Books, Writing

On Writing Fictional Settings

One of the most fun parts of writing a story is crafting the world and characters. This is essentially your opportunity to play God. You can do whatever you want with your characters, with your magic system, the technology, anything you can imagine, you can do. It’s wildly enjoyable, if a bit time-consuming.

Personally, I love writing for settings (second to characters). Creating fictional kingdoms/countries with their own histories and cultures is insanely entertaining! I get to ask a ton of fun questions, like how the world’s magic system/advanced technology (or both) affect the land’s politics and vice versa. How do these cultures change the characters? How do they play into the larger plot?

But there are a few problems people face with world-building. They either define the setting too much or too little. They make it too realistic or not realistic enough. Some additions clash with others, destroying the internal logic. Sometimes people forget to communicate that logic to the audience. So on and so forth. These problems and more can make worldbuilding a bit tricky.

So, today, I’m going to give you some tips. Note that this is not coming from an expert on writing. This is how I like to approach worldbuilding and how I manage to overcome its various hurdles. Whether you agree or disagree with my methods is entirely up to you; how you write entirely depends on you. Take everything I say with a grain of salt.

The first thing you need to do is not let realism worry you. If you want to make your world realistic, go ahead. If you want to make your setting bizarre and completely alien, completely devoid of real logic, go for it! Whatever you think is better for the story. Don’t worry about whether or not the internal logic aligns with real-world logic. Just do what you want and feel is right.

Second, in regards to a world devoid of real-world logic: establish the story’s internal logic. Find a way to communicate the rules of the world to the audience. You don’t need to explain why it is that way. All you need to do is tell your reader the rules in a way that is interesting and helps them understand.

Take the movie Groundhog Day for example. The rules of the story are simple. Bill Murray is in a time-loop that resets every 24 hours. Everything else in the story aligns with the laws of reality. Why is he in a time-loop? It doesn’t matter. That’s the rule of the story and it’s communicated clearly to the audience. With that knowledge, you can fully enjoy the story without being pulled out of the experience.

Another big thing is history. Thanks to Tolkien (god bless), people think that a fantasy world needs to have a whole textbook’s worth of history in order to be interesting. That is not the case. If you want to have a ton of history, go ahead. But the only stuff you need is that which will play directly into the story. If you’re going to add a bit of lore about a king who lived a thousand years ago, find a way to incorporate it into the story. If it doesn’t, consider cutting it out.

Remember: the audience only has so much time they can dedicate to your work. If you waste that time, you risk losing them. Make sure that everything that needs to be in the story is in there. Then, once all the important stuff is there and it’s refined to the best of your ability, you can flesh out the rest.

Next, culture. This can be influenced by many things. What kind of landscape is your setting set in? What’s happened in the past to influence the present? How do the people within the setting behave? My advice here is simple: go fucking nuts. Do whatever you want, so long as it works within your story. Don’t worry about it being too weird, too well-defined or not defined enough. Real-world cultures are bizarre enough, if you really think about them. Just do whatever would work best for the story and sounds fun to write.

And in regards to magic systems or technology… well, that’s a whole different ball of wax. It’s a subject I’d have to dedicate an entire article to. My advice on it in regards to world-building: make sure they have some impact on the setting and the history. Ask yourself questions like “How would this affect people in their day-to-day lives?” or “How would people in power react when these abilities first appeared?”, so on and so forth. Answering questions like these is a quick way to deliver some interesting and compelling drama; plus, it makes the world seem well-defined and interesting.

Ultimately, when it comes to world-building, you can do whatever you want. Craft the world however you wish. Make it realistic if you want to or make it completely alien. Just make sure it works within the story and the audience understands the rules. Don’t worry about it too much. Do what works and sounds like fun.

You are the God of your fictional world. Not that one guy on the internet who thinks everything needs to be realistic. You are. Don’t let anyone dissuade you from your vision of your world. It is yours to do with as you please.

Just try not to cackle too loudly when you put the people of that world through actual hell.

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