World Building: Your Setting is More Than Just a Place
Whether you’re creating an expansive fantasy series, a horror novel, a science-fiction epic or even just something set in modern times, the world you build is a key part of your reader’s immersive experience. For example, you say your main character is in Paris and leave it at that. Now, I have read a lot of books and watched the Travel Channel, so I can picture in my head a decent image when I think of Paris. If your readers know nothing of Paris, then you failed to paint a picture for them. That’s what we’re here for, as writers. To show our readers the big picture through our words.
In order to do that, we need to say more than just things like “the building.” If it’s an important part of the story, describe the building. It doesn’t have to be anything lengthy, just a few words to mention the architecture or style of construction. You don’t have to do a six page history of the building and its architectural influences, but you can give enough minor details to let the reader’s imagination fill in the rest. Saying “the building” is fine if it’s just a background piece, but if it’s important then maybe give it a few words of description.
Now, if you’re building a world outside our modern one, then you’re going to have to get far more creative than just a basic building description. You have to decide the topography, the physical characteristics of the land and what types of plants there are. You need to develop that world into a living thing, at least in your mind. Details of that world only need to be revealed as called for by the story, but knowing and understanding them are key to telling a truly solid story.
Drawing a basic map is a great way for you to begin to formulate the world in your mind. You can decide where the rivers, lakes, oceans, mountains, deserts, cities and towns are all located. You get to build the entire world. Is it hot or cold there? Do they have normal seasons? What technological level are they at? Are there more advanced places than others? Where are your strongest powers and the lesser ones? What are the politics of this place? The list goes on. The point is, when you’re building an entire world, there’s more to it than just the location where the characters are at during the scene you’re writing. What lies over the next hill or around the next turn in the road?
Have fun with the creation of your world. Toss in a few Easter Eggs for your fans to discover. Like towns named after characters in other books. Shops named after places they might have been. Unique animals based on legends or tales. There really isn’t a limit because you’re building it all. You can run with it, just remember to keep it logical. Certain types of terrain don’t go together. You won’t find a rain-forest in a desert. You won’t find a major city where there’s not source for water. Things like that.
There are a ton of cartography programs out there available that can help you design your world. It can be as immense or small as you need it to be. It’s your world. You even get to decide the rules that the world lives by. Do the normal laws of physics apply there? Is it a world ruled by magic and magical energy? Is it high technology? What are the primary means of transportation?
The thing is, the more thought you put into your world, the more lifelike it will appear. The more lifelike, the more the reader can find themselves immersed in that world. They can see the adventures taking place there as if they were watching it on a screen. That, my friends, is a truly immersive reading experience. That’s exactly what we want for our readers. To involve them so much in the stories that they feel as if it were real and the characters were alive in their minds. We want them to feel connected to the places and people in the story. That’s how we build our fanbase. We bring them a world where they want to be lost in the location and characters.
When you add in details like history of the world, religions/deities, different peoples and races, believable characters… that’s when your audience finds their deepest connections. Immersive worlds are completely possible to build. George RR Martin did it. Tolkien did it. RA Salvatore did it. Brandon Sanderson did it. Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman did it. So can you. The thing is, it’s not something you can just jot down in a few minutes. You’re going to have to put some work into it, if you want it to really pay off.
Cartography programs are great because they can show you which terrain types go together and which don’t, but they can only build your map. You have to breathe life into it. The places, the people, the creatures, the plants and so on. Have fun with your world building but don’t expect it to be done in time for dinner tonight. You can do quite a bit of it as you go, but having a framework in place will help you keep a good mental image of where your characters are going and what they are doing. It will also help you plan scenes around locations, destinations around directions and so on. A complete world build can give you a lot of freedom as a writer. It allows you to focus on the characters more because the places are already designed. All you have to do is describe them.
Good luck and good journeys.
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