World-Building In Fiction

In fiction, the world the story takes place in is called the setting. And in all forms of fiction, setting is a key element in telling the story. More than just a backdrop, setting can influence the behaviors, fashion choices, and histories and backgrounds of the author’s characters, as well as how those characters can grow and evolve within a story. That being said, a good setting is essential to creating a great story and an author cannot afford to be sloppy when it comes to the worlds they create.

Luckily, there are several techniques in the writing trade that allow authors of all genres to carve out a wonderful world for their setting. By using them as guidelines to create the setting of your novel or short story, you can bring your world to life in ways reminiscent of your favorite authors.

1. Make your world believable. This is more important than one might think, and especially in speculative fiction such as fantasy, science-fiction, and horror. If a world is unbelievable and the reader has trouble investing in it, they may lose interest and the story itself will suffer.

A good example of this would be if someone were to write a short story with the premise, “In the future people are given pocket watches with time-traveling abilities at birth but it is a taboo to use them. Until someone actually uses their watch.” Well, that doesn’t make much sense, does it? If you have time travel technology and you give it to everyone, why forbid them to use it?

And it’s not just big things that can derail a story. In the Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood, the titular organization is tasked with hunting down aliens in Great Britain, particularly in the Welsh city of Cardiff with a large alien population. Unfortunately, I lost interest in the show when I found it ridiculous that a branch of an organization in a major metropolitan area such as Cardiff with high amounts of alien activity would only have five very laid-back members on the payroll. Thrilling story, but the lack of people makes me suspicious and causes the illusion that is fiction to wear off.

2. Do your research and be as accurate as possible. After believability, this is probably the most important point. Mainly this deals with anachronisms, just as digital watches during the Vietnam War or other little things that a discerning audience would pick up on and point out.

This is also a call to do research if you’re writing on a subject you know little about. If you are writing a romantic thriller set in Nazi Germany, it would be good to do plenty of research on Nazi Germany, its government, its culture, and everyday life, and not rely on just the few WWII movies you’ve seen and Wikipedia. After all, your audience is often very clever, and they will notice when things don’t add up, if there’s only mentions of Jewish persecution or if Hitler’s the only Nazi official we actually hear about.

Of course, you don’t have to be accurate to the point that you have to be perfect. Dan Brown’s novels are filled with several inaccuracies, most of which are so minor that it’s too much of a bother to verify them. However for major elements that could heavily influence the plot, it’s important that one do their research, even if it is tedious to do and their least favorite part of writing.

3. Know how much you need to describe your setting to paint the picture. Depending on what sort of story you’re writing, you may need to do a lot of description or very little to create the image in your reader’s mind. For example, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby takes place during the Roaring Twenties, which is a well-known and well-documented era. Because of this and because that era was still fresh in his audience’s memories, Fitzgerald didn’t need to use a lot of description to bring 1920’s New York to life.

However, stories such as Harry Potter, while similar to this world, are very different form our own. JK Rowling had to devote a lot of page space to showing how vastly different our world is from that of the Wizarding community. And even more so for writers like George R.R. Martin or George Lucas, whose worlds might as well be alternate universes to ours. In the Game of Thrones novels and in the novelizations of the three Star Wars movies, whole sections would’ve been spent on explaining and exploring the strange and alien worlds of the characters within.

Knowing how much description is needed for a setting can help an author not only utilize their setting to its utmost fullest, but also help an author hone their skills to the point where they know how much is needed to describe the setting of a story just by thinking it.

4. A full history is helpful, but it is not always necessary. When I started writing my dystopia novel Reborn City, I devoted a full chapter to how the world of RC developed from one any reader of this blog could easily recognize as their own to one full of independent city-states, countries few and far-between, and rampant Islamaphobia in certain places. However during the second draft, I cut out the chapter because while it was informative, it took attention off the main story and I thought it would be better to leave those events up to the imagination.

In my opinion, this was a good move. Without the history I created, there are huge realms of possibility for the events that led to the world of my characters, and I’ll have plenty of room to experiment and create in later books.

However, that is not necessary for other authors. Some authors prefer to have a complete history of how the worlds that are the settings of their stories came to be, even if they don’t include all the details in the stories themselves. Others prefer not to have those histories, giving them room to experiment and to go in different directions, although this leaves the possibility of retcons occurring.

In the end, it is the preference of the author that is important. Just remember to find a balance between explaining the world’s history to strengthen the story and explaining the world’s history to the point that it is only entertaining to you.

5. Don’t be afraid to go in new directions and try something never done before. In the end, the author knows what’s best for their story and should create the setting that best serves them. Sometimes, that involves exploring new territory for the author and trying things not usually done in fiction. There is nothing wrong with that. In fact, it can lead to whole new trends in fiction and end up influencing writers for years afterward.

The most important thing, of course, is that what you do with your setting serves the story you are writing.

16 Comments

  1. sknicholls says:

    The old saying, “The devil is in the details.” is so very true for characters and setting. Research is paramount if you are setting in the past or the future. The present is relatively easy for us to see. In the past, the most minute things, like the month, year, and day a certain public statement was made, the month and year a song was recorded or a magazine was in print, the year a certain model car came out…can make a huge difference in authenticity and credibility of the author. In the future, anything extraordinary might need some explanation.

    1. I agree with you on the importance on details. I’m a History Major, so I’m taught to be able to track these things down. It’s a skill I’m sure will come in handy if I ever have to write a book that relies a lot on historical details.

  2. katemsparkes says:

    I think this is a really tough balance in dystopian fiction, and it sounds like you’ve found a nice balance. You know the history, and you share what you need to in order for the setting believable. I’ve read some (and put down others) that made no sense in terms of cause and effect in their history. I’m willing to go a long way to suspend disbelief, but if the entire concept behind the society makes no sense (like your watch example), I can’t enjoy a story set there. That was my one big complaint about a popular book I read recently. I’m hoping other books in the series will fill in details, but I don’t think they can make the world believable. In Sci-Fi or Fantasy I can believe almost anything if there’s a reason for it; in a dystopian world that’s supposed to be our own future, I need to at least be able to believe in how they got there.

    Great tips here, thank you!

    1. You’re welcome. And by the way, what was the book you read that you had trouble with? If it was The Hunger Games, you’re not alone.

        1. Oh, I’ve heard of that. I think my sister is reading the series. She says it’s awesome. I haven’t read it though.

          1. katemsparkes says:

            I liked a lot of things about it, and I’ll keep reading the series, but there was no way I could accept the premise of the society, which was very distracting early on. Too many questions. I need to figure out how to not do that.

            1. Well as with all things, time and experience makes things easier. Hopefully it’ll be the same with you and me.

  3. Reblogged this on High Fantasy Addict and commented:
    Another great post on the importance of world-building in fiction and especially fantasy

  4. Rohan 7 Things says:

    Great advice! Something I do to make my worlds as rich and believable as possible is to create detailed timelines as well as in depth historical and geographical information. I may only use a fraction of the info to tell the story, but knowing the whole history of the world exists, creates a sense that there is so much more to explore.

    It’s kind of like what you described with the chapters you removed. I’ll bet all that historical information came in handy later when you needed to reference your own world!

    Thanks for sharing 🙂

    Rohan.

  5. Katie Cross says:

    Great points here!

    I’ve found that in creating my own fantasy world, I’ve looked back as you advised to see what I liked and didn’t like in other fantasy stories. Believability is huge. A lot of description is a major turn off for me, and so are names that I have a difficult time pronouncing. I just get annoyed.

    I believe that, as a fantasy author, there is some license to explore and create whatever you want. But at the end of the day, the reader needs to believe that it is in some way possible, so that premise keeps most people grounded. One would hope 🙂

  6. Jane Smith says:

    Enjoyed the article. If you’re look for more details and questions on writing prompts, tips and/or suggestions…here are two links (not assoc with me):
    1. http://www.malindalo.com/2012/10/five-foundations-of-world-building/
    2. http://www.sfwa.org/2009/08/fantasy-worldbuilding-questions/

  7. nivaladiva says:

    Thanks for these great tips. I’m in the process of writing my first book (normally I write screenplays), and find the descriptions, making the world come to life with prose, challenging. My writing is more action-oriented than evocative, if that makes sense. One of the best settings I’ve ever encountered in a book was Ray Bradbury’s FARENHEIT 451. He used few words to create an entire new world, one that made perfect sense, we can see clearly, and can totally imagine happening in the future. The plausibility (probability?) of that world – imagined more than 50 years ago – blew me away.

    1. Describing setting, like all things, takes time and practice to become good at. Don’t give up.

  8. I wish I had paid better attention to research when I started. Setting is very important, and as you said, even if you don’t describe it all, it’s good to have everything in mind when you’re writing.

    Sometimes I like to look up pictures of places and people (wearing clothing for a certain time period) to get a visual of how things looked. I’ve even gone to old houses, Indian villages, and museums to get a firsthand look at the time period I’m dealing with. Even if I don’t use the information I learn, I feel like I’m more into that time period when I do this.

    I heard of an author who had diagrams of her towns mapped out and family trees and how people are related to each other in her series.

    1. That author sounds like JK Rowling. She did that for the HP books.
      Of course, I could be very wrong. Who knows?

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