There are many world building steps in creating the setting for a story or novel. What steps you include will depend on the nature of your story. Read tips for writing the natural environment, how you can use it to create narrative tension, socio-historical change, symbolism and more:
First: Why ask world building questions about environment?
The natural world, from plant and animal life to geology, is often a fascinating element of stories. Like the Planet Earth documentaries with their intriguing settings (and the primal conflicts between inhabitants they reveal), you can immerse readers in the grand sweep (as well as minute details) of your environments.
The natural environment is omnipresent in the history of myth and storytelling.
For example, consider the Greek myth of Persephone (in which the King of the Underworld Hades snatches Persephone from her mother Ceres, the Goddess of agriculture and fertility, to be his bride). This is a tale explaining the origins of seasonal change. Although Ceres recovers her daughter, Hades imposes a condition whereby for some months of the year Persephone returns to him. This is when winter arrives, due to Ceres’ melancholic neglect of her crops as she pines for her daughter.
Looking past mythology to literal uses of natural environment in stories, rivers are places of adventure in a novel like Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). Or treacherous sites of personal tragedy in novels like Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (1930). Mountains may be mysterious, mythological places, as in the central chapter of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (2004). Or they may be arduous, challenging summits.
In short, the natural environment in a story can supply obstacles, mysteries, explanations, themes and symbols.
Let’s ask world building questions that will help you create the environment in your story or novel:
1: What will be the key features of your world’s environment?
The world building steps you follow depend on your story type.
Say, for example, your story traces the lives of farmers in a rural setting. The natural world will likely feature more strongly than if you write a slick legal thriller set in a sprawling city.
Fantasy in particular often features natural, magic-filled environments. In urban fantasy, however, cityscapes and the built environment replace the more rural, Tolkien-like ‘nature’ of many epic fantasy classics.
Some questions to ask about your world’s natural environment:
In what season does your story take place?
In C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950), for example, the antagonist, the White Witch, has cast a spell plunging the magical realm of Narnia into eternal winter.
Environment (and season) here are environmental signs or shadows of an antagonist’s cold cruelty. C.S. Lewis also uses the symbolism of winter to evoke a sense of death and loss (of cyclical plant life, for example, like in Ceres’ myth). Thanks to the White Witch, rebirth and renewal are postponed indefinitely. Narnia’s animal inhabitants suffer due to this abuse of magical power.
Here, season and weather reflect character while also establishing tone and mood for the story.
Do features in the landscape affect your characters’ lives? How?
Perhaps your story will unfold in the shadow of a mountain, on the banks of a river, or in a thriving seaside town. Think about how these large-scale natural features may determine further details about your world (such as its beliefs and customs).
For example, in Greek mythology, the Gods dwell on Mount Olympus. In a pre-modern village in the foothills of a mountain, might the locals share myths involving a nearby, unreachable summit? In stories, mountains have been home to benevolent forces (e.g. Gods), malevolent ones (ancient or modern-day evils and their lairs) and more neutral, elusive mysteries (e.g. the mythological yeti).
You can also use the natural environment in your world building to create tension and major obstacles for your characters. This is common in quest-type stories:
2: Will the natural environment pose obstacles for your characters?
Environmental obstacles are staples of quest, adventure and survival narratives.
Let’s consider a classic example from William Faulkner’s acclaimed novel, As I Lay Dying (1930).
The central quest of the novel is the Bundren family’s mission to bury their mother Addie in her hometown – Jefferson, Mississippi. They cart her casket through great trials to achieve this goal.
Early in the Bundrens’ quest, heavy rainstorms flood a river they must cross to continue. The flood washes away key bridges, and in the family’s attempt to cross, the father Anse Bundren’s mules drown.
Faulkner uses the natural environment to create obstacles that further narrative tension as well as thematic, plot and character development. Here:
- Environment-as-obstacle shows the danger and hardship the Bundren family will face. It shows the courage and commitment they need to reach their goal, raising the story’s stakes
- The river scene adds mythic echoes (for example, the poisonous river Styx that the dead must cross on their way to the afterlife in Greek mythology). This deepens the themes of the novel. We gain a stronger sense of this being a watershed moment, an ‘after-life’
- Faulkner uses the crisis for further characterization: He shows how each of the Bundren children cope, cycling through their points of view. One son, Darl, is fatalistic and dreads the river. Another, Jewel, fights the current in efforts to save the mules and his mother’s casket
Following Faulkner’s example, think about the natural environment and ask some world building questions. For example, what natural threats or challenges might your characters encounter in their surrounds? [Get exercises and videos that will help you write believable characters when you buy our guide, ‘How to Write Real Characters: Creating your story’s cast.]
3: How do environments in your world contrast or change over time?
The natural environment in fiction often helps to establish a sense of time, place and history.
Often, it underscores historical or social change.
Let’s examine an example from the French, historical satire comic book series, The Adventures of Asterix by Goscinny and Uderzo.
The central conflict and organizing idea throughout the Asterix series is Ancient Rome’s relentless pursuit of empire versus a steadfast village of Gauls (ancient inhabitants of what is now France) who resist it via their wits and magic.
One book in the series satirizes urban development (and its social and environmental fallout). In The Mansion of the Gods (1971), Julius Caesar attempts to establish a housing settlement for retired Romans in the woods near the Gauls’ village. His aim? To force the Gauls to accept Roman ‘civilization’.
The comic’s creators show the disruptions this process causes, including the environmental devastation in the nearby forest. The Gauls’ way of life is challenged as their quarry (wild boar) flee from their natural habitat.
When settlers start arriving at the Mansions, this also disrupts trade and industry in the nearby Gallic village. The village becomes a local tourist attraction for rich city retirees. Locals compete for the Romans’ cash money. The boom pushes prices up, then crashes prices as the market is flooded with similar competing products.
Throughout, Goscinny and Uderzo use the natural environment, its ‘before and after’, creatively:
- They show the effects of social and political change (Caesar’s creation of the colony) on the environment, followed by the snowballing social effects of these environmental changes. Indigenous people (the Gauls) pay the price. We see environmental change create dangerous stakes and tensions
- The creators show how man-made environmental change drives socio- historical and economic change. We see the contrast between the use and quality of the natural environment before and after the Romans’ arrival, and the social difficulties these changes wreak
The takeaway from this satire of urban development is that in a complex story, environment itself can be a major driver of plot and character change. Just as the Gauls in Asterix’s village change with their environment, your characters can react to changes in their own landscape.
This environmental development in a world is particularly important if your novel is historical or dystopian fiction. In these genres, environmental pressures are often central to characters’ choices. The human and non-human cost of environmental destruction features in many dystopian, post-apocalyptic stories and novels. Along with stories that are critical (like The Mansions of the Gods) of short-sightedness and greed touted as civilization.
4: What figurative ideas could environment in your story represent?
As much as environment is often literal – settings portrayed as real mountains, streams, fields and forests – it also is rich with images that can be read in symbolic, non-literal ways.
For example, in the Arthurian Grail legend about the knight Perceval (written, it’s estimated, between 1135 and 1190), the story begins in the forests of Wales. Perceval’s mother raises him apart from civilization, and when he eventually emerges into the world, he is initially a laughing stock due to his ‘unworldly’ manners and behaviour.
Various writers have examined the image of the forest in Perceval’s story and its symbolism. Some, for example, see it as womb-like, a material symbol of Perceval’s mother’s protective, hidden away care. However you read the forest, there is a strong contrast between its innocence and the outside world of experience, of knights, kings, killings and mystery adventure that lies just beyond its confines.
Think about the environmental features of your story and what they might represent beyond a literal sense (like the death-and-afterlife symbolism of the river in As I Lay Dying).
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