When we come across a fantasy castle in a story, it sparks our imaginations. We imagine the stonework, the parapets, the swallowtail flags flapping in the breeze, the soldiers lined up along the walls. And some of the battle scenes involving fantasy castles are quite simply mind-blowing.
So often, we think of a medieval fantasy castle. They’re unmistakable—great, stone structures that dominate landscapes, and which dominate so many of our favourite fantasy stories. Or that looming fantasy fortress with its great walls rising high up into the clouds.
But how do we come up with ideas for such castles and keeps? How do we find inspiration for that beautiful fantasy castle that lives long in our memories?
And how do we describe a castle in a story that blows readers away?
All will be revealed in this guide.
Choose A Chapter
- The Fantasy Castle
- Medieval Castles In Fantasy
- A Brief History Of Medieval Castles
- Glossary Of Fortifications
- Early Fortifications
- Medieval Towers
- Gatehouses, Drawbridges and Moats
- Fantasy Castle Examples
- Fantasy Castles In Real-Life
- How To Draw A Fantasy Castle
- How To Describe A Castle In A Story
- Coming Up With Fantasy Castle Ideas
- Discuss Fantasy Writing Ideas In An Online Writing Group
- More Guides On Medieval Fantasy Castles
- Fantasy Medieval Castle FAQs
When we think back to some of our favourite fantasy books, there will undoubtedly be some that feature a castle or two.
For me, the one that springs to mind is Legend by David Gemmell. If you’re unfamiliar with the story, it’s basically about the greatest army of all time besieging the greatest fantasy castle ever built. Well worth checking out, especially given Gemmell’s symbology—he wrote the tale when he was suffering from cancer. The army represents the cancerous cells within him, and the fortress is him, resisting.
Another famous fantasy castle can be found in Lord of the Rings. In fact, two decisive battles in the books are sieges—Helms Deep and Minas Tirith.
Fantasy is full of dramatic moments involving castles, keeps, and fortified cities. David Gemmell’s Legend tells the story of the siege of a city with the greatest defensive fortifications by the most powerful army in the land. Two of the most iconic battles in The Lord of the Rings series came in The Two Towers with Helms Deep and at Minas Tirith in The Return of the King. Fans of Game of Thrones will recall the Battle of Blackwater Bay and Daenerys’s conquest across the Narrow Sea.
It’s the author’s knowledge of these defensive structures and how they affect the course of battle which makes these moments so memorable. What challenges do the besiegers face? What steps must be taken to overcome those challenges? And what must the defenders do to resist, if anything at all? We’ll learn the answers to this when we consider real castles.
How Do You Build A Medieval Fantasy Castle?
To overcome such challenges, it can really help to do some research.
In exploring our past and learning about the foundations of the time periods fantasy draws upon, we can empower our writing with detail readers love. So below, we’ll take a look at medieval castles in fantasy and how they translate into the genre, a range of different fortifications from the middle ages, how they were overcome, and what life was like in a keep.
We’ll also take a look at some fantasy castle art before taking a look at how you can draw your own impressive fortification. There’s also a section on coming up with ideas for your own castle creations.
The subject matter is quite large so this post will be the first in a short series. You can read the next parts of the guide by clicking below:
Click here to read part two of this guide to the castle in fantasy (defensive features)
Click here to read Part Three (sieges)
The Middles Ages lasted about a thousand years, kicking off in or around the 5th century and lasting until the 15th. It can be split into two periods: the ‘Dark Ages’, which ran from 5th to 10th century, and the High Middle Ages, from the 10th to 15th. (I understand the phrase Dark Ages is no longer accepted by some, but for ease, it’ll serve here).
Castles didn’t really exist in the Dark Ages. What did exist were the remains of Roman fortifications, but only in Western Europe. Everywhere else structures were made from wood.
Then the High Middle Ages came about and so too “The Age of Castles.” You couldn’t move for a castle in Europe. There were so many that no historian has been able to comprehensively document them all. Castles were status symbols, a means for the nobility to challenge their king, and incredibly, many continue to exist today.
But as the use of castles grew, so too did methods to try and take them down. With the advancement in weapons like catapults, trebuchets and cannons, castle walls were abandoned and open-field warfare was once more adopted.
One thing that didn’t change over time, however, was the lives of people who lived within those solid, windowless structures. They were often cold and damp, with tapestries hung on walls to keep the chill at bay. And with only arrow loops for windows in many castles, they were very dark. That meant lots of fires burning which wasn’t good for respiratory health.
Before we hack our way further into this fantasy writing guide, it’d be useful to have a rundown of some of the different types of fortifications:
- Castle: a fortification of the High Middle Ages, characterised by high walls with towers and usually a moat. Served both residential and/or administrative purposes.
- Fort: a small strongpoint occupied by military personnel.
- Citadel: a word used to refer to either a castle or a fortified section within a city similar to a castle in size.
- Fortress: also referred to as a fortified city or town, it has many features in common with a castle, such as high walls, gatehouses, and battlements, though much larger, housing a populace.
- Motte and bailey: consisted of a tower standing upon a man-made mound, also known as a motte. This motte was located within a courtyard known as a bailey and encircled by a fence of wooden stakes (also known as a palisade) with a fortified gate.
- Donjon: a great tower or innermost keep of a castle. The term donjon was later replaced with keep.
- Rampart: a defensive wall of a castle or walled city, having a broad top with a walkway and typically a stone parapet.
- Portcullis: a strong, heavy grating that can be lowered into grooves in the ground. Usually found in gatehouses.
In addition to these main types of fortification, there were tower houses, observation posts, and fortified churches and monasteries. These kinds of terms can be of great use when describing your own fantasy castle in your stories.
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Castles evolved out of early, cruder fortifications, three in particular: the gród, the bergfried, and the motte and bailey.
The gród was a simple, circular fortification that consisted of an earthen rampart with wooden walls, a fortified gate, and sometimes a moat. Something like this:
The bergfried was a tower, used as a lookout and later as a residence. Before the 13th century, they were mostly made of wood. Entrances to bergfrieds were found on the first floor instead of the ground floor. The reason? Bergfrieds and keeps tended to serve as the last point of defence and having it a floor higher made it more difficult for the enemy to take it.
The motte and bailey consisted of a wooden tower standing upon a man-made mound, also known as a motte. The motte was located within a courtyard known as a bailey, which itself was encircled by a fence of wooden stakes (also known as a palisade), with a fortified gate. It was a popular fortification with the Vikings. In the image below, the bailey is the lower level, the motte the upper.
Towers played an integral role in the defence of a fortification. When constructed as part of the wall, they jutted forward to allow for flanking fire. They were also constructed separately. In the early years, they were made from wood, later, stone.
In most instances towers were placed at corners but were also added at intervals, sometimes at set distances, others random. It all depended on the terrain, available resources, and the skill of the builder. These factors also influenced the height of a tower.
A clever feature seen in some towers was an open back. Not only did it allow for supplies to easily be hauled up, but if attackers overran that tower, they couldn’t use it against the defenders. Some towers were cut off from the wall by drawbridges for added defence.
One vulnerability of towers was mining. Early towers were square in shape, but the dead angles made them vulnerable to mining attacks. In the 12th century, more circular or semi-circular towers were introduced. This was a risk the Romans were already aware of is why many Roman fortifications had D-shaped towers.
The gatehouse is perhaps the most eye-catching feature of a castle’s defensive fortifications. And many a fantasy castle has featured them.
The gate was perhaps the most important feature of a fortification because, in theory, it was the easiest point of access for attackers. Most gatehouses had battlements which defenders could stand upon to keep attackers at bay. Moats and drawbridges were added later to enhance defence.
Gatehouses consisted of a set of reinforced wooden and/or metal doors and a portcullis made of reinforced wood or iron. An example of a mighty gatehouse can be seen in Harlech Castle in Wales. It had three portcullises, three doors, and four towers. If you managed to get past the first you were trapped at the second, and so on. The walls of the gatehouse were punctuated with arrow slits through which the defenders could fire upon the attackers, and murder holes in the ceiling through which arrows could be fired, rocks dropped or hot liquids poured.
One simple yet effective feature of gates was to place them at an angle instead of facing outwards. The purpose was to prevent battering rams from having a clear charge. Another feature designed with this in mind was the barbican, which was an outcropping of wall in front of the gatehouse.
Drawbridges were basic in construction, raised by chains and winches. They went hand in hand with moats, so if there was no moat, there was no drawbridge. The moat is one of the oldest features of fortifications. Simply put, it was a ditch surrounding the castle or keep. Rivers, lakes, ponds, or swamps were used to fill in moats, others were dry.
A moat had to be deep enough to prevent an attacker from wading through it and wide enough to stop someone from leaping across. Around 3 meters, or 9 feet, was the average depth before the 11th century. After that, they grew much deeper. The size of the moat, however, depended on the terrain and how easily it could be excavated.
Moats were also reinforced with other obstructions, such as sharp stakes along the bottom or inner wall. A deep moat also protected against the threat of mining.
One thing about moats to keep in mind is that they tended to be disgusting. Excrement and waste from the fortification were tossed into the water, turning them into cesspools. It was the job of the peasantry to clean it up, on average twice per year. Peasants are always left with the worst jobs, aren’t they?
We’ve spoken much about the medieval castle, but not much about the fantasy castle. So in this section, we’re going to look at some awesome fantasy fortresses which may give you some ideas for your own writing. To discover more and to find all the credits for the images below, head over to my Pinterest page.
What’s your favourite castle in fantasy? Please share in the comments below!
When it comes to inspiration for your own stories, it can help to look at some fantasy castle art. Luckily, there are scores of images that fantastic artists have knocked together. Their levels of imagination are incredible, and they can really help you to get into the right mindset.
A beautiful fantasy castle!
This one here would be very fitting in a dark fantasy story!
This one’s something of a fairytale castle!
For more fantasy castle art, head here. You can also check out Deviantart for more. Deviantart is the world largest online social media platform for artists and a hub for amazing sci-fi and fantasy art.
More Castles In Fantasy
As well as the wonderful concept art above, I’ve also included some great images that really capture what the essence of the castle in fantasy is about. And that is, that it should take the breath away. inspire intrigue and curiosity. Make you want to explore, or to fear.
Here are some fantastic examples of a medieval fantasy castle.
Isn’t this a beautiful fantasy castle?
What do you think of this fantasy artwork? Pretty damn amazing if you ask me. I particularly like that last one by Jeff Brown.
When we encounter a fantasy castle in fiction, there is undoubtedly some kind of real-world influence. From the shape of parapets to conical towers, many fantasy writers draw their inspiration from fortifications that existed in the past.
In this section, I wanted to show you some real-life examples of fantasy castles to give you an idea of how writers can delve into the past to create their own fictional fortresses.
While not a medieval castle as such, the structures carved into the rocky cliffs of Petra inspired my own fantasy castle in Pariah’s Lament.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Petra dates back all the way to 312 BC and here it is, still standing in 2021. Its structures include tombs, temples, a treasury and an amphitheatre.
Imagine the ways that you could adapt something like this into your own creations.
Kenilworth Castle, Warwickshire
Arguably the inspiration for that famous school of witchcraft and wizardry, Hogwarts in Harry Potter is said to have been based on Kenilworth Castle, found in Warwickshire, England.
Like Hogwarts, Kenilworth Castle has a sprawling lake, known as a mere, which provided much-needed defence from attacks. Curiously, this moat was man-made by damming two streams.
Maiden Castle, Dorset
Maiden Castle is said to be part of the inspiration behind the iconic Minas Tirith in JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series, namely featuring in the Return Of The King.
Minas Tirith was known for its layered rings which rose up gradually as it climbed the peak of the hillside.
Maiden Castle is of a similar design. First occupied around 6,000 years ago, it was developed heavily in the Iron Age into a vast settlement, heavily fortified with earthwork ramparts and ditches.
Just imagine such a feature for your own fantasy castle. Defenders could fall back in stages if overran, bleeding the attackers out as they progress through the defensive fortifications.
One of the strangest fantasy castles, and one that often gets queried by fantasy writers and readers, is the Eyrie from Game of Thrones. Seemingly sitting atop a slender mountaintop, with its most iconic feature being the ‘Moon Door’ through which people are hurled to plummet through clouds to their death, it lived long in the memories of many readers and watchers.
But surely it’s not based on a real medieval castle? Well, don’t get too excited. In fact, aspects of The Eyrie are inspired by medieval history.
Features such as the ‘Moon Door’ are no different from murder holes, or machicolations to give them their formal French title. Many a medieval castle has such a feature, but rather than throwing prisoners through them, they were more used for defending the walls from attackers, with burning pitch and skull-crushing stones dropped through.
In terms of the height of the Eyrie, Beeston Castle is an example of a fortification that was built upon a hill. Little remains of this medieval castle, but its location was no doubt selected to be visible to all—a symbol of power. In medieval writings, it was referred to as Castellum de Rupe, or the Castle on the Rock.
Medieval Castles and Sieges
I wanted to share this fantastic video by Shadiversity. This is a cracking YouTube channel for any fantasy fan and writer. Shad is forever challenging fantasy tropes and stereotypes, uncovering myths and pointing out flaws. He also creates awesome videos on medieval history to help fantasy writers, out, such as this video below.
The Fantasy Fortress
Nothing can explain something better than an example, and I have a fine one for you here.
One of the best examples of a fantasy fortress is Dros Delnoch in David Gemmell’s heroic fantasy, Legend.
Dros Delnoch is a six-walled fortress, the home of the Drenai. And marching toward them is the greatest army the world has ever known—the Nadir.
The tale follows Rek and Druss the Legend as they do all they can to repel the Nadir.
As siege warfare goes, the battle for the great fortress is second to none. You can get an idea of how defences can be used, how they can be overcome, and what it’s like to be on those walls, repelling relentless attacks.
To help you visualise your fantasy fortress, it may help you to draw an image. Even if it’s rough, or perhaps an overhead map. Having some form of visualisation will help you massively when it comes to describing that fantasy castle to your readers.
How do you go about learning how to draw a fantasy castle then?
Well, luckily for you there are lots of great guides. Simply search on Google and you’ll find a bunch to get you on your way. You can also check out Pinterest for lots of great ideas and tips. And also check out YouTube for lots of tutorials, like this one:
If you’re looking for ways to describe a castle in a story, help is at hand.
There are a few simple approaches you can adopt and each one achieves different things.
First, I like to think of unique ways of describing the castle. Readers will get bored if you go down the “a stone structure with four towers in the corners and walls joining them”. A good technique is to sit and think of the uniqueness of the castle and how you can convey that image to other readers in ways that help them see what you’re seeing.
One of the best ways to do this is to use relatable metaphors and similes. To describe the parapets of a castle wall as “stone teeth”, or the “gate being as solid as a shield made of butter”, helps create imagery in the reader’s mind. The clearer that image the better.
Another effective method of describing a castle in a story is to use the 5 senses.
Let’s take a look at how each sense can liven up your descriptions beyond just visual imagery:
- Sound – medieval castles were busy places, with lots going on. There would have been peasants working in the baileys, tending to animals like pigs and horses. There may have been barracks in which soldiers are training, with steel clanging and clashing. Archers may have been practising too, with arrows thudding into targets. Think of industries too, like blacksmiths who may have been forging weapons and armor. This is just a snapshot of the potential sounds of a medieval fantasy castle.
- Smell – like the above, smells will also accompany a lot of the sources of noise. So animals will stink, moats (often used for dumping excrement in) were stinky things. Clothmakers and tanners all worked in very smelly places too.
- Taste – medieval food included the likes of game, roasting meat such as pigs and boars.
- Touch – with the insulation not as heavily invested in beyond tapestries, rugs and hearths, medieval castles were cold and drafty.
When it comes to coming up with ideas for a castle in our fantasy stories, we tend to gravitate to what we know. Below we’ve seen some castle art and looked at how to draw fantasy castles, both of which can give you ideas.
But in this section, I wanted to give you some specific tips which I hope you may find useful.
- One way to make a castle in a fantasy story unique is to think about altering its design. I like to think about the key features of a castle, so the gatehouse, the walls and parapets, to name a few. Parapets in particular can be carved into all different kinds of shapes and styles.
- Think about the location of the castle or keep. The fantasy castles in Lord of the Rings, for instance, always had quite eye-catching locations. Rivendell upon the banks of a river, Minas Tirith built into the mountain, and so too Helms Deep.
- Another way to approach designing a fantasy castle is to think about how it interacts with your world. For example, does magic exist? If so, what limits does it have and what can it be used for? Raymond E. Feist, for instance, uses magic wielders in his Riftwar Saga to build cities and strongholds, with different magic user having a unqiue skill, just like we have bricklayers, electricians, plasterers and so on.
- Sticking to the subject of magic, can this influence the design or defences of the castle in your fantasy novel? What if magical forcefields are in place, meaning ther’s no need for a wall?
These are just a few ideas to help you when it comes to thinking about ways in which you can create original designs for your fortresses.
If you’re looking for more help and support with your fantasy writing, you may have found yourself at a bit of a loss on where to turn. Writing groups near you may not be able to help, and online groups may have proven spammy. If so, why not join my writing group?
It’s the perfect place to share your work in confidence and get constructive feedback, discuss ideas, and build friendships.
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Thank you for reading this fantasy writing guide on the fantasy castle. If you’re looking for more fantasy writing guides, I have a few more that may be of interest to you:
- Creating Names For Fantasy Characters
- How to Create Fantasy Weapons
- Fantasy Archery – A Complete Guide
- A Complete Guide to Fantasy Armor
- How To Create A Fantasy Map
- More Fantasy Writing Tips
- Fantasy Name Generator
- Click To Learn How To Start Worldbuilding
- What Is The Effect Of Foreshadowing?
- A Guide To Knights of Chivalry
- Check out this list of over 250 book reviewers
- Learn all about fantasy castles here
- What is a lord of the middle ages? Find out here
- Head here to download a worldbuilding template
- Learn all about prose writing here
- A guide to creating a fantasy map
In this section, I’ve included the answers to some commonly asked questions when it comes to medieval castles in fantasy.
Most European medieval castles consisted of a main fortification, often where the lord lived. A great hall, or banquet hall, was common too, so too a chapel, stables, workshops, kitchens and living quarters for the servants. There may also have been a village area where residents lived.
A medieval castle was the home of a king, queen, lord or baron. Their great stone walls dominate the land. A castle is made up of various fortifications, such as looming towers, crenelated walls, moat and drawbridge, portcullis gate, and tunnels complete with murder holes.
The Normans knew that to maintain control over England after their victory at Hastings, they had to have strongholds they could operate from to control the populace.
Common job roles in a medieval castle included cooks, wet nurses, teachers, hunters, dog handlers, stable hands, a master at arms (for training soldiers), priest (or other religious figures), bards, advisers to the lord, and general servants, to name but a few.
Castles were effective defensive fortifications in the medieval era up until the development of gunpowder and cannons fully took hold. Those stone walls no longer proved able to defend against such weapons.
One of the best sources of inspiration is to research medieval castles. Take a look at how they were built, what they were used for, how they were defended and how they were attacked. That knowledge can serve as the foundation for your own beautiful fantasy castle. Something else you can also do is look at pictures on the likes of Pinterest. Search for terms like fantasy fortress and make a note of all of your favourite features.
It’s fine to use existing ideas, like elves and orcs. Then you can think about what you’d like to change, to do differently. And let your imagination run wild.
Thanks for reading this guide to the medieval fantasy castle.