Building a world is a lot like building a house, and like a house, one of the first things we want to do is lay the foundation. A strong world foundation allows us to build our worlds from the ground up, making them feel more real and solid. For fantasy or science fiction writers this is critical, but a strong world applies even to those writing n the real world. The setting is the world in which the novel takes place.
I've found using an actual place as a jumping off point saves a lot of time. I don't have to make up every detail, and I have some reference guides for the basics. The climate and geography of a place determines what that culture does to survive. The food they eat, the clothes they wear, where they work, etc. Knowing those details makes it easier to adjust them to my world, picking and choosing the details that fit what I want to do.
Some things to consider when building a world:
What's the weather like? It is wet or dry? Are there seasons? People living in the cold lead different lives from those who live in the tropics. And it's not just what they wear, but morals can also be affected. If a culture is used to always being covered up, there could be a taboo against bare skin, or it might be considered risque. Rain may play a role in the plot, or snow, or a particular season.
Real World Writers: Where the protagonist lives plays a role in real world stories as well. A gal living in Seattle might not go anywhere without an umbrella, while a gal in Tuscon might not even own one. While these details are small, the setting does affect what's normal for the characters and may be great plot devices (like if that Seattle gal needs to fend off a mugger by using her umbrella)
What grows in the area? How do these people feed themselves? What do they eat? An agriculturally dominant culture will likely be more spread out to accommodate farms, while a culture that imports food might be more city based. Food might be a way to designate social classes, as hard to get items illustrate wealth or indulgence.
Real World Writers: Food can say a lot about a character. Are they a risk taker by trying exotic meals, or do they always stick to meat and potatoes? Certain places also have unique cuisine that reflects the culture, and we can add local flavor by using that.
3. Plants and Animals
What grows in this world? What kind of animals live there? What woods might be used to make furniture and houses? Why types of animal skins might be used? What are the common food or industry, crops or herds? People use what's available to them, so we can get some interesting details using plants and animals that are common to a particular region.
Real World Writers: Animals can add a fun layer to real world settings as well. Imagine finding an alligator under the car for Florida settings, or dealing with migrating crabs. Animals and weird animal behavior could add just the right touch to spice up a plot and provide something unusual to set the story apart.
4. Economy, Industry and Resources
How do people make a living? What are the primary "cash crops," or the products that make money? What is the job structure like? What industries are there? What's considered low class vs high class work? Is there a middle class? How do people get their goods? What kind of money or trade system do they work off of? The rich need to make their money somewhere, and the poor have to survive somehow. It's easy to have a general store where everything is sold, but where do those goods come from?
Real World Writers: Jobs can also vary by area. If the protagonist lives in a small town, everyone might work at the same plant or factory, or an area might all be heavily employed by a certain industry, like steel in Pennsylvania or cars in Michigan. A big city could have jobs unique to that area.
What do people do for fun? What types of entertainment are available for the different classes of people, both socially or economically? What's appropriate entertainment vs inappropriate? Are there group events like gladiatorial fights or smaller games? What's considered fun is often tied in to the morality and ethics of a culture, and we can show right and wrong behaviors by what the characters do in the off hours.
Real World Writers: Different cities can also have different activities. Local festival or events can add as much color as food or a job. Instead of sending the protagonist on a date to dinner and a movie, maybe they go to the annual wine tasting or strawberry festival. Or maybe the entertainment can also show values of that city, like strip clubs that cause a stir in the community, or one that's just a normal and accepted part of the town.
Do people go to school? Is there higher education? Trade schools or apprenticeships? How do people learn the skills they need to survive? Is it different depending on the societal class? Education might even be used to separate classes or genders or show those roles and the attitudes about gender or class.
Real World Writers: Different areas have different expectations about education, so how far along your protagonist might be scholastically may depend on where they're from. This might cause conflict or embarrassment for them if they're from a vastly different background than their friends, co-workers or love interests.
What's the deital structure like? What do these people believe in? What's considered devout? What's secular? What's the average level of belief? Are the gods real and participating or just passive observers? Or are they simply myths? Is there religious tolerance? Multiple gods? Contradicting belief systems? Remember that no culture has a population that all believes exactly the same thing, so there will be ranges of belief and even some radical thinkers.
Real World Writers: Is religion or faith something that plays a role in the protagonist's life, or is it something that no one ever talks about? We may not mention religion at all, but our protagonist might wear a cross or a Star of David, given to them by a favorite grandmother. Religion is all around us, so it could provide an answer to a plot problem. Or it could be used to show the ethics or morality of a character, especially if they're going to be facing any ethical dilemmas.
8. Art and Architecture
How do these people decorate? How do they express themselves? Is art used by the common folk or is it just for the noble class? Is it religious in nature? How much does the culture value artistic expression? Music, dance, art, sculpture, bead work, whatever it is, it'll evolve because of where they live and what they believe.
Real World Writers: Skyscrapers vs stucco, glass vs adobe brick. Different regions have their own look and can provide the right style for the story, and also add realism to the setting to make a reader feel like they're there.
No matter what kind of world we're building, the more solid our foundation is, the better the world will stand up to scrutiny. It'll also give us lots of options when developing plot problems and creating obstacles.
What are some of your favorite worlds?
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
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