World building tips: Writing engaging settings

World building tips | Now Novel

World building tips often focus on fantastical genres such as fantasy and sci-fi because they entail creating worlds wholly other to our own. Yet it’s important to create immersive, interesting and credible setting, whatever your genre. To create an entire fictional world, one to rival Westeros, Hogwarts (or Dickens’ London), read these world building tips and cautions:

1: Make a checklist of world building details you want to include

We believe in our favourite authors’ invented worlds because there is enough detail and specificity to make them real. Legions of younger and older readers fell in love with Rowling’s Hogwarts, for example, because (in part) they could imagine her setting to its edges. Readers could picture the castle from the long tables and floating candles of its dining hall to its outer, more dangerous limits. The nearby ‘Forbidden Forest’, for example, or the menacing vegetation and grounds feature that is the unpredictable, thrashing ‘Whomping Willow’.

Great fictional worlds, like this one, have contrasts, details, atmospheres. The vaults of Rowling’s crypt-like bank, Gringotts, for example, have a different tone and mood to her student-filled castle.

Make a checklist of details you want to include in your novel’s world, whether you’re evoking a magical setting like Hogwarts or a real one like modern-day Paris.

Items you can include in your checklist:

  • Crucial micro locations where action takes place (e.g. a central character’s home or dorm) and broader macro locations (cities, countries, continents)
  • Names and features of towns or cities your story will span
  • The peoples/demographics that inhabit your world (is everyone human? Are there tensions between groups? If yes, why?)
  • The social and cultural features of your world (for example, Rowling gives her wizard community shared sporting events (The Quidditch World Cup) and other shared cultural and social landmarks, such as commonly-known wizard history)

Build a template as you draft that you can add to. As you go, you’ll create a summary of your world and its features. This becomes a handy document you can refer to when you want to remember world building details you’ve already mentioned.

2: Give your fictional world vivid contrasts

World building tips often stick to making your world believable. Yet believable is not the same as homogeneous or ‘samey’. Every world (including our own) has contrasts, too. There are many cities where rich and poor live in radically different circumstances, separated by only a highway, for example.

Think about the contrasts you might create in your fictional world. What contrasts would serve your narrative? Take an imaginary novel about a young girl who opposes an authoritarian government, for example. The side of the highway she comes from will determine, to some extent, her means for struggle and resistance, her backstory.

Tolkien’s Middle-earth, the setting of The Hobbit as well as his The Lord of the Rings books, gives us examples of how effective contrast is in world building. The Hobbits’ homeland, the Shire, is a world of local homeliness. Compare this to Tolkien’s un-homely Mordor, where sulfurous pits and jagged peaks threaten unwary travelers.

The contrasts in Tolkien’s world create additional obstacles for characters as they progress from the ‘safe zone’ of the Shire to Mordor. The closer they get to Mordor’s corrupt world, the more corruptible members of Frodo and Gandalf’s party become, too, resulting in small betrayals.

Contrasting zones in world building thus serve useful dramatic purposes, whatever your genre. In a romance novel, for example, lovers on an exotic vacation might find an idyllic world that helps them bond. Alternatively, they might have a holiday from hell. Neither speaks the local language, and everything goes wrong. In this version, their humour and mutual reliance could have the same bonding effect. Or the situation could add tension, driving their relationship to a rocky place.

As you build your world, think how you can make its contrasts impact on the development of your characters and their relationships.

3: Brainstorm convincing names for your world’s settings

A great name conveys the mood of a place. Tolkien’s world is full of names that convey the tone and mood of the places they describe. ‘The Shire’ has a soft assonance, fitting a world of green pastures. It has echoes of ‘Ireland’ or many a British rural town. Mordor, by contrast, is guttural sounding, using Germanic or Norse-sounding roots. It fits this part of Tolkien’s world’s more Gothic, sombre mood.

The fantasy novels of Sir Terry Pratchett yield great examples of compelling place names. For example, the name of his inventive world (‘Discworld’) in his famous series literally describes the world’s physical features. It resembles the ‘flat Earth’ people once used to describe our own world. Yet it is quirkier than this: Discworld is also balanced on the backs of four elephants which in turn stand on the back of a giant turtle, the Great A’Tuin. Thus Pratchett gives a literal name to a setting that is absurd and imaginative. It’s this combining of the mundane and literal with the wildly imaginative that gives many of his novels their sly, satirical humour.

When you brainstorm names for places in your world building, think about:

  • Purpose: What is purpose of this setting? For example, Rowling calls the magical London high street in the Harry Potter books ‘Diagon Alley’. This echoes with ‘diagonally’. It’s a good name for a street that exists just slant to the average ‘muggle’ (non magical person’s) world.
  • Mood: What is your place’s mood? Think about the Tolkien examples above and how the sounds of the words themselves feel apt for the place. A place name can contrast with its mood, too. For example, a rural town called ‘Little Kenton’ could have a quaint sounding name but in reality hide a terrifying paranormal activity. In this instance, the name adds to the sense of the unexpected

Infographic - world building tips | Now Novel

4: Avoid focusing exclusively on large-scale details

It’s all very well to create a world where a nefarious government holds sway (like Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four). Yet if you only create a sense of the broader social and historical forces at work in your story, the lack of detail might make your characters seem like disembodied heads floating through a void.

Remember to include small-scale details about your world and its ways, where relevant to the story. Think about what characters in the different locations of your story wear and eat. How do their speech patterns, slang, or cultural customs differ? [Our guide to writing real characters will help you create convincing character development and backstory. Get it here.] A naval town will likely feature seafood strongly on the menu. It’s small details like these that reveal a world to readers as somewhere lived in and true.

5: Use the senses to show your world through characters’ eyes

One way to bring your fictional world to life and ensure that readers connect with it and imagine it clearly is to use sense description. Simply describing what a character sees, to start with, can bring a larger setting to life.

Take, for example, David Mitchell’s protagonist Eiji Miyake, in his 2001 novel Number9dream (which was nominated for the Booker Prize). The character is a boy who comes to Tokyo to search for his father. Here, Mitchell’s protagonist describes the view from a local Cafe, and the broader Tokyo cityscape:

‘Tokyo is so up close you cannot always see it. No distances. Everything is over your head – dentists, kindergartens, dance studios. Even the roads and walkways are up on murky stilts. Venice with the water drained away.’

The description effectively shows us defining features of the inner city – it’s closeness, claustrophobia and height. This sense of multiple levels is also important for Mitchell’s world buidling. We will later see his protagonist stumble across different levels in the city, from the ‘above ground’ world of love interests and missing fathers to the dangerous mob-ridden underworld of Tokyo that Eiji is eventually drawn into on his quest.

Later, Mitchell uses other senses – sound, smell – to deepen his world. Here, for example, he describes the same scene after a typhoon:

‘One hour later and the Kita Street/Omekaido Avenue intersection is a churning confluence of lawless rivers. The rain is incredible. Even on Yakushima, we never get rain this heavy. The holiday atmosphere has died, and the customers are doom-laden… Outside […] a family of six huddles on a taxi roof. A baby wails and will not shut up.’

As Mitchell progresses through the story, he paints a clear sense of his character’s world by describing its changing moods, atmospheres, and weathers.

Want to create a more compelling world for your novel? Join Now Novel and use the Idea Finder to flesh our your story’s settings and moods.


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