An important element of fantasy writing is the constructed world. Your characters are housed in a fictional universe, so it must comes across as completely authentic. Authors like Tolkien started off by inventing languages, then the people who spoke them, before setting about creating Middle-earth. Others construct a world in which to set a role-playing game and later expand that base, in Raymond E. Feist’s case Midkemia, into novels. Still others begin by roughing out a map, using that as the springboard for the development of peoples, histories, and storylines. Grouped in the latter category, my own Terrath was mapped out long before I laid the ground work for Wizards’ Goal and Enemy Winter.
Whichever starting point you decide on, map making is an integral part of the process and should never be glossed over. Strange as it sounds, a believable fantasy world must incorporate a degree of realism. Readers do notice inconsistencies. Remember that terrain affects climate and vice versa. Desert areas form in regions where dry weather predominates - not necessarily a hot climate, as technically Antarctica is one of the driest places on Earth and is rightly considered a desert zone. Forests prefer conditions of higher rainfall. Take into account also that the effects of erosion and plate tectonics shape the landscape.
Let’s not forget that the constructed world should fit its inhabitants like a glove. Naming places appropriately is just as crucial as the processes which formed them and must reflect the principal lingo of that region. It does no good having what is plainly a Dwarven name plastered on Elvish holdings. Whether you take great lengths to create individual languages or choose to just make superficial use of dialects, the tongues your fantasy races speak must be recognizably distinct.
This leads to the all important back-story, the creation of which imparts a vital sense of racial depth. Everybody carts personal baggage around with them, and collectively a race is no different. Take the trouble to chronicle past events; the how, why, and when of a nation or tribe’s birth. No detail is too trivial, every event holds significance. In my comprehensive notes for Terrath I devised the entire history of the continent and its peoples before committing to telling specific tales. Bear in mind that this handbook is essentially solely for the author’s use and will likely never see the light of day. Think of it as the foundations of a building. Unseen to the casual observer, without that support a structure – whether built of brick and mortar or words - simply cannot stand.
Therefore, in order to build something fantastical a good grounding in reality is required. Characterization is just as critical to places as it is to people. So get busy building!