I recently heard someone complaining that all fantasy seemed to be set in medieval England. While obviously there are plenty of fantasy stories that do not, there is a fair share that evokes that feel: conflicts among noblemen and monarchs, knights and squires, a plethora of unfriendly foreign powers close at hand, pastoral villages set in the shadow of castles, the list seems endless. It all fit right into what many believe a traditional fantasy tale ought to be.
But why England, or more largely, Europe in general?
Why would a gangster story take place in 1920’s Chicago? Because historically, that’s where the sort of story you’re telling took place. You are not copying, so much as conforming to the expectations of a genre. The same goes for fantasy. If you’re going to have swords, knights, and perhaps a bit of merlinesque magic, you’re going to evoke that Arthurian feel, whether you set your tale in England or on an alien world of your own devising.
How does it happen?
Well, even more so than Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, the fantasy genre reaches back to Arthurian legend for much of its roots. In a way, it is the default for anything you don’t go out of your way to point out as differing. Go ahead and count Robin Hood on this list as well, for the same reason (in case your tale has more of a roguish bent than chivalric). As soon as you give your readers a taste of either setting in your story, you’ve set them there, intentionally or not.
Some authors might go to the trouble of devising a wholly unique world, entirely disconnected from existing legends and lore, unfounded in literary precedent. More power to them. It’s a commitment that forces them to define every relevant aspect of your world, lest the reader begin erroneously filling in the missing gaps with their own preconceptions. It can take up a lot of space in a story to account for every concept, from how society is organized, to familial relationships, to your own unique quirks of geography, physics, and magic.
Help, I didn’t mean to do it!
Not everyone wants to have their story take place in the fictionally historic version of England. However, unless you are writing historical fiction or basing your tale in an existing legend, you can break free. It’s your world, and the readers have just been invited to visit. You don’t have to make up everything though. World-building is like remodeling a house: you can modify an existing structure until it meets your tastes, or you can knock it down and start from scratch. The difference in time invested is probably about the same when it comes to world-building, as well.
Oh, you don’t need to go though an actual checklist, but you should have an idea in your mind of what things you want to change from the preconceived version of fantasy. Those changes are what makes a world your own. The more you change, the more unique your world becomes. The more you leave alone, the less work there is for both you and the reader; you’re offering something familiar (warning: familiar is both easy and risks being boring, it’s a fine line to walk).
Take this example of how you can conceive of a world, and how it differs from the default fantasy:
King rules, supported by vassals Council of Magi rule over all
Few cities, mostly villages and towns aside from a large capitol Each of the Magi rules a huge city, most folk live in those cities
*Knights are chivalrous, defending their lieges’ lands
*Magic is wielded by a select few, and is a closely guarded secret
Dragons are ferocious beasts who live in caves, hoarding gold Dragons are ancient, cunning creatures, who scheme against the Magi to conquer human lands
*Elves live in forests
Dwarves live underground Dwarves live along rivers, using waterwheels to power mighty machinery.
As you can see, a lot of the elements of a basic, generic fantasy setting can be shifted to give a world a whole unique feel. By selecting how you change the world, you can alter the type of story you are telling. The Hero’s Journey works for a young wizard as well as for a would-be knight.
There is a fine line between The Story of El’du’grak, Third Diphan of the Cloud Realm Da’nai and England, circa 1320 A.D., set piece #12218. The choice of where to fall along that continuum is up to you.
And remember, anything you don’t specify otherwise, people are going to fill in with bits of England (along with effete elves and gruff dwarves, two subjects England failed to address adequately).