World building. The setting, the place where the story takes place can be just as influential for the mood and tone of your story as the conflict, characters and plot. There are a lot of other blogs with advice and tips and lists and questions enough to make your eyes glaze over. I’m covering the very tip of the iceberg here.
Becca and I have been doing a lot of world building lately for a project we’re working on together. In fact, we’re so excited about it, we’re talking about creating a blog just give newsy/chatty updates about said project. And a huge part of that blog is going to be about the setting of our imaginary world. It means I’ve been thinking about it a little bit.
The first thing when you’re discussing building a world is to decide your genre of story. The type of story is going to set the framework for how the world works (to a certain extent.) A historical romance, a fantasy, a dystopian speculative fiction and science fiction are all going to play with different rules. The genre is going to partially influence the technology of your story, the government, and the visual appearance.
For example, in the Lone Prospect, I decided that I wanted my story to be a science fantasy. The fantasy aspect of my story is the inclusion of werewolves. I use “science” to determine how werewolves change using the ever popular “it’s a virus” trope. (Actually, the first werewolf movie was a science gone wrong movie and not a magical curse. The more you know.) And it’s partially post apocalyptic, because it is set in the future after there was a huge war and the entire landscape of the world has changed. And it’s has science fiction style technology, floating cars and transports that don’t rely on propeller engine. There are ‘tractor’ beams and anti-gravity fields and computers that fit in your ear and project holographically from a pair of glasses in front of you. All of this was determined by the genre, science fantasy.
Whereas, in the Dawn Warrior, I chose to make it a pure fantasy story. The world is a medieval type world with dragons, fairies, and magic and lots of forests. So when it came to trying to define the setting, it wasn’t nearly as complicated as the Lone Prospect’s world.
The second thing I try to do is only define enough of the setting as the story needs. I love a complicated world as much as the next person. (See Star Wars and Lord of the Rings.) However, I’m writing a book. I’m not making a movie! (Though I’d love a movie of Heathens, that would be hysterical.) There comes a point where I know I’m writing soft science fantasy (or in the Dawn Warrior’s case, low fantasy) and I don’t have the room or the words for pages and pages of scenery porn. I don’t need to know the complicated levels of government or the entire map or what everything looks like because it’s not important to the story. I’m not going to be using that information right this minute. There comes a point where you have to stop poking at the world and write the book. If you know what the setting looks like for what you’re working on at that moment, stop and get writing.
(Though for the Heathens universe, I’ll admit I do know a lot about the setting, because I’m using a teaspoon to empty out a lake in the amount of stories I want to write for it. Let us hope I don’t burn out on werewolves making explosions.)
In some cases, the next thing I try to do is define the visual aesthetic of the story. In the Lone Prospect, I knew that I wanted Jasper to bring back memories of the old wild west/small town turn of the 20th century America. Brick buildings that aren’t more than four stories high, covered sidewalks, lots of trees and statues in the town square. Little mom and pop shops and restaurants, chain boutiques hidden with hokey wooden signs. I wanted it to feel familiar to readers now and to feel safe. That Jasper is a haven from the craziness of the post apocalyptic world. It’s even set in a valley surrounded by ‘hills.’ But because of this, Jasper is also as much of a cage and prison as it is a place to be safe. It’s easy to get comfortable there and ignore the troubles of the outside world. It’s not easy to escape and can be put under siege.
Jasper also contrasts with Rapid City, a place with steel and glass skyscrapers and the City, which as even larger buildings and multiple levels of traffic. I wanted to merge the idea of the Core Words on Firefly, the cities in Dredd and to some extent Coruscant from Star Wars.
The visual look of your world and the way you describe it, whether it’s clean or dingy or rusted or gleaming can give the reader in a few short words how they should feel about this place you’re dropping them into. Should they feel comfortable or edgy or uneasy.
I am not afraid of using real places to base my settings on. We’ve got a huge world and there are so many beautiful places in it. By using real places with photographs and visits for reference, you can make the setting of your world feel that more tangible and realistic to your reader. And if your setting is in modern or contemporary times, or even to some extent the past, you can use details of the city and it’s history, reputation, interesting facts to add spice to your story.
I chose South Dakota for the setting of the Lone Prospect because I’ve been there. I’ve seen lightning walking over the golden plains that are dotted with herds of buffalo. I’ve been to the badlands. I’ve seen the Black Hills. I have pictures of it. I have emotional memories associated with the area. I know a bit of the history. I try to use that to make my story better.
Then I try to define my tech. Is it science fiction and may I have lasers and tractor beams and guns that set to stun? Or is it fantasy and I have cross bows and ballista and swords for weapons. If it’s a historical setting, what era is it in? When did they get gas in that area or electric? What types of things would they use to wash clothes or bake bread? Did they ride horses or where there the bicycles and automobiles? These will add more interesting details to your story. And depending on how ‘hard’ your science fiction is, (are you Star Wars/Star Trek or are you Asimov?) will determine how much you have to go into how your faster than light or warp drive engine works. (There is a reason I write soft science fiction.)
When I wrote the Lone Prospect, I borrowed from everywhere I could think of to create my world. Taking things that I hoped were coming in the near future and mixing it with things I’d seen in movies and read in other books to try and make a level of technology that felt simultaneously futuristic and realistic to my post apocalyptic setting. My biggest sticking point with making my technology was say, if I got a television show or a movie, could it be done on a lower budget scale.
With the Dawn Warrior on the other hand, it was a pure low fantasy novel without any major battle scenes that would require me to trot out the big medieval weapons. And since Roxana buys her bread already baked, I didn’t really need to think too much about technology. (Though I know a bit about medieval technology.)
Lastly, at least for this world building post, I tend to think about the government. Granted, I don’t write dystopian stories. If you write dystopian fiction then the government and how it affects the culture will probably be the first thing you think about, see the Hunger Games, Divergent, or the Handmaiden’s Tale for examples. However, I don’t write that type of fiction and I need to know what type of government I have in a general sense to know how it’s going to affect my characters. Is it a monarchy? Is there a king? Is it a republic or a democracy? Will there be voting? Who can vote? What types of laws are there that my characters may or may not be breaking?
Another instance where knowing about the government is handy is if the story revolves around the government and politics itself. (This is where the prequels of Star Wars went wrong. The story was about politics and the fall of the Republic and we were off watching pod races.) Who are the movers and shakers in the system? What are the political alliances and how are they shown? There are a lot of both political power maneuvering and personal stories and conflicts that can be written if the story revolves around the people in power and the government. Honor Harrington is a good example of how a story can be written around politics.
This is a good general start to building a setting for your story. After this it is thinking about culture and putting in characters. (Culture is probably a post to itself!) I think the most important thing to remember is to only flesh out as much of the setting as you need to write the book. The book isn’t going to write itself!