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How to Create Interesting Settings and Worlds for your Stories

Updated: Nov 30, 2021

Worldbuilding is an important skill for any writer.

If you love fantasy, dystopia or science fiction, you’ll probably know that writers have to work hard to weave the details of their invented world into the story so that readers can keep up and still feel interested. But worldbuilding is an important element for realist writers, too. Part of worldbuilding is also about showing how our characters live, what their environment is like and how this shapes them.

Worldbuilding is about far more than just describing the setting of your story.

There are a whole bunch of questions good authors ask themselves when they’re creating a world for their characters to live in. Here are just some of the questions I ask myself when I invent a new world:

  • How do people live in this environment? (Are they, for example, nomadic? Are their cities walled off and hostile? Is there a network of trade? Are most people rich? Poor? What compromises do they have to make?)

  • Who is in charge and is this a good thing?

  • What do people believe in?

  • What are people scared of?

  • What powers exist in this world? (For example, money? Magic? Monsters? Heroism? Knowledge and Literacy? Language?)

There are far more questions than this, but it’s a good starting point. For this workshop, we’re going to focus on how we can use a very basic principle—called the What If principle—to create a world. You’re then going to take that world you created and flesh it out using some of the questions above. We’ll look at an example world and how the writer has expertly created it, and then you will consider how this world you have just invented might help you create a story!

 

Using the What If Principle


This is a simple idea and it’s also a lot of fun.

At this stage of worldbuilding, all we’re really doing is throwing ideas out there.

That’s exactly what the What If Principle is: you chuck all your wildest, most ridiculous ideas at a page and see which ones stick. Like this:

  • What If … cats became the dominant species on the planet?

  • What If … giant, super-intelligent wasps attacked your school?

  • What If … human beings had to live in outer space?

  • What If … bicycles had personalities?

  • What If … You suddenly developed the power to shoot lightning from your eyes?

  • What If … gravity changed direction?

  • What If … the whole world was a desert?

Some of these ideas will undoubtedly lead to nonsense, but some of them will also yield real gems. All good stories start off with a What If. It’s a really important part of the invention process.

Have a go at creating a list of your own What Ifs.

Try and aim for 20. That will mean some of them are really bizarre, and you’re pushing your brain to come up with really unusual and original things, which is exactly what you want!


Mixing the Familiar with the Impossible


This is, I find, one of the best ways to engage readers with my new worlds and it can really help you develop your What If ideas.

If everything in the world I’d built was completely and utterly alien to the one we know, it would be very hard for my readers to relate to.

Readers need a little familiarity, something to anchor them and show them that this world, though it feels different to their own, has similarities they can understand. A great way to ensure you’re doing this is to take a familiar thing and try to give it an unusual spin. We could look at the following examples of things we see every day in our own world:

  • A family feud

  • A forest

  • A beetle

  • A popular song

All these things exist, or have existed, or will exist, in our own world. Depending on who your readers are, they will be more familiar with some things than others. But how can we take these things and turn them into something unfamiliar? That’s easy! We think about changing the ENVIRONMENT, the BEHAVIOUR or the IMPACT of the thing. Like this:

  • A family feud … on a spaceship.

  • A forest … that eats people.

  • A beetle … that climbs into your brain and controls your thoughts.

  • A popular song … that steals the memories of anyone who listens to it.

Now we’ve got a whole bunch of familiar things with unfamiliar twists. We’ve changed either where those things occur, how those things behave or the impact those things have. Sometimes, we’ve even reversed the usual impact of the thing. Like the popular song: normally, popular songs bring back memories, or spark nostalgia, so a song that steals memories is a new and different idea.


Thinking in this way is hard to start off with, so practise making a list of everyday objects, environments and activities, and then brainstorm ways you could give them an unfamiliar twist.


Study of a Well-Built World


Let’s look at how a really brilliant book builds the unfamiliar by embedding it in the real.

The Call by Peader O’guilin is a brilliant, dark fantasy, set in Ireland.

The world of the characters is mostly familiar: trees, forests, school, etc … with one difference: Ireland itself has been cut off from the world by a thick mist. The fey folk have returned after being cast out of this world years ago. And they’re angry. In their anger, they have put a curse on the Irish:

At some point during their adolescence, every teenager will vanish from this world for three minutes and four seconds.

That three minutes and four seconds is a day in the fey world, where they are hunted by the fey and, if they are caught, they are not only killed, they are utterly destroyed, disfigured beyond recognition. Nine of ten teenagers come back dead, those who survive are never the same again.


So now, we have a brilliant conceit for worldbuilding: although we’re in the same world we know, with its green trees, its gravity, its blue sky, the way people live has to change. Children don’t go to school like they used to anymore. Now, they go to survival colleges, where they learn how to outrun the fey, how to keep themselves alive. The whole country is now obsessed with boosting the population. If ninety percent of your population dies before reproduction age, that’s a massive blow!

But on top of that, each of the characters in the story is going to end up in the fey world at some point. Either they will die there, or they will spend a day running for their lives.

O’Guilin builds this fey world masterfully. Its every creature is a twisted version of a human being. It’s plants are grey and poisonous and predatory. The sky is thunderous and tortured. Everything the characters touch can kill them.

And through all this, they are chased by cheering hordes of fey, bent on destroying them. It’s a terrifying world that really plays on a reader’s sense of the nightmarish. And O’guilin has done a great job of building the fey world by contrasting it with the real world. The characters spend time in both, so we get to see how these worlds work side by side!


Although this book isn’t for the squeamish or faint-hearted, it does have a kick-ass female lead and a whole series of brilliant twists and turns. It’s a duology, too, so there’s a second book to delve into once you’ve finished the first! It’s a great one to read if you want to learn more about worldbuilding, but it’s also just a great read full stop.


You can find a link to Paeder O'Guilin's The Call here.


Worldbuilding Challenge


Now it’s your turn! Have a go at taking an everyday object, creature or idea and then changing it’s ENVIRONMENT, it’s BEHAVIOUR or its IMPACT. Try doing it for a few different everyday objects, both natural and human-made, until you’ve got a bunch of ideas you really like.

Now, choose one of those objects and lets start using it to build our world. Think about:

  • If this object existed, how would it change people’s behaviour?

  • How would it change the way people lived?

  • How would it change our beliefs and attitudes?

  • What groups of people would it impact the most? (Young? Old? Male? Female? Poor? Rich?)

  • Would the object be a good thing or a bad thing?

  • Does everyone know about the object or is it a secret?

  • Is it a unique object, or are their lots of these things about?

Once you’ve got your object and a list of ideas for how it might change the way people around it live, you’ve got the bones of a story.

You can start planning how a character might react if they came across this object, how it would change them and what risks they might need to take as the object changes their life.

 

That’s the basics of worldbuilding, and it can be really fun, but it takes a lot of practice. I hear a lot of young writers I work with tell me things like ‘I can’t do that! I don’t have an imagination!’

Everyone has an imagination. Like every skill, our imagination needs practice to become strong.

Think of it a little bit like learning to play an instrument. Nobody picks up a guitar and knows how to play it straight away. You need to build up strength in your fingers, learn the different chords and which ones go together. It’s the same with building your imagination. It needs time to develop, to become strong, and to become brave enough to try new things. So give this a go.


You might be surprised with what you create!

 

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