If you’re going to write in the fantasy genre, read this post. You will love this complete glossary of terms for fantasy writers.
These elements include the following characters:
A Note About Setting
Fantasy is a more general topic than, say, science fiction. For example, science fiction includes Star Wars and Star Trek, but not Lord Of The Rings, but fantasy can include all three. Although, don’t let a Trekkie hear you say that after a few Romulan ales.
Fantasy can include any setting that is imagined. It can be a futuristic setting or a medieval one. It can even be almost exactly the world we live in.
It simply has to have something fantastical about it. Like magic, or the Force or humans travelling peacefully through the stars. So long as there is an element of the unbelievable, it’s a fantasy.
However, I will be talking about the classic, medieval variety of fantasy in this post.
A Complete Glossary Of Terms For Fantasy Writers
These are all the important words and phrases you need to know to write a Fantasy book, short story, script, or game.
- Abjuration. One of the eight schools of magic – according to Wizards of the Coast. Abjuration is concerned with protection magic. Perfect for a cowardly mage. A master of abjuration will have considered every way they can be protected. They might only have obscure weaknesses.
- Academy. A place your main character learns how to overcome obstacles. Ideally, this should be populated my monks, wizards, cultists, or gentlemen scholars all of whom are secretly more than they first seem. Traditionally, an academy is housed in an Oxford University style town. It is also an ideal setting for a murder mystery.
- Ancients, Forerunners, Precursors. These are people who made the magic items that your protagonist is going to abuse. Of course, nobody can remember who they were, or exactly what happened to them, or indeed how they made their powerful magic items. Perhaps, your protagonist is descended from this race, maybe that’s why he can use the magic sword?
- Angels. Are good and law-abiding supernatural beings that live outside the normal material plane of existence. From this we get the term Lawful Good Outsider, which is used in many games and novel settings.
- Another World, New World, Secret World, Isekai. Popularised by C.S. Lewis in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe and, of course, the better book, The Magicians by Lev Grossman. This is when your protagonist, or a group of them, finds a portal to another world like the wardrobe that goes to Narnia. Lately, this genre has taken off in Japanese fiction, creating a slew of often terrible TV shows, Anime, and Light Novels like The Saga of Tanya the Evil by Carlo Zen (Which is not terrible).
- Artefacts. Rare and powerful objects now too difficult or impossible to make. These objects will, of course, be littered throughout your world. They are often simply left unattended on cave floors, for example. These Artefacts can give your protagonist the right to rule a kingdom, Arthur’s sword, or the power of Thor, Mjolnir – Thor’s hammer.
- Balor, Balrog, Pit Fiend. From the fiery pits of hell to the acid swamps of the abyss, these mythological terrors are fallen angels bent on wanton distraction. They may rampage through the lands, or they may plot away for thousands of years awaiting their turn to sow the seeds of destruction in a king’s mind.
- Barbarians. These are unrefined ruffians often found on icy steppes far north in the hinterlands. They make great enemies for your heroes to mow down. They can also be developed into a complex society. Usually, it revolves around animal worship and Conan-style blood oaths.
- Beasts. Every good story needs a beast. And no, it can’t just be any old farm animal. Beasts are unique creatures. Such as the dire-wolves from A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin. They can and should be magical. Perhaps, your adventure is to hunt and shear, oh I don’t know, a golden sheep?
- Books, Reading. In classic medieval settings just being able to read or write would be considered a valuable skill. Reading is unique to the upper classes of society. It gives you power over others. Written documents are treated as artefacts of value that have their own inherent power. Holding a deed gives you power over the land; being able to read a holy book makes you a holy man; reading a spell book makes you a mage. This is not the activity of the low born. It is a privilege that comes with money, power and free time.
- Celestials. Lawful beings form the outer planes of existence. They are not always good or evil, but they are powerful, often holy, creatures with a purpose. For example “The Inevitables” from Pathfinder/DnD seek out creatures committing cosmic unlawful acts, like travelling back in time or breaking the rules of physics. They hunt them down for as long as it takes and deal with this threat in a way that best serves the forces of law. They do not care why you did what you did, just that you broke their laws. They may even bring you back from the dead simply to put you to death for your crimes.
- Conjuration. One of the eight schools of magic. This deals with summoning. You would use this spell-family to create water from air; to teleport or to summon a demon from hell. A master of conjuration always has an infernal or celestial familiar as their magical emotional support animal.
- Courts. In fantasy, court is where powerful people or creatures gather. This has nothing to do with courts of justice, which often do not exist in fantasy. These courts are places where political intrigue happens. Princes backstab one another for the throne. It can also be a place where magical creatures hold audiences with mortals. This would take the form of, for example, the Unseelie Court, where the evil fey make deals with humans for a price…
- Deamons. Deamons are ghosts of pagans that live in the outer most circle of hell, according to Dante. They are not another spelling of demon.
- Demons. Demons are chaotic beings that live in the outer plains. They are evil. Unlike devils, demons love to lie and may break any promise they make. In many settings, devils and demons fight an eternal war for the souls of the damned. Famously, the succubus, or the male equivalent, the incubus, are demons that kill lustful humans.
- Devils. Devils are lawful extra-planer beings. They are evil and are known for making contracts with humans for the price of their soul. These contracts can often grant everything the person wants (see Dr. Faustuss by Christopher Marlowe), but are so complicated that people seldom know what they are actually signing. Devils will always keep a promise no matter the cost. They do not lie, but never speak plainly either.
- Divination. One of the eight schools of magic. Crystal balls and tarot cards are the symbols of this school. It deals with seeing things far off or in the future. The seeing stones from The Lord of the Rings are a good example of this magic. A master of this school of magic should never be caught off guard.
- Djinn, Genies. Beings of magical fire and the first inhabitants of the earth. The gods drove them back to make room for humans and the Djinn have never forgiven humans for this injustice. These are often evil creatures of smoke and fire who need to be contained in a magical object to be controlled. Sometimes, they will grant wishes to mortals, but they do their best to twist the mortal’s words so that the result of the wish is not what was intended.
- Doppelgangers. Creatures that are horrific to look upon in their natural form. They have the unique ability to perfectly copy the form of any humanoid creature. They can even copy their thoughts and mannerisms so long as the creature is still alive. These monsters often work as assassins or spies. Sometimes, they simply take over a wealthy organisation or even a kingdom without anyone noticing. Tip: Use this creature to replace one of your protagonist’s friends. Perhaps, slowly give out hints that something is wrong over time until the creature is revealed.
- Dragons. The most over-used and best monster in fantasy. Dragons are not really a monster. They are more intelligent than humans, they live for thousands of years, and have immense magical and physical power. They can be good or evil. They may pretend to be a human with magic; live a whole life; have a wife and children; see them grow old and die then move on to the next chapter of their life. They are scaled creatures with wings and four limbs and a tail. Their fore limbs have clawed hands. They can speak. If they cannot speak and have no hands, they are drakes not dragons, or possibly pseudo-dragons which are just animals. For example Game of Thrones has drakes while Dragon Heart has a real dragon. It can be argued that dragons don’t need wings to be called dragons. Asian dragons don’t have wings and are long and thin. While Tolkien wrote about a great Wurm (Elder Dragon) called Glaurung that could not fly but had all the other attributes you would expect from a dragon. Personally, I believe intelligence and the ability to talk to others makes a scaly monster into a dragon. Dragons can often breathe flame, acid, or cold from their mouths. In games like Dungeons and Dragons they come is a variety of colours and metallic tints.
- Dreams. In fantasy, dreams about the future often come as a warning from the gods. And so they are taken more seriously in these worlds. It is a mistake for the average person of these worlds to ridicule such people when they know such foresight could save or damn them. Soothsayers and profits have great currency in such settings.
- Druid. The mages of the forest. Druids are not harmless old men like Getafix from Asterix. They are eco-terrorists and the bane of civilisation. They strongly, and destructively, believe the natural order of the world comes before all else. Therefore, they will take every opportunity to undo the hard work of civilised people. They might revert a field of wheat to weeds, or destroy a dam blocking a river, with no concern for the lives of the people they are dooming. These evil beings also consort with dangerous spirits called the fey. These fairies delight in tricking humans and often have a dark and violent sense of humour.
- Dungeons. Most people think a dungeon is a place deep within a castle where prisoners are kept and perhaps tortured. This is true. However, in a fantasy setting, dungeons have a much broader meaning. Dungeons in some settings are vast usually underground habitats. They may be controlled by one or more factions or they may be wild lands that thousands of monsters call their home. Popularised in the game Dungeons and Dragons this concept has been adopted by all major forms of adventuring media. You are now just as likely to come across an endless dungeon in a high concept novel as you are in a mindless online game. Consider the nature of your dungeons before making them. They should make sense according to the rules of your world.
- Dwarves. Stout and stumpy; fearless and friendly dwarves are a staple of mythologies and fantasy. They generally come in two varieties. The noble but grumpy folk from popular fiction that can be counted on to do the right thing. Or, the deranged Dark Dwarves who want nothing more than to bring chaos to the world. The latter are called Duergar or Svartalfar (Black Elves). There are a number of tales about these creature in Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology.
- Elves. Long lived or immortal beings, elves are thin and tall with slanted eyes and pointy ears. They are known for an affinity to magic and nature. They live in forests and beautiful cities of their own making. Tolkien’s elves were the first-born of God’s two creations, the second being humans. Elves are known for being peaceful and wise, however, like dwarves, elves have a sub-race. These are the Dark Elves. They are evil creatures of chaos who worship demons. They are everything good elves are not even to the point that light hurts their eyes and they live underground. R. A. Salvatore has written at length about these monsters in his Forgotten Realms: Drizzt series of books.
- Enchantment. One of the eight schools of magic. Enchantment deals with charms. Love potions and similar mind effecting spells are the domain of this school. Masters in this magic never have to wait in line to get a seat at a busy restaurant.
- Ent, Tre-ent. Best known for not being hasty. These are living tree-like humanoids about two stories in height. They guard forests and nature. Unlike Druids, they have a more balanced view of the world, and are happy to co-exist with reasonable civilised people. They get on well with elves and other woodland creatures. They often have conflicts with dwarves and humans who cut down their trees for fuel and timber. They are not evil and in fact seem to have very little desire for any sort of violence. They are not immortal, but do not seem to die of old age, perhaps instead simply setting down roots to become a tree.
- Evil Empire, Dark Empire, Imperium. An evil empire is ruled by a Dark Lord. They are the dictator of this nation and control every aspect of their citizens’ lives – think fantasy Stalin. The Empire is expansionist and always fighting with its neighbours. It is often more technologically minded then its “good” neighbours especially in regards to weaponry. Traditionally, your protagonist will need to create an alliance of nations to defeat this threat. The Dark Lord need not be a flaming eye on a tower or a even lord for that matter.
- Evocation. One of the eight schools of magic. Evocation is concerned with destruction. When a wizard fires a bolt of lightning at his foe, he is calling upon this magic. A master of evocation is often arrogant, because their enemies tend to disintegrate leaving only smoking boots. Every evoker knows the spell fireball, because it is the best spell.
- Faeries, Fey. Fey and faeries are any kind of magical creatures that live between worlds. Traditionally, they are creatures that live in places that humans have no control over like the wilderness – especially dangerous forests. However, they may be from other worlds entirely. Fey come and go according to the cycle of seasons. They make use of standing stones and stone circles to cross between our world and their own. The fey are not always evil beings, but they are always tricksters. In your fiction, your reader should never be sure if they can trust a fey creature. If you make a trustworthy faerie, you have actually made an elf.
- Fallen Kingdom. The kingdoms of fantasy settings are in a constant state of decay. This is of course to facilitate the plot. It is difficult to have a hero save a competent, stable civilisation. It is much easier if that civilisation has a mad king that is leading his kingdom to ruin. Often, these kingdoms will be the last remnant of a great and proud empire. This allows the writer to give their characters form these fallen kingdoms airs, while still making the encroaching armies of the antagonist a real threat.
- Freeman, Squire. The lowest form of free people in a medieval setting. This is what you are if you are reading this in 2019. A person able to go where they wish without the permission of a lord and own the land they live on. They are not nobles, aristocrats, or peasants and are not the majority of the population. These people may fall from grace and become a peasant or climb the ranks to knight or baron with luck. More likely, they are working for a local lord as a scribe, steward, or lawyer. They might be 10% of the total population. Often, they are part of a guild.
- Gnome. Gnomes are creature that have escaped the fey world. They are smaller than a dwarf and traditionally don’t have beards. They live long lives and seek out interesting things to do. A gnome may decide to paint your house bright pink in the night out of a combination of obsession and boredom. In some settings, the only thing that ages a gnome is feeling bored.
- Goblins, Orcs. Goblins and orcs are the grunts of the Dark Lords forces. Goblins are small clever creatures that love to build machines. They are responsible for the more destructive battlefield weapons. Orcs are large and strong, often as big as, or much bigger, than a human. Orcs are savages breed for war. The majority of their culture is harsh and glory in battle is all that that matters to them. Both goblins and orcs reproduce by raping their captives. They are usually depicted as evil beyond redemption. Although, of late, some authors have tried to show these creatures in a more favourable, or at least less horrific, light. See Goblin Slayer by Kumo Kagyu for a typical view of goblins and Snuff by Terry Pratchett for a more sympathetic reading of them.
- God, a god, and gods. The cosmology of a fantasy world is complex. It has many gods. These gods all have their own domains of influence. For example, the god of the harvest, death, or nature. Often, there is a God beyond all these deities who takes care of the universe while these smaller gods are occupied with petty infighting or the affairs of mortals. The Greek gods are a good example.
- Gold. Your world needs currency and it is always gold in fantasy. Paper money is very rare and not used by anyone who doesn’t own their own bank. The denominations of a gold coin are: one gold piece to ten silver pieces and ten copper pieces to a silver piece. This is of course subject to change from setting to setting. Common folk may simply trade, say three apples for a fish, instead of using currency. Gold is very rare and well protected.
- Guilds. The protection rackets of the middles ages, guilds are basically all there is in terms of local government for the lower classes. They set prices of goods; teach trades; punish counterfeiters; and conduct trade – for a fee of course. A city should have a merchant’s guild, lawyer’s guild, farmer’s guild and so on. More fantastical settings may have mage’s guilds and alchemist’s guilds. They are a ubiquitous part of everyday life, but are seldom held to account for their actions unless they interfere with the nobility. They make a good setting for common intrigue. Often, the guild-masters will be the richest people in a medieval setting. See Terry Pratchett’s Discworld setting for more on guilds.
- High Fantasy. This is the epic tale. It concerns saving the world, rescuing princesses, and defeating dark lords. The hallmarks of this genre are fights with dragons, knights, and wizards. Grand battles are fought and worlds are shattered in these sagas. The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia are good examples of this. However, this does not mean that people in these stories will be more powerful than in other fantasy, but the story will have higher stakes. For example, Bilbo is a weak Hobbit who does grand things.
- Hobbit/Halfling. Small rabbit-like humans. These short people live to about 140 years and make good farmers and thieves. They tend to have limited ambitions and are more easily contented than other peoples. They will never say no to food and like to sing. Allegedly, they make fine scrimshaw.
- Illusion. One of the eight schools of magic. Illusionists summon images and sounds to confuse their enemies. They often uses these tricks to appear to be more intimidating or to distract. A master illusionist could look like anybody or even move around invisibly. They are seldom seen coming.
- King. The commander of a nation and leader of armies. It is common for fantasy protagonists to be the last king of a long lost kingdom come back to bring order to the world. This can be seen in Arthurian mythology, where the king will always rise again when his country needs him.
- Low Fantasy. This genre is where the smaller stories are told. It is not about saving the world but, perhaps about a detective and his half-orc partner busting druids selling faery dust to druggy gnomes. The worlds of low fantasy are seen from the gutter up not from the tower down. The focus is on character development and how these people interact with their fantastical world. There is a great deal of fun to be had in this genre, which is why it is so popular. See, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
- Magic. Magic cannot be explained. It is not just advanced technology. Magic is a force of will made solid. A gift from God or the very fabric of nature being bent and broken. Wizards spend their whole lives studying it, never really understanding how it works. Many, authors spend volumes explaining their magic systems, but really it’s only magic if you can’t explain it.
- Mythril, Adamantine… There are magical metals and materials in fantasy worlds. They are harder than steel and lighter than fabric. A skilled craftsman can do anything with them. They can change shape to fit the shape of their owner. Perhaps, they are even alive and have thoughts of their own. See, Black Panther’s “vibranium”.
- Necromancy. One of the eight schools of magic. Necromancy is concerned with mastery over death. A necromancer can raise the dead; grant false life to the living; or turn themselves into a lich. A master of necromancy is aiming for immortality and they will do anything to achieve this.
- Nobles, Nobility, Clergy. The vassals of the king and church. These nobles are dukes, barons, earls, and so on. They have carved out a part of the kingdom that the king allows them to rule over so long as they pay their taxes. They are in charge of running cities and towns, and function as the ultimate authority in local affairs. They follow a strict hierarchy and are parallel in power by religious organisations that operate in a similar way, but theoretically serve a god and not a king. Nobles are in charge of a peasant’s body. The clergy is in control of their mind and soul.
- Peasants, Serfs, Commoners. Theses are the lowest people who still have rights under the law. They must do what their lord says or be punished. However, their lord owes them a duty of protection against injury and crime. These people cannot own land.
- Portal, Gate, Teleportation. These are the means authors have of moving their character around at speed and between worlds. For example, a gate is opened between the plane of fire and the plane of earth so that your character can escape. A wizard might teleport your characters home after the quest to save on writing the journey back.
- Ranger. A person, often a scout, who spends the majority of their life in the wild. These are often tough people who have mastered the arts of hunting and tracking. They can be relied on in a fight and are good guides.
- Slimes. The weakest monster. They are frequently used as a joke in fantasy fiction. They are something that is not very threatening and are often the first fight a young adventurer might have. They come in colourful varieties.
- Sorcery. Unlike wizardry, sorcery is the magic inherent to a person. It represents how strong they are and not how much they know about magic. For example, a sorcerer may be descended from a dragon as the reason for their power.
- Spirit, Kami. Unlike ghosts, a spirit is not dead. A river may have a spirit that can talk to your characters though some form of magic. See the Miyazaki movie Spirited Away for a fun explanation of this.
- Superstitions. Unlike in reality, in fantasy, being superstitious is good. Magic is real in fantasy. You should be aware of what will anger the spirits and gods so that you can live in peace. Leave a saucer of milk out for the fairies so that they don’t steal your baby. It’s only logical.
- Swords, Magic Swords, Flaming Swords. These weapons can be the mark of a king. In many settings, swords give the wielder the right to rule as well as a magical way to enforce that rule.
- Transmutation. One of the eight schools of magic. Transmutation is the magical art of turning one thing into something else. Such as a human into a frog. A master of transmutation should not be mocked unless you believe donkey ears will improve your looks.
- Undead, Ghosts, Vampires. Death is often not permanent in fantasy. Sometimes, people will be brought back to life. But, often they will only be brought partly back. In this case, where the creature is not quite dead but not really alive, we call them the undead. They are often controlled by necromancers or vampire lords. The most feared undead is a lich. This is a wizard who chooses to turn themselves into an undead creature to ‘live’ forever.
- Urban Fantasy. Urban fantasy happens in the streets of the world. This is when an author tells a fantastical story that could happen in London or New York. It may be a secret world that only a few people in the city know about or it could be an entire world where it is common place to see elves sipping coffee at cafes and orc gangs fighting for turf. Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens is an example of this.
- Wilderness. The areas around civilisation are not tame. They are full of monsters and magic. Only the brave and well-armed venture into them.
- Wizardry. Wizardry is the control of natural, ambient, magical forces that exist in the world. A wizard grows in power by learning more about magic and how to control it. They do not have to be inherently powerful like a sorcerer.
I hope this is helpful and informative. Why not tell us what I have left out in the comments?
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Christopher writes and facilitates for Writers Write. Follow him on Twitter: @ChrisLukeDean
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