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The 13 Essential Features of Every Fantasy Forest and How to Make Yours Magical

The features found in the most magical forests of fantasy fiction.

Ten blog posts ago, we started with the question:

“What is a forest in fantasy fiction… and why does every fantasy story seem to feature them?”

Since then, we have explored history, philosophy, psychology, and science.

We have traced the peasant’s folklore through its deconstruction and resurrection.

Everything a forest is and has meant to fantasy authors has been investigated… no stone has been left unturned!

(except the occult… forgive us for shying away from that stuff…)

The result?

A definitive guide… the 13 essential things that comprise an ideal fantasy forest.

Below is a standard list, but divided into two sections:

  • The first 10 features are shared by any true, stereotypical forest.

  • The last 4 are important features distinct to magical forests found in fantasy

So first off…what is a forest?

1. A forest is DARK

For a natural, wooded area to be a forest, 60%-100% of the sky has to be covered by the canopy. Which means that above all else, a forest is dark. The sun seems to rise later and set earlier. You cannot see very far into the trees, especially at night, when it is the blackest of black.

2. A forest is DENSE

Because there is less sunlight, there is less heat. Water evaporates less and stays in the ground longer, resulting in an explosion of quantity and species vegetation. The crowd of plants makes it difficult to navigate.

3. A forest is LIVING

This is more than just plants. The dense, wet ground is filled with all sorts of bugs and insects. In other words, the very ground seems to pulsate with life. And these bugs bring birds, which bring rodents, which brings predators… you get the idea.

4. A forest is UNTAMED

Wherever humans go, they conquer and bend the landscape to their will. A managed wood, which is cut and cleaned, serves the purposes of humans… a forest serves no master but itself. The flora and fauna of the forest relentlessly exist with the same feral instinct they have for a millenia.

5. A forest is OLD

Forests feel like they have always existed. Stones take their shape only after thousands of years of rainfall. Trees that fall stay fallen and slowly decompose into the ground. A forest cannot be planted… it slowly forms through the ages.

6. A forest is DANGEROUS

Not only is the forest full of predators that will hunt and kill you, but also bandits that will rob and murder you without a seconds hesitation! Furthermore, with the sun and horizon blocked by trees, it is remarkably easy to get lost. And once lost it is even easier to die from exposure to the elements.

7. A forest is UNCIVILIZED

All these elements combine to make a forest a nightmare for creating civilization: roads, buildings, farms, etc…. a forest is devoid of them all. As a result, forests are less populated and naturally become an area of less oversight. In a forest, the rules of society are either loosened, ignored, or unenforced.

8. A forest is AWE INSPIRING

In the past the forest was beautiful and dangerous… for the modern person it is also an inspiring and uplifting place. Today we visit the forest as a recreational activity and experience the numerous physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional benefits a forest has to offer.

In fantasy, the elements of a real-life forest are amplified… resulting in a fantasy forests:

  • The fantasy forest is not only dark… but is SHADOWS… shrouded and hidden in gloom…

  • The fantasy forest is not only dense… but SUFFOCATING… pressing in upon you at all sides…

  • The fantasy forest is not only living… but is itself ALIVE… populated with all manner of strange creatures…

  • The fantasy forest is not only untamed… but WILD … capable of anything at any moment …

  • The fantasy forest is not only old… but unfathomably ANCIENT… as old and unmoving as the mountains…

  • The fantasy forest is not only dangerous… but DEADLY… to venture deep into the forest is to do so at your own peril…

  • The fantasy forest is not only uncivilized… but ANTI-CIVILIZATION … it actively rebels and pushes back upon civilization and brings out the animalistic passions of people …

  • The fantasy forest is not only awe- inspiring… but full of WONDER… a sublime place that reconnects you to realities you never knew existed…

How does fantasy transform a forest to be so much more than reality?

9. A fantasy forest is MYSTERIOUS

Its dense vegetation cannot be crossed and its colossal size stretches past the horizon like a great green ocean. It cannot be explored, studied, understood, or mapped. It is completely unknown. When it originated and what lives in it are a complete mystery. To enter the forest is to enter a place beyond human comprehension.

10. A fantasy forest is DIVINE

Fantasy forests are incomprehensible because they are beyond the realm of the human entirely: they are connected with the gods. Maybe the forest is a portal between the heavens and earth. Maybe exiled gods dwell there, or guard something hallowed. Maybe they are holy places for ritual and sacrifice. Or maybe it is a place where the spirits feel comfortable.

11. A fantasy forest is MAGICAL

Whether it's a consequence of the presence of gods in its presence… or simply because the forest began in an ancient age of magic… a fantasy forest is full of enchantment and sorcery. Arcane forces are constantly at work, filling the air and coursing through the roots of the trees. Magical creatures and monsters of all shapes and sizes occupy the forest, considering it their domain and home.

Virtually every feature we have assigned to the forest could also apply to magic…it is no coincidence they are a perfect match for one another!

12. A fantasy forest is ALIEN

Being a magical, mysterious place beyond comprehension… the forest is completely foreign to human experience. It is filled with gods, spirits, fairies, demons, witches… most of whom are not friendly to humanity or have humans best interests in minds. Though the forest may be on earth, humans are strangers and intruders, and have an eerie feeling when they walk under its branches.

But above all else…

13. The fantasy forest is the perfect place for a transforming adventure!

And yet… almost like a mirror… it reflects back the reality within every human.

In many ways the forest is a reflection of our soul/consciousness; a dark and mysterious place very near to us that we are not comfortable with.

It is no wonder that so many characters in so many fantasy stories enter the fantasy forest… overcome some challenge… and exit a changed person.

And ultimately, this is why the forest is such a staple of the fantasy genre.

About to “Enter” A Forest In Your Next Work of Fantasy?


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