World Building Part 2 – Building Setting

Much of your world building is going to help you build your settings, the concrete places in which the scenes of your story will take place. Yes, in part, this is the countries and continents you’re building, but more specifically it’s the church buildings, the towns, the castles, the forest camps, and other such sets.

Not only is setting individual, concrete locations, but also the concrete, specific details that we choose to describe these locations. Saying ‘a forest’ is one thing. Saying ‘a dark, dense forest of ancient oaks’ is far more interesting. Use tight, specific, direct language when crafting your setting. This will help create a vivid sense of place, and, if you choose carefully, can help you avoid info dumps.

As writers build fantasy and science fiction settings they borrow from real world climates, cultures, and experiences. This is a normal part of world building. You need to select a societal age and tech level. This will narrow down the architectural choices you have for the style of your buildings and the size and layout of your villages or cities. If you’re writing a Victorian steampunk, for example, your physical setting will be based heavily on Victorian London, or Victorian-era Paris, or Prague or whichever city best suits your story. Onto that base you’ll add your steampunk technology, tweaking the style of clothes and décor and buildings to fit the additions.

If you’re writing a period fantasy set in a blend of Feudal and Late-Middle-Ages with heavy European leanings you’re looking at castles and moats with villages springing up around their walls. You’re looking at placing major cities near waterways, in strategically defensible positions, or near key resources. For architecture, you’ll want to peak at period-appropriate buildings around the world and blend them together. Keep in mind that without magic you’re stuck with building techniques that fit your technology level.

If your setting is Earth, past, present or future, this has some shortcuts, as well as some interesting challenges. If you’re writing historical fiction you’re left to decide which historical facts to include and which to leave out. If you’re writing alternative history, you need to decide what changes, and how that will ripple out through your culture. If you’re writing in the present you need to choose whether you’re setting your story in a real city/town, or creating a fake one that is, in all ways, realistic, just doesn’t actually exist (like Stephen King’s Derry Maine).

Writing a future Earth presents unique challenges and opportunities. You have a setting that is familiar, and yet you must make it different. You look at the current state of environmental affairs and you must project a likely path into the future.

Rising tides? Nuclear war? An earthquake finally turns California into an island? A volcanic eruption? Whatever the case, something happens and the world changes.

Maybe it’s not environmental, maybe the change is political. Maybe the change is in population density, or technology. Is this a dark, grungy, dystopian future, or a bright, shiny, hopeful one?

Keep in mind, with a modern or futuristic city, that your architecture will not have a uniform look. Unless there’s a reason for a building to be torn down (disdain for old things, structural instability, major event that levels entire city streets) your cities will be a blend of old and new buildings. Often you have historic districts as the city will grow in sections, each section modeled on the period it was built in. You will have areas that are industrial and areas that are residential. You’ll have areas that are old stone and areas that are newer.

And this can and should translate over into fantasy and science fiction (alien world) settings as well. So often we see whole-planet cultures of shiny metal and glass buildings and futuristic vehicles. What about the alien that drives the equivalent of a classic car? What about poor districts, or historic districts? What about blended cultures, or distinct cultural areas (like China Town in a larger city)? Writing a single culture across the entire planet is easy, but doesn’t reflect “reality” well. Try expanding your fantasy and science fiction to be more diverse and exciting by building complex settings for your story to take place in.

Like what you’re reading? Stay tuned for more world building fun. Or hop over to Amazon and order your copy of The Ultimate World Building Book for geography, settings, characters, cultures, and more.

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