Our lives are lived in a setting; we remember significant events by the way the light played on the water or, the spicy shades of sand that etched desert dunes in cinnamons and turmeric, the smell of jasmine bruised after heavy rain. It’s the setting that gives our lives, and our stories, their form, and that allows the reader to become lost in the imaginary worlds we create.
If you approach your world building in the right way it will lend an absorbing authenticity to your writing while also giving the reader the information they need to understand your characters and plot lines.
Imaginary worlds – Are the establishment of entirely fictional universes, found primarily in fantasy genres. The writer creates every facet of the world, the geography, history, language, lore, characters, social customs, politics, religion etcetera. JRR Tolkien, the author of Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit and countless other works of fantasy fiction, first created an entire fictional language, Quenya, before expanding into middle earth. It helps to start from one point of interest (such as language or culture) and then expand on that point.
Alternate realities – Re-imaginings of the details of our existing world. By creating an alternate reality you are developing an alternative version of our own earth, imagining how things could be different and what these differences would mean to the future of the human race. An excellent example of this can be seen in Phillip K Dick’s Minority Report.
The main difference between creating an alternate reality and creating your own world is the suspension of disbelief you can expect from your readers. Due to the fact that you completely deviate from reality, your readers will automatically have an increased level of tolerance for things they may otherwise have detracted from the story’s logic or jolted them out of the moment.
In alternate fiction, however, you have to work harder to transport your readers to your world and keep them there. The slightly familiar settings, distorted realities, and quasi-relatable human experiences will increase the reader’s sense of what’s believable and what not. You will, therefore, need to convince them that everything happening in your story is a realistic possibility.
Actual realities – These stories are set in realism with no fantasy elements, enhanced or fictional settings.
There are various ways in which you can enhance or improve your story setting
Using past, present or future: You can establish your alternate reality by making clear the time period in which you want it to be set. Such as an alternate historical fiction where the cold war never ended for example. The works of Phillip K Dick are an excellent case in point. Stories set in the present have an immediacy and can be more easily related to by the reader. The focus is on the alternate version of today’s world rather than the rewriting of history.
Imaging the future can serve as a warning to society. George Orwell’s 1984, published in 1949 is set in Airstrip One, the former Britain, a province of Oceania. The residents are in a state of permanent war, excessively intrusive government surveillance and manipulation. The government’s political ideology is one of English Socialism (Ingsoc in Newspeak) and enforced by the Inner Party by means of the Thought Police who persecutes individuality and free thinking as “thoughtcrimes”.
Imagining a global scale apocalyptic event gives you the creative freedom to predict how humanity might rebuild itself after such a disaster, survival against all odds. Excellent examples of life after an apocalyptic event are I am Legend, Maze Runner, and The Hunger Games.
Research: When you build your worlds, do thorough research and not just by surfing the net, but by visiting libraries and actual locations. Immerse yourself in the subject.
Senses: Don’t just describe what you see but talk about the smells, sounds, the feel, the atmosphere and what effect these aspects have on the characters in your stories.
Describe: To make your world feel real, you need to ask questions pertaining to different aspects of it. Approach it as if you are describing the town you live in, to someone who knows nothing about it, who has never been there. What does it look like – its landscape, its climate. Its people, their customs, ethics, and values.
History: If you feel your world is lacking in depth and credibility, take a page from the work of George RR Martin in A Song of Fire and Ice and acquaint yourself into some real-world history for inspiration.
Parallel worlds: An interesting way to provide conflict and contrast is by creating your fictional world alongside or perhaps within an actual existing location. JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series is set in a magical world that exists parallel to the mundane or, Muggle world.
You have to “see” where the story is taking place in order to do this, you may need a second storyline, the one that expands a story from the inside out and gives it a second dimension where the reader can see the tension from the outside, through the setting details.
Detail: If you want to use setting to help you steer your way into deeper story and character, you have to start with a detailed description. Consider all the aspects of setting, including both time and place, from the macro level (what decade? What country?) to the micro level (time of day? Kind of building?) Choose a day of the week; choose the weather. And then describe it in detail.
Pull and shift: You’ll most likely find that as you describe the setting, you learn about your characters. Put a character in a snowstorm without adequate clothing. Give a character an ancient VW beetle instead of a luxury vehicle, the VW could very well break down, and that will create action.
Universal: The very best stories are those that touch our common humanity, regardless of where they’re set. Nigerian author, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is set in late nineteenth century Nigeria, and the story could only happen in Nigeria. The feelings of the characters, their struggles, and triumphs, are universal, and yet that universality can only be achieved by providing very specific details, many of which are about a setting.
What do the characters know and believe about the world? The native of the culture – Remember that people who live in a specific culture do not notice the common things, only deviations from the normal order or something unusual for example if a culture is primarily war driven, they would not notice aggressive people, only submissive ones. Establish the rules of your world and live by them.
Characteristics of a well-realised setting:
Your setting has a coherent and consistent logic and the different pieces fit together.
You understand the motivations of individual characters because of historical and social context.
The setting impacts the characters’ lives in unexpected and interesting ways.
A certain depth and width are expressed across chapters or stories. This sense is sometimes conveyed by that which is implied and not actually there.
The setting both mirrors our real world and deviates from it in innovative ways.
The setting is in some way personal to the writer otherwise writing can become too stylised or symbolic.
The setting has sufficient mystery and unexplored perspectives. Readers like to know certain facts about the setting, have an anchor, a sense of adventure and possible discovery. If it is too detailed you risk being boring.
Varying levels of consistent inconsistency just like the real world eg: a rural worker, walking along to draw water from a well to draw water while talking on a cellphone. The past walks alongside the future. If you reduce your worldview to something monolithic that ignores this fact it may deteriorate to generalities and banalities.
The setting reflects that we live in a multicultural world with ethnic, religious, cultural, class and language diversity or else you will have a homogenous culture. Try to avoid one of anything eg: a medieval society that stretches across the globe, one religion, single ethnicity. Also avoid generalisations such as Amazonian women, war-like Arabs, piously religious etc
Certain objects within the narrative are acting as extended, literal metaphors supporting the reality of the setting. These objects function on the surface of the story as real things bringing with them the context of the setting’s history.
Perils and opportunities
If the writer doesn’t sufficiently separate the character from the setting then the setting can devour the characters. The setting can push the characters aside and make the characters and their actions less important. Many real worlds can be so harsh or impose such strict rules that this can happen.
Fantastical elements dominate thus de-emphasising other details. Eg the mythical chimaera is described in great detail, but the village it just decimated is not.
Detail overwhelms other elements. An engorged mass accumulation of detail. It feels like the reader is reading an encyclopedia of facts rather than providing facts open for interpretation.
When creating imaginary worlds it’s easy to think in terms of making the unfamiliar familiar. The reader must have a knowledge of the setting that makes their experience enjoyable. You control the extent of how many things you want to make known and how much you want to keep a secret.
Anchoring your story correctly in history, place, and situation enhances the emotional resonance.
Landscape not presented with a point of view or emotion appears lifeless and inanimate.
The real world and personal experiences feed into imaginary settings and are vital to world building.
Approaches to setting and character should be multi-directional, organic and three dimensional with layers and depth.
A setting is not merely a backdrop to a story or a vehicle to place your characters in. Neglect it and your story will not ring true or have the authenticity to lend your characters plausibility and your reader will become disengaged very quickly.
It isn’t enough to simply decide on the setting and transfer the characters from the writer’s imagination to Venice, the Glass Desert or the Citadel.