Setting and World Building | Elements of a Novel – Part 3

Elements of a Novel: Setting and world buildingWelcome to Part Three of the Elements of a Novel Series! Today we’re focusing on setting and world building! (ICYMI, here are the links to Part One: Creating Characters and Part Two: Choosing a Plot Structure.)

This is the last element we’re going to talk about before we start moving through the general structure of a novel. This post is going to look at the role setting and world play in your story, the difference between them, and the specifics of what you might want to consider developing within each.

Let’s get started!

How does Setting and World Building inform your story?

The setting and world play a role in creating the feel and backdrop for your story. For example, books that are set in big cities often feel very different than books that are set in small towns. And books that are set in mystical fantasy lands feel very different than books set in this real and modern world.

World and setting also play a role in what events can and can’t happen in your story. For example, if you set your story in modern Florida, it wouldn’t make sense for a series of snowstorms to occur in your story because snow in that region is pretty rare. However, if you set your book in the Northeast, that would be more believable. Similarly, you couldn’t write a story set in modern times in the modern world with trolls and elves as co-workers for your character because we don’t have trolls and elves in this world. However, with some world building, you can create a new reality for your story to exist in.

Setting

What is setting?

Setting is where your story takes place. You can set your story in a real place that already exists or you can use world building to create a setting. (More on that later.) Setting includes both the time and physical spaces your story takes place in.

What do you need to develop in setting?

Even if you’re not using world building to create a setting from scratch, you’ll likely need to consider and develop several aspects of your setting. The specifics of what you need to develop will be unique to your story, but here are the key elements that will likely be true for everyone.

When your story takes place

When your story takes place is important for both historical and practical purposes. Historically, you need to know what current events are happening at the time of your story. This will help you to create a real and vivid world. If you’re setting your book in the U.S. in the late 1800s, that’s the gilded age. What does that mean for your characters? Practically, the “when” of your story will also dictate the level of technological and social development in your story. This will inform what can and can’t happen to your characters. If you’re setting it in the 1970s, consider the available technology. It would make sense for your characters to get their news from the TV, but if your book were set in the 1930s, the radio would be more common.

Your main character’s home base

Where is your main character’s home base? This includes both the city or town they live in and the building they spend most of their time in. This home base may or may not be your character’s “home.” For example, in the early seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the home base for the core group of characters was the school’s library. It was the only place in town that had the information the characters needed to access on a regular basis and was safe for the characters to meet discuss the latest supernatural threat. Your characters will likely need their own regular, safe meet up spot. It can be your main character’s actual home, but it doesn’t have to be.

 The places your characters frequent

Home base may be your most used location, but it’s unlikely that your characters will stay cooped up in one place for the entire length of your story. So in addition to your character’s home base, there will be a handful of places your characters will frequent that you will need to create. This can include where they work, go to school, eat, have fun, and visit with friend and family. A good example is Gilmore Girls. In this case, I would say that the Gilmore home is home base, but Lorelai and Rory also regularly spend time at Luke’s Diner, The Inn where Lorelai works, Chilton where Rory goes to school, and Lorelai’s parents’ house, to name a few. Developing key locations will go along way in creating a real and believable setting for your story. You can use some light world building to create these locations like the creators of Gilmore Girls or can use places that exist in real life.

Towns, cities, and countries your characters live in and visit

You also need to develop or research any town/city/country your characters live in and visit. Even if your character isn’t there for that long, you need to be able to give a decent description and feel of the location. It’s also important to give your readers a sense of where they are in the world, so be sure to at least mention where the town/city and country your story is taking place in. It always helps to visit a location if you’re going to write about it, but if you can’t, try using Google Maps. Here’s a post on how I use Google Maps to help with my setting!

Note

If you’re setting your story in a historical time period or a setting you’re unfamiliar with, be sure to do your research! You may not get everything right, but do your best anyway. Glaring inaccuracies can become distractions and take your reader out of the story.

World Building

What is World Building?

World building is when you create the locations and city/towns/countries/worlds your story is set it. Every story will likely need some level of world building, but the extent will depend on where and when your story is set.

What do you need to develop in World Building?

How much you need to develop will depend on how close you want your story to stick to reality. If you’re setting your book in this modern world, you may only need some light world building. If you’re writing a high-fantasy, Lord of the Rings style, you’ll need heavier world building. Below, we’re going to look at the different levels of world building and the rough areas to consider in each level. For a detailed list of elements to develop for fictional and fantasy worlds, check out this post!

Light World Building

Light World Building is for when you’re setting a story in this world, but you don’t want to rely on real places and location. So instead, you create your own. Going back to the Gilmore Girls example, that show is a good instance light world building. The town of Stars Hollow doesn’t really exist, but small towns like it do. Luke’s Diner doesn’t really exist, but diners like it do. Most books, shows, and movies use light world building to create the setting and environment for their characters.

Relying on real places can become tedious. They constantly evolve and you may find that some aspect of the real world location just doesn’t fit your story as you need it to. Using light world building to create locations very similar to the ones we have in the real world give you flexibility as a writer, while still grounding your story in a world your reader is used to. I used light world building for my books. If you want more on this, I did a post on how to create a fictional world within our own.

Medium World Building

I consider medium world building to be any story that uses magical, mystical, science fiction, or similar elements in this world. Stories like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Supernatural, Timeless, Superman, etc, all have outlandish fictional elements that had to be created and built to fit into this world. The setting and/or natural laws of these stories are slightly different than our reality, but they’re still set in this world. In this case, it’s important to develop and explain what makes your character’s world different from ours. If there are supernatural or magical elements, those need to be developed in a way that makes sense with the world we live in. These elements and other magical aspects will also need their own history and origin stories. And because you’re still setting the story in this world, it’s important that the elements you’re creating believably work with the laws and circumstances of our world.

Heavy World Building

Heavy World Building is where you have to create a completely different world for your story. This includes whole countries with maps, races, magical elements, etc. This kind of world building is most common in fantasies like Lord of the Rings, Throne of Glass, and Game of Thrones. These stories are not set in this world that we live in and had to be created completely from scratch. There is also a more science fiction aspect to heavy world building that can include any story set in other planets or in outer space, like Firefly. In these cases, the worlds, planets, and systems need to be completely created. They are often removed enough from our world that maps need to be drawn and they’re different enough from the world we live in to need significant development.

Note:

These distinctions are just guidelines, you might fall somewhere in between. For example, I would consider Harry Potter and The Mortal Instruments series to fall between medium and heavy world building. They both have a fictional magic world, but it’s a subset of this world. So a whole new world with maps didn’t need to be created like in a Lord of the Rings style fantasy, but the interworkings and locations of the magical worlds did need to be created from scratch.

I hope this helps you with your setting and world building!

Now it’s your turn: What do you think about when you’re first creating your setting? What about world building? Tell me about it in the comments!

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How to Create a Fictional or Fantasy World: 21 Writing Tips

How to Create a Fictional or Fantasy WorldSometimes our stories don’t fit in the world we currently live in. When that happens, we need to create worlds of our own. But world building can be pretty involved! If you’re creating your own fictional or fantasy world, it’s important to consider it from all angles and create a world that feels as real as the world we live our lives in.

If you don’t know where to start or what to consider when you’re building your fictional or fantasy world, this is the post for you! For each of these aspects, I would suggest basing your elements in details that are similar to our world. This will make your world more accessible for your readers. But, of course, that’s entirely up to you! 🙂

Here are twenty-one areas to develop to bring your world to life:

1) Location

Is your world a world within our own like Harry Potter? Or does is it completely independent, like Lord of the Rings? If it’s located in our world, where exactly is it? Do the two worlds meet or impact each other at all?

It’s also possible that your world will somehow be a modification of our world with systems and organizations created just for your characters. For example, when I wrote my spy series, I had to create a spy agency and base of operations for my characters to live and work at. I set the series in Wilmington, DE, so that much is a part of our world, but I had to develop the base, protocols, and way of life. Even though I didn’t create a whole world, I did create the environment my characters live and work in, so I consider this to be light world building.

2) Geography

What does the terrain look like? Where is everything located? If you’re creating a whole other world, you have to consider the countries that make up that world, where they’re located in proximity to one another and any mountains/oceans/etc that might exist. These elements may not play a direct role in your book, but they’ll likely inform the background dynamics in your story.

Also, consider how each important city and town is laid out. This will help you, your characters, and your readers navigate your fictional world.

3) Animals/creatures

What type of animals and creatures are in your fictional or fantasy world and how are they used? Are horses the main form of transportation? If the creatures are magical or mystical, be sure to develop their powers and their limitations.

4) Magic

How to develop a magic system really needs its own post (which I’ll definitely make happen in the future). For now, it’s important to know that if you’re going to have magic in your book, consider how that magic works, where the power comes from, who can use magic, and what the consequences and limitations are. If you have different magic systems, you’ll need to develop them all fully.

5) Class division

Nearly every world has some type of class division. The haves and the have nots. What does the day-to-day life in each of your classes look like? Also consider how the classes interact with each other and any underlying tensions that may occur as a result of the division.

6) Leadership

Who is in charge of your fictional or fantasy world? How did they come to power? What do the people think about this person as a leader? It’s natural for any civilization to put someone in charge. Even if the leadership doesn’t play a big role in the story, it’s still important for you and your character to understand who makes the rules in this world. This person will have played an active role in shaping your world even if they don’t play a super active role in your story.

7) Political Dynamics

This point is two-fold. First, what are the political dynamics within your character’s immediate world? People never agree on the best way to run their own town/city/country. What are the different political opinions and points of view? Second, what are the political dynamics in the world as a whole? How does your character’s town/city/country interact with the world around it? Do the neighboring towns/cities/countries get along, or is there a conflict brewing?

8) Governments

What type of government does your character’s world operate under? And what type of government does the surrounding area operate under? It’s probably best not to confuse your reader with a radically new form of government, but feel free to modify existing government structures to meet the needs of your world and society. Here’s an article from Scholastic on the forms of government if you need some help getting started.

9) People

What types of people live in your fictional or fantasy world? Are their different races? Are their magical races? Or are there some kind of genetic differences from our world? Note any basic similarities and differences with the people in your world compared to the people in ours. This will both help you highlight important aspects of your people, and help give your readers an understanding of what makes the people in your world unique.

10) Culture(s)

What is the culture like in your fictional or fantasy world? What does the day-to-day life look like? Are there different cultures based on city and/or region? How does the culture vary by class? Is the culture bright and bold? Or more quiet and subdued? Considering questions like this will help inform a handful of other aspects of your world as well!

11) Monetary System

How do people of your world pay for things? If you look at this world, nearly every country has its own monetary system. That means yours needs one too! Figure out what counts as “expensive,” what’s “cheap,” and how are hard do your people have to work to earn the money you create.

12) Food

What type of food do your people eat in your fictional or fantasy world? Are the big on spices? Or do they eat a lot of raw food? What would be served at a fancy dinner party and what would be considered “comfort food?” Think back to some decisions you made about your world’s culture. If it’s a bright and bold culture, spices or bold flavors might make the most sense. If it’s a calmer, more subdued culture, consider calmer and blander flavors.

13) Religion/Beliefs

What do your people believe? Is there a God or God equivalent? Are there multiple gods? Are there multiple conflicting beliefs? What other non-religious beliefs are held in your world? Do they believe in only working two days a week? Or that men can’t be trusted to be run a business? These beliefs will likely play into both your character’s motivation and any conflict that might come up.

14) Medicine and Illnesses

What types of illnesses do the people of your fictional or fantasy world encounter and how do they treat them? Do they rely on plant-based medicine? Or have they engineered some miracle cure for every ache and pain? Is there a devastating illness running ramped through your world? If there is, how contagious is it, how is it transferred, is anyone immune, and what’s being done to stop it?

15) Prejudices

What are people prejudice about in your fictional or fantasy world? Typically prejudices are deeply rooted in history and experience, so if there is some kind of prejudice, what happened in the past to create it? Is there a path to eliminating those prejudices? What role will this prejudice play in your story?

16) Threats

Is there a threat to your world’s way of life? Is there an outside country or person looking to upend the world your character lives in? Or is there some kind of risk for a natural disaster or disease that could severely damage the people in your world?

17) History

What is the history of your world? Was there a big war at any point in time? Was there a pivotal leader who was killed at some point? What events do the people in your world consider to be major aspects of their history? Do they celebrate any holidays based on a historical event? How long has your character’s town/city/country been in existence? At the very least, be able to point to 10 major historical events that shaped your town/city/country to make it what it is at the start of your story.

18) Natural Resources

What natural resources do the people of your world have access to? Where do they get their water from? What types of plants do they have? If they use these plants as medicine, what are the healing capabilities? Is there any natural resource that might be used for heat, or some other essential purpose? Are there any natural resources that are particularly valuable the way a diamond or other gemstone is in this world? How do you characters access these resources? If your natural resources are valuable enough, you may want to consider giving them a role in your story.

19) Centralized Gathering Places

Most civilizations have areas where people can gather. This may be a marketplace, a town square, a school, or a religious institution. Where might this gathering place be located geographically? What would be the main draw of the area? How busy is this place, typically? Are there different areas for different types of people? This type of location might be helpful to your story because it can give your characters a place to go for supplies and information.

20) Prominent Figures

Who are the prominent figures of your world? This may include leaders, but it doesn’t necessarily have to. It can be anyone who’s made an impact on your world’s growth and development. Consider both who might be a prominent figure today, and who has been a prominent figure in the past. For prominent figures of the past, are there any tributes or memorials to these people? Also keep in mind, “prominent” doesn’t have to mean they did good things for your world. Perhaps there are people who are known for the damage they’ve done.

21) Technology

What type of technology does your world have? How is your technology powered (if it’s powered at all)? How expensive is this tech? Who has access to it? How high tech your world is will not only impact what your characters can do, but also how much they can get away with. If your world is more low tech, your characters may not be able to talk to each other at the push of a button, but they also won’t have to worry about a security camera watching their every move. Keep these trade-offs in mind as you develop this element.

I hope this helps you create a fictional or fantasy world of your own!

Now it’s your turn: What did I miss? Tell me what you think about when you create a fictional or fantasy world in the comments!

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How to Write Backstory: When & How Much to Reveal

Writing Backstory

Backstory is important because it tells you, the writer, what your characters have been through before you start your story. It also helps to inform how your characters will handle and react to problems when they pop up in your book. In order to write your novel, you need to know everything there is to know about each of your characters. You need to know about their secrets, their experiences, and every major defining moment they’ve had in their lives. You also need to know just as much about the world you’ve created.

Most of these details are fascinating from a character and world building standpoint. They also play a large role in how you as a writer will approach your work. However, most of those details don’t play a direct role in the story. Which means if you share too much backstory with your reader, they’ll likely end up bogged down, overloaded, and lost.

It can be hard to strike a balance between moving your story forward and filling your readers in on what’s happened in the past. Because of that, we need to be selective in what we share and when we share it. To help with that, here are the six guidelines I use when including backstory in my books.

At the start of the book, only reveal the essentials

For me, the beginning is the trickiest part of any book with regard to backstory. You often need a decent amount of backstory to get readers into your novel. They need to know who your character is, what they’re life’s like when we meet them, and what world we’re entering. It may be tempting to get all of this info to your readers as fast as possible, but don’t do it! That’s info dumping and it’s generally something you want to avoid. If you throw too much information at your readers too fast, you’ll create a lot of confusion for them. It also tends to make your book uninteresting because you’re doing an awful lot of telling, which makes it hard for your readers to experience your novel. And if they’re either confused or disinterested, they’re likely to close your book and never return.

Instead, take a minute to consider the absolute essentials a person would need to know to get your story going and understand what’s happening in the opening scene. When in doubt, included even less backstory than you think you may need. Then ask an early reader for feedback. If they’re confused because they don’t have enough info, you can add more backstory to address their specific concerns. In my experience, it can be hard for a reader to tell you what information they don’t need if you’ve given them too much. All they know is that it’s too much and they’re overwhelmed. But if readers are confused because they’re lacking information, they can typically ask more specific guiding questions. This way you can be sure that what you’re including is what’s needed and no more.

Going forward, only reveal info if/when it plays a role

Now that you’ve got your story off the ground, there’s probably plenty more you need or want to convey to the reader. But you still need to be careful not to overwhelm them and not to lead them too far away from your main plot. To help with that, I suggest using the same principle we talked about in the first point; only give your reader what they absolutely need to know when they absolutely need to know it.

For example, let’s say your book has a king in it. And the king has a complicated history with your bad guy. You should avoid telling your reader about this complicated history until their history is relevant to the story. If you think it’s best, you can tell your readers early on that a history between the two exists, but you don’t need to share the specifics until your reader needs it. Or if you want it to be a plot twist, you can keep everything from your reader until the big reveal.

Keep it brief

Generally speaking, the less intrusive you are with backstory, the better it will be for your reader. So when you have to give some info, do your best to weave it into the scene or conversation as briefly and simply as you can.

The one time I don’t follow this rule: if/when my characters are talking about their histories to each other. Typically, this acts as a way to both convey the necessary information and as a way for my characters to bond. Others may disagree with me, but this is the one time I’ll personally allow a mini-info dump. This is largely because as a reader, I enjoy reading scenes like this. I like seeing characters either purposefully opening up to each other or being put in situations where they have to confess their pasts in a way that makes them really uncomfortable. In fact, I live for it! So, since it’s the kind of thing I like to read, it’s absolutely the kind of thing I’m going to write–whether I “should” do it this way or not.

Though, just a quick note if you’re going to take this approach. It’s still important to keep the conversation and backstory as relevant to the story as possible. In other words, there needs to be a reason Character A is sharing info with Character B, not just because you want them to share.

If you can’t keep it brief, consider a dream or flashback

Sometimes, there’s too much info to share to keep it brief. In these cases, the best trick to avoid a direct info dump is to actually write the scene as it happened for your characters. You can do this with either a dream or a flashback. I’ve used both of these techniques in my books! They work particularly well if your character is traumatized or haunted by something from their past. It’s also helpful if you’re trying to convey the dynamics of an already established relationship. It’s one thing for your character to say “I have a bad relationship with my cousin.” But it’s another thing entirely to show it.

But again, keep your flashbacks and dreams as short and as focused as possible. Your goal is to enhance your story, not take your readers away from it.

And keep in mind…

None of these tips apply to the first draft. That’s one thing I can’t stress enough on this blog. The first draft should be a hot mess of whatever you need to write to get your story written. If this means you need to spend an entire first chapter writing nothing but info dumping backstory, then do it! That’s part of getting to know your story and your characters. You can go back and fix the info dump in revision.

I hope this helps you work your backstory into your novel!

Now it’s your turn: How much backstory do you usually reveal? Tell me about it in the comments!

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How to Build a Fictional World Within Our Own: Writing Tips

I see tons of articles about creating a fictional fantasy world, but not too many about creating a fictional world within our own. Luckily, this is something I have experience with! I wrote some spy books with a fictional spy agency (and spy world) built into the functioning world and society we live in today. So, I thought I’d share some tips that helped me create a full, real, fictional world that operates within our own.

Here are six things to consider when you create a fictional world inside the one we already live in:

1) Base towns/companies/countries off ones that exist

Use real-world inspiration to help you create a complete, well-developed entity. Take inventory of how the entity is made up, then do your best to mimic it as you create your own. Make lists of the things your real-world example has that you want to include. One example of this is Gilmore Girls’ Stars Hollow, Connecticut, which is based off Washington Depot, Connecticut. And like I mentioned, in my books, I created a spy agency and network for my characters to operate in. And while I don’t have personal experience in a spy agency of any kind, I was about to use information available on real spy agencies to create my own believable fictional version that meets my story’s needs.

2) Make sure the world you’re creating makes sense within this world

If you’re adding a city somewhere in the world, it would be best if that city doesn’t occupy the space of another well-known city. (Unless you’re replacing this city entirely, in which case, go right ahead!) You also want to make sure your city fits into the surrounding area. So if you’re adding a city to modern day Maryland, you want to make sure your description of the city makes sense for this area. You wouldn’t want to say the surrounding area as a desert, because that’s not what Maryland looks like.

3) Base conflicts and tensions on real conflicts and tensions

When I was working on my books, I couldn’t keep up with the real world conflicts while I was writing, so I created my own conflicts and problems based on real-world tensions. The events in my book may not completely line up with the real world, but they’re based on tensions that really exist. This helps keep my books believable, without tying me to ever-changing events.

4) Research, Research, Research

If you feel like your world is a little flat, or if you’re wondering just how believable/likely something is, do some research. You may still have to adhere to the laws of science (gravity and that type of stuff) but there are things that may be possible even if they’re unlikely in the world we live in. For example, in my second book, I introduce a serum. The science behind the serum checks out (according to my scientist sister), but to the best of my knowledge, no one has ever created a serum like mine and it’s highly unlikely that anyone would. However, the serum is theoretically possible, which adds to the world I created.

5) Don’t forget, this is still fiction!

This is a trap I still fall into semi-regularly, so perhaps this is a bit of a personal note. I often feel compelled to honor reality and sometimes lose sight of the fact that I write fiction. And in fiction, when something isn’t completely working for you, you can take some creative license and add or subtract elements as long as it makes sense. Just be careful not to go too far with this or you run the risk of your audience tuning you out.

I hope this helps you build a fictional world for your story within our own!

Now it’s your turn: Have you built a new world within our own? What tips and tricks do you have? Tell me about it in the comments!

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