If you write contemporary fiction, you’ve probably run into the problem of choosing a setting. A story’s setting is as influential to the plot as the characters who populate it. A book set in Paris will be vastly different from one set in a small Midwestern town. But what if you’ve never been to the locations in your story? How important is accuracy? The short answer: Authentic details bring settings to life.
Has a story’s setting ever intrigued you even more than the plot? Think of the gloomy weather on the moors that reflects the characters’ turbulent emotions in Wuthering Heights, or the unforgiving sand drifts wrought with murderous sandworms that excrete the galaxy’s most coveted resource and serve as a crucible for the cast of Dune. Why do each of these places feel so mystical?
Writing historical fiction requires a level of thoroughness that exceeds other genres. Instead of constructing new worlds, you’re representing bygone people and places. You might pore over book after book in your library’s reference section, or you might scroll through dozens of online articles. Maybe you’ll even do both! Whatever time period your novel resides in, the amount of information you need to accurately portray it can seem overwhelming.
God designed humans as intricate beings, and a single culture encompasses thousands (if not millions) of individuals interacting with each other in hundreds of different combinations and relationships. Reflect on your own life and the roles you rotate through each day: sibling, caretaker, student, mentor, friend. As a writer, how can you presume to play God and pack all of that complexity into your own worldbuilding?
When you think about the process of worldbuilding, what images form in your mind? Maybe you see a forest of exotic plants and mystical creatures. Or architecture that splices the sky and advanced technology that allows users to perform hundreds of tasks without lifting a finger. Or even a totalitarian regime that controls every citizen, from the rich to the poor. But have you focused on your characters yet?
Although songs typically appear in epic fantasy, any genre can contain a scene that obligates the author to turn into a composer, such as a character blaring her favorite band on the stereo, a gathering around a campfire, or a mother comforting her child. Imitating three of Tolkien’s practices can equip you to fill that role without disrupting your story.
I tend to procrastinate about worldbuilding because it overwhelms me. I’m expected to design an alternate reality that’s as complex and nuanced as my own. Considering the thousands of cultural customs, geographical differences, and historical events attached to every inch of Earth, the task seems too infinite for my finite imagination. Where do I start? How do I determine when to stop? Which ideas should appear in my story, and which should remain archived inside my brain?
Have you ever started reading a book you expected to enjoy only for the setting to stymie any connection you might have had with the characters? You keep losing your bearings because of weird place names. The info dumps about the magic system make you zone out. And you can’t even pronounce the religion that’s dividing two people groups. Fifty pages in, you’re still not invested. Disappointed, you toss the story onto your did-not-finish pile, where the memory of it fades into oblivion.
Worldbuilding is a term that’s usually associated with sci-fi and fantasy. However, as an author of contemporary fiction, I’ve discovered that I can borrow principles from those genres to provide vivid backdrops for my scenes. Consistent, well-structured settings enable readers to viscerally experience the same sensations as the characters, so any strategies that add more layers of realism are a win.
Worldbuilding is, at its core, an imaginative divergence from reality that begins with a question. It’s most integral to fantasy, science fiction, and Dungeon Masters, but regardless of the genre (or role-playing game), the void that the characters float in remains colorless and empty until the author wonders, “What if…?” The infinite possibilities and choices can be overwhelming, paralyzing you before you even begin your first draft. How do you keep track of all the pertinent details? Are you wasting time naming the flora and fauna or actually moving your story forward? Before you rush to your favorite search engine and type in “worldbuilding questionnaires” (trust me, hundreds will pop up), you need to remember these three guidelines.