Advice on World Building — Creating a Fictional Setting
The world in which your story takes place is just as important as the characters. For the most obvious example, take J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth – if the characters were setting off across New York City or the land of Oz, the story would have been much different. Instead of contending with Orcs and evil wizards, they would have been attacked by muggers or flying monkeys. They would have wandered into Times Square and gotten stuck in traffic on their way to dropping the ring of power into… the Hudson Bay. A cowardly lion would have teamed up with them in the woods.
World building can be a big task, but it doesn’t need to be – it all depends on the genre in which you’re writing and the length. A novel or other longer work of fiction needs more detail, where a short story can leave out the most minute details and focus more on driving the story to the end. Here are a few examples of the different types of world building.
Realistic Past / Pseudo-Realistic Past
A story set in the middle ages, which may or may not involve imaginary elements such as dragons, wizards or fairies. This type of world building requires research if you want it to seem realistic and true to history. Look into how people lived during the time period – how they spoke, what they wore, what they did in their day-to-day lives. Conduct as much research as you can before you start throwing in your own elements. Many people enjoy stories that are true to history, because it makes them feel as if they are looking back on something that could have actually happened.
Realistic Modern / Pseudo-Realistic Modern
Genres such as legal thrillers and medical dramas depend entirely on being as realistic as possible. You don’t want to make a mistake with a law or disregard any small medical detail. The small details here are extremely important, and you will really need to do your homework. The characters have to live by these rules as much as you and I, and the plot depends on these rules. Pseudo-realistic stories have to live by these rules, even if there are things like ghosts or vampires involved. If there is one thing in the plot that doesn’t make sense or follow these basic logical rules, the reader will notice and the credibility of the story will be damaged.
Realistic Future / Pseudo-realistic Future
Since the future hasn’t happened yet, you have more freedom in your world design. If you want the readers to be riveted, however, you will still need some element of realism. If the the future setting is the future planet earth, tie in the present (or past) with the future and explain how things ended up this way. What was going on when the aliens invaded? When did this catastrophic war take place and why? What kind of chaos took place after the major civilizations were overthrown? The best way to come up with realistic explanations for events that haven’t happened yet is to look back at similar historical events.
Of course, you have the most creative freedom if you are building your world from scratch. With this kind of freedom comes more work. Everything that exists in your world has to be thought up by you – the different cultures, special animals and plants, languages, history and legends, etc. This takes time and plenty of brainstorming. It’s not something you can rush, because things will come to you when you’re doing other things, like taking a shower or trying to fall asleep at night. As long as you’re not dripping wet, reach for a pen and paper so you can jot down these ideas.
As long as you pay attention to real events and history, these ideas will come to you fairly easily. There’s that thing called reality again, even when you’re making up your own world. You will find that logic is important in any type of story, even ones that are completely made up.
If the setting is another planet somewhere else in the galaxy, you would have to think about the ecosystem and atmosphere of this world. To sustain life (assuming some kind of intelligent life form lives there to carry out your story), the planet has to have a certain temperature range and liquid water, especially if these aliens are similar to humans. Maybe these creatures developed an environment, like a “bio-dome,” because their planet was becoming too inhospitable? Science has a major role to play in many stories.
Reality can be pretty interesting. Take your favorite historical events and ask yourself why you find them so interesting. Which historical figures spark your imagination and why? When you break them down, you can figure out how to incorporate these elements into your world or plot. Here is a simple excersize to help you with this:
Jot down your favorite historical event at the top of a piece of paper or word file.
Write down “what,” “who,” “when,” “why” and “how,” each on a new line. Answer these basic questions as if you are a reporter, and keep your answers as short and to-the-point as possible.
Be sure to answer these questions, especially – what led up to this event? What resulted from it? What could have resulted from it if it had gone a different way?
Finally, write down exactly why you find this particular event so interesting. What elements spark your interest?
This excersize would have gotten your ideas going and gave you some more insight into what you value in a good story. The more you value your own story, the better.
Here is a similar excersize for a historical figure, who might provide the basis for a major character in your story and your world:
Write the name of your favorite historical figure at the top of a page.
Write down “Origins” on the next line down and briefly explain where they are from and a little background. On the next line, write down some of their winning personality traits. What made them famous and what fascinates you about them?
Add their weaknesses below the winning traits.
What did they accomplish in their life?
Fill out a profile like this for every historical figure or event that you find interesting and keep them in a “World Building Folder”. Trust me, you’ll need a binder or at least a single subject folder to hold all of the information involving your story/stories, your imaginary world or all of the research you’ve done.