than you expect.

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When making up a fictional story setting, there is always something that you have seen or read somewhere else that led to inspiring you for making that place up.
The points that you have discussed are true. If you want inspiration, you need to look somewhere for ideas. You might not take everything. Maybe you like the scenery someone has described, but their culture seems boring to you. You might like another culture described by someone else.

Make points of what interests you. Assemble them together. Put in your own imagination. Make a mix of other's and your ideas.
That's the beauty of fiction. There is no wrong as long as it is well explained.

And what you said about plot holes is true, but once you write the first draft, you can always get a few test readers to read your writing and point out what seems off to them. In that way, you can keep filling up the holes until there are no more left. :)

(I'll always suggest to let someone else test read your work instead of doing it yourself, because you rarely find the blunders that you have made in your work, as your brain has made up excuses for them to be correct already.)

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Warning: this answer links repeatedly to TV Tropes. Don't let this happen to you.

Since all three methods you mentioned have drawbacks, I'll try to suggest tweaks to them.

Let's start with reading the genre, then borrowing what you like. This amasses facts of the form "when it comes to X, story Y does it in way Z". Apart from your concern that this is boring or unoriginal, reading the works themselves to get these facts can be very inefficient. Now, writers should read widely, of course; but this is not, IMHO, one of the reasons to do it (at least, not if by "read" you mean "read works" rather than "read about the works", an underappreciated item in the writer's toolkit).

Instead, go through these pages' examples regardless of medium and genre, Ctrl+Fing for these keywords; and rather than borrowing these ideas wholesale, think about what assumptions you've made they challenge, then see what that helps you come up with. That'll hopefully make it much more original, much more interesting. The best litmus test you'll have access to is whether it interests you.

I contest that real-world settings have to be boring or unoriginal, but it depends on which ones you pick. Guess what: we all (think we) know ancient Rome. There have been so many cultures in history, even in one region over time. The world's empires alone will give you all the fodder you need for something unlike anything you've ever read. So will the world's religions. I know I keep mentioning Coco, but I learned so much from that film about both certain afterlife beliefs and real Mexican culture.

Having said all that, one culture may not be enough for you. You're trying to write a story that makes internal sense, and cultures often don't. Greek myths, for example, are incredibly inconsistent. (Usually if I look up one of their deities' parents, I discover sources differ.) Cut and change what doesn't work, and borrow from a second culture, real or imaginary, if you have to.

For the third option, work smarter, not harder. If your creative focus is on characters first, and you reveal only what you have to about their culture for their decisions and misadventures to make sense, you'll have your best chance of having a first draft that makes sense. Now, let me be clear: you can come up with a Hemingway-style iceberg early on, maybe even spend the first few pages fleshing it out. You will excise it, just as you'll excise the occasional inconsistency you encounter in a read-through. Nine times out of ten, you'll only need to delete or rewrite one sentence or paragraph to fix it anyway.

Even fantasy is, to some extent, like realty unless noted. Sometimes you'll realise the people in your world couldn't do A the way we do because of B; on other occasions, you'll realise they would in fact do C like us, because people aren't (too) stupid or evil (or smart or good, depending on the parallel).

Above all, think about the tech and values of your culture. Have they legalised same-sex marriage, and did they read about the ruling on their smartphones? Feel free to move forward or backward relative to our timeline, of course. Fix what bugs you about the conventions of the genre.

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The main thing with High Fantasy or Super-tech science fiction is internal consistency and analogy.

Since you will be dealing with stuff that has no real world direct matches, figure out how the magic/tech/psionics/etc. (I will just use the word, "magic", to represent all of this) work in your story. Make sure they are either consistent or purposely inconsistent (with how/why well thought out). Then think of what kind of world would create that magic or be created by that magic. How would life be affected by magic or affect magic (or effect magic :-) ). How would societies be affected?

As a shortcut, you could pick current or historic societies as the base society that you then modify. If you want the story to be approachable and easy to research (as well as taking the very well tread path) base the society off of medieval Europe or Ancient Rome. If you want to do a lot of research, pick a group like the Inuit. Then figure out how things will change due to the magic.

Then use real world analogs.

If magic is rare and only has a few wizards throwing fireballs, look at historic sword/spear/bow with canons combat. If everyone has a couple of one shot ranged spells, look at the musket era. If combat magic is relatively common, look at WWI. If everyone has trained dragons, move it up to WWII.

For general society, is magical light common (gaslight era or electricity). Can magic be used to speed up crafting? then look at the industrial era.

In general, look at the effect of the magic not the method and find effect analogs that you can reference.

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If you are writing via planning and worldbuilding, your creative process goes like this:

idea => concept => detailed plot/setting

Research can be (and should be) used in every step of the process. Your methods #1 and #2 seem to imply that this research should predate the "idea" step and should be a source of inspiration. I can not really suggest anything there. Anything that gives the writer new ideas is a good thing, but this is highly personal.

A different kind of research is needed when an idea is developed into a concept, and then concept serves as a stage for specific plot developments. Obviously, you would want to avoid any holes in concept and in plot, and likely want to avoid any striking similarities with existing stories. So, after you have your idea, #1 question is

Have this been done before?

If you are well familiar with your genre, chances are that you immediately can pinpoint other works where something similar had been done. Anyways, it would be good to do some Google or TV Tropes search to see how original your idea really is. The outcome could be different:

  • Looks like my idea is very original. Hooray!
  • Other people have done similar things, but my idea is really different;
  • My idea is not new at all. Duh!

Even if your idea is not new, that's not necessarily bad. In fantasy genre the setting is important, but the story is the most important part. You may use cookie-cutter elves, dwarves and dragons if you like. If your story is original, it would be perfectly fine. Conversely, if your story is a collection of well-worn tropes, fresh and original setting may not be enough to save your book.

If your idea is original enough, the next question is

Does this concept make sense?

As you flesh out your world, you need to understand how this novel idea would work out in everyday life. It's easier if the idea is not very novel, because other people have already done the work of rationalizing the concept, or supplying some "standardized" magic to make some non-scientific concepts (like flying and fire-breathing dragons) to work without readers asking too many questions. If your idea is very novel, you need to make it work with the minimum amount of necessary explanations. For example, if levitation magic is widespread in your world, it would be natural for different creatures and people to fly. Otherwise, the reader would be striving for an explanation.

I can recommend to get familiar with Brandon Sanderson's First Law, Second Law and Third Law of Magic. Also, other answers have already recommended the sister worldbuilding site where you can find help polishing your concepts.

After you are satisfied with your concept, you can move to the plot. And here lies the next question:

Do I need to tweak my concept to make the plot work?

Here is the area where (imho) most promising, but less than perfect stories are suffering. This problem is by no way limited to the fantasy genre, but it is particularly common here. You need some magic to move your plot and resolve your conflicts, but you don't want it to look like you are inventing new things as you go just to push the plot in the right direction. Again, I can recommend reading Brandon Sanderson's opinion here. It is Ok to encounter new things while on a journey, but it's not Ok to create some reader's expectations and continuously smash them by introducing more and more new things.

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