Are You Asking These Important Questions About Your Fantasy Setting?

In many genres, the setting is little more than a necessary backdrop, culled from the author’s real life or research for any number of necessary or arbitrary reasons. Before writing my fantasy Dreamers (coming October 2012), my experience with historical fiction had allowed me to drop all my characters into real-life settings. I didn’t have to create settings; all I had to do was reconstruct them from my own memory (the Wyoming setting in A Man Called Outlaw) or my research (the European and Middle Eastern settings in Behold the Dawn). But when I embarked into the magical world of fantasy with Dreamers, I was presented with a wonderful new opportunity: I was no longer constrained by the facts. Instead, I had the freedom to create an entirely new world where anything could happen.

In the face of all these wonderful possibilities, authors can easily become overwhelmed. Where do we start? How to we create a world that not only incorporates beautiful and fascinatingly bizarre elements, but also one that is solid and realistic in every detail, from landscape to government? The first, and hopefully most obvious, answer is to let your imagination run riot. Force yourself to think outside the box, to reject clichés, and to hunt down ideas that excite you with their color and originality.

But you’re also going to want to get as specific as you can. The “interview” process I use in getting to know my characters (if you’re not familiar with my list of interview questions, you can find them in my free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters) can also be applied to your setting. Fantasy author Patricia C. Wrede has compiled a fabulously complete list of Fantasy Worldbuilding Questions, which I can’t recommend highly enough. Below, is an overview of subjects and questions to keep in mind as you develop your fantasy setting:

What does the landscape look like?

What kind of plants grow here?

What’s the climate?

What kinds of animals are present in this world?

What kind of society(ies) is found in your world?

What kinds of clothing are in style?

What moral and religious values define people’s world views?

What language(s) do they speak?

What form of government is currently in place?

How advanced is technology?

What forms of long-distance communication are used?

What modes of transportation are available?

How has technology affected entertainment and the arts?

How has technology affected weaponry and modes of warfare?

How advanced are the fields of medicine and science?

What are the natural laws of this world?

Which natural laws are different from our world (e.g., gravity)?

Is there a magical force in your world

How does it work?

What are its limitations?

What kind of people populate this world?

Are there different races?

How do customs differ between people of different races and citizens of different districts?

Do the ethnic factions get along?

What’s the history of this world?

How many years of recorded history are available?

What historical epochs have shaped society?

Even if you already have a good idea of the specifics of your world, taking the time solidify your ideas by answering these, and other, questions can inject more life and realism into your setting and allow you to spot flaws and inconsistencies. And, even better, it’s a ton of fun!

Tell me your opinion: Do you feel you’ve taken full advantage of your setting’s potential (no matter your genre)?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Well, I am not into world of fancy, but one of my brothers (in profession) is into them.

    I am surely gonna recommend this article to him. Got tons of info yet in simple clear cut style.

    thanks a lot

    http://arandomarticle.blogspot.com

  2. Great post and list. Thanks, it’s just what I need as I edit a fantasy novel I have written. It’s easy to believe that writing fantasy is easy because you can make up anything you want. I think the trick in fantasy is to get the reader to become totally absorbed in the world you made up, so there’s nothing worse than something unbelievable jerking the reader back into reality and asking the question, ‘how can that possibly happen?’

  3. @AllMyPosts: Thanks for passing it along. I appreciate it!

    @Christopher: In some ways worldbuilding is easier than recreating real locations, since you don’t have to worry as much about getting your facts straight. But, in other ways, it’s much more difficult, since you have to create realism *and* originality from whole cloth.

  4. Thank you! I am attempting my first fantasy and that part of the story I am finding very difficult to create. This is an IMMENSE help. Thank you so much!!!!

    Jessica

  5. I do similar checklists when I start every project. They are extremely helpful in shaping the confines of any work, plus they help me with consistency as well.

  6. @Jessica: Worldbuilding is one of the most difficult, and most important, parts of writing spec fic. Glad this post proved helpful to you!

    @Ralfast: I’ve actually considered doing a similar checklist for historical fiction as well, just because it’s so comprehensive.

  7. I don’t write fantasy novels—yet. 🙂 My current WIP is set in modern times and in our world, but this blog is still useful. The town my characters live in only exists inside the pages of my novel, but you’ll never find it on any map. Some things on your checklist can help “build” the town so it is as real to my readers as is it is to my characters.

  8. I often find it useful to “make up” towns and places within otherwise real-life settings. For example, the town of Hangtree and the Big U River in A Man Called Outlaw were both imaginary places inserted into the real-life Wyoming Territory of the 19th century.

  9. I only have one completed novel and we don’t really talk about that because it’s been shelved for now– the characters are about the only redeeming aspect. For the road trip WIP I just started I’m looking forward to playing with setting. I have a list of ways I could show theme through setting and just general fun settings, and I have several ideas in mind for scenes where the setting will impact the action. Should be fun.
    – Sophia.

  10. Setting can be one of the most enjoyable elements of fiction, so long as we’re familiar enough with it to feel comfortable. If we’re comfortable, we’ll probably be at a place where we can just let our imaginations rip.

  11. I’m bookmarking this one. My fantasy worlds all need tweaking, and your list has given me plenty of critera to consider and check off.

    Thank you!

  12. I found world building the biggest adjustment in moving from historical to speculative fiction. It’s a marvelous challenge!

  13. For me, the most interesting part of world building is seeing how this world affects my characters and informs their choices and worldviews. How does this world’s religious, political, and social climate affect the way this character views the world?

  14. Absolutely. Setting, when properly used, should always be a tool of deepening characterization. How characters see and interact with their settings is one of the best ways authors can *show* both their character and their setting.

  15. It is a good list, at least for the author’s benefit, but I can’t see putting all these details into a story without bogging the story down. In Savage Worlds, I’ve covered some of these points in varying degrees, but characters and plot take priority.

    ~ VT

  16. Definitely. This is one of those “iceberg” principles. It’s important for the author to understand these things, but that doesn’t mean readers need to know all of them.

  17. This comment has been removed by the author.

  18. Amen to the mention of worldbulding being an iceberg principal! In fact, I start to get antsy when a fantasy writer feels the need to stop and give the equivalent of a really long parenthetical to explain why something looks like it does, or how something works. Browne and King’s concept of R.U.E. (resist the urge to explain) is one I feel every speculative fiction author needs to chant to him/herself as he/she write. 🙂

    I was gratified to look at this list and say “Whew, I’ve done this stuff.” But then, I’m been at my world for a really embarrassingly long time, so I better have addressed most of it!

    The most fun part of worldbuilding for me is to create fantastical stuff and then watch how it makes trouble for my characters. Mwahahaha. Ahem.

  19. World are one of those wonderful things in fantasy that you can develop before, during, and continue developing even after you finish writing.

    I know so much about my epic fantasy world, and I hope even a fraction of that shows through in the writing.

    Good list, and a good reference. I’ll probably look over it for the other book I’m editing (not the epic fantasy).

    Take care,
    Lauren

  20. My setting definitely needs continuing work. It’s never something that comes through strongly in a first draft, so instead I tend to focus on it in my revisions. Luckily for me, my WIP’s set somewhere I’d love to visit, so it’s no hardship to think about it a lot right now!

  21. Thank you SO MUCH! This is exacly what I need for my WiP!

  22. @Becky: Setting in spec fic is really no different than in any other genre. Overexplaining is a no-no I’m any type of story.

    @L. Scribe: The fantasy world, and all it’s inherent rules, is really what separates spec fic from other genres – and what makes it so wonderful.

    @Amie: Creating a world you love is the number one key to any great setting.

    @Galadriel: Great! I’m so glad it was helpful.

  23. I think it is also important to have an ability to understand physics when building a world from scratch. Sometimes exploring how it could be possible will lead you to credible details that will explain (without dumping science jargon).

    I have found books that I give up on if they explain too much with “magic” but don’t Magic up a pretty obvious solution.

    Not saying you should know how to build a spaceship out of toothpaste and and ear wax —but if you Gilligan me – I am done.

    (on Gilligan’s island – prof. could build a radio out of coconuts but they couldn’t build a freaking boat out of an island full of trees)

    Great Post – add knowing your characters childhoods – how the setting made them who they are. Where we live changes us – your physical world if unique, will impart some unique personality trait on your beings. (the setting can bring many subtle hints to who your MC is – letting your landscape bleed into personality is one of those things I enjoy reading)

  24. Thanks, this gave me a lot to think about. Even though my genre is urban fantasy and the setting is (mostly) Europe, there is always more I can do to make it real.

  25. @Lynn: As the creators of our story worlds, we have the responsibility to be omniscient about every aspect.

    @Africa: Yes, questions like this are valuable even for non-spec stories. Understanding setting is vital in every genre.

  26. It has occurred to me that I don’t think I’ve ever commented here. I am truly sorry for the neglect, for I do believe you are my greatest hero. Thanks for being in my world.

  27. What? No comments? Fifty lashes with a wet noodle for you! :p Just kidding. Thanks for taking the time to leave a note. I’m so glad you’re enjoying the blog.

  28. I’m in awe of the world building that goes into fantasy writing. It’s one of those things that really sews a story together for that genre.

    Lately, I have been taking advantage of my small-town settings for my romances. I find it has made my story more heartwarming. 🙂

  29. I had a blast with world building in my fantasy, but I have to admit it was almost a relief to return to the “real” world for my next book!

  30. Well said. A setting can say so much about your narrative. It can be used to insight conflict, create a tone for the piece and many other things. I think it’s easier to create the rules for the world before even embarking on the characters’ journey.

  31. I’m an outliner, so I like to have pretty much *everything* in place before the character sets out into the story. But I think this is especially true of setting, since it will shape the story itself and its consistency is vital.

  32. This is perfect! I’ve been in need of a fantasy world reference sheet, as my world is starting to become a bit complicated. This’ll help keep things in context.

    Thanks!

  33. I know the feeling! Glad the post was timely for you.

  34. I got stuch creating a fantasy world because it fell vague and out of focus. This will help and I already have your e-book Creating Unforgettable Characters. Thanks.

    You have received the Friends for the Journey award from me today. If you have time, check it out on my blog.

    Karen

  35. very good pointers.

    Thank you

    Olive

    http://olivecollins.wordpress.com

  36. Nothing more frustrating that vague settings. I hope these questions hep you solidify your world!

    Thanks so much for the award. You just made my day!

  37. @iris: Thanks for stopping by!

  38. You definitely brought up points I never fully considered! Finding your blog was like hitting the jackpot!

  39. Thanks for posting this! I’ve been trying to learn as much as I can about a new world I’m building and these questions are amazing. They definitely help me know what direction I should go in and what kind of questions I still need to be asking.

  40. @Sandy: That’s what fellow writers are for: to help us see perspectives we’d probably never consider on our own. Glad you stopped by!

    @Juliana: World building is a daunting task, but it’s also so full of wonder and possibility that it’s hard not to get sucked into it wholeheartedly.

  41. Yes and no… While in one WIP, I’ve injected a few elements of my locale that, because I live there, are familiar to me, I could improve it. My only problem is I don’t want to go overboard since my story isn’t about Kansas City.

    In another WIP, I have been told by beta readers that my setting could be improved (it takes place in 2117.) It’s something I’m working on in my 2nd draft. Mostly, my problem is getting things out of my head and onto the paper. 😉

  42. You make a good point about your story not being *about* the setting. Some speculative fiction errs a little too heavily toward setting dominance, IMO.

  43. Great advice in this post and in the comments.

    One thing that can really help breathe life into your fantasy setting is to identify a real-world historical time and culture that most closely resembles your fantasy setting. Study that time and culture, and use it as a way to impart more realism to the stuff you’re making up. Reading widely about different historical time periods can also help you generate great ideas. You can combine aspects of very different real-world elements to create really interesting details for your fantasy setting.

  44. Excellent point. Amalgamating different periods and cultures can create astoundingly original settings.

  45. Woot! Great post!
    I love world building; its great fun, though hard at times. I agree with Ben, history is a wonderful resource. I love history, especially ancient history, so it is a huge influence on my world. I have some favorite cultures that have found their way, with a few changes, into it. Its very fun having some knowledge of the culture’s true history, and then seeing how the culture would be changed by where they are put in the world, what neighbors they have, etc. For cultures like Egypt where physical land forms, in their case the Nile, were highly central to beliefs and daily life, it is most intriguing to put them somewhere where that element does not exist and see how it changes the culture and ways of thinking. Built in history for your world, right there.

  46. Ultimately, it’s my love of history that informs my love of fantasy. I started out as a historical novelist, but fantasy allows me to explore historical details without having to nail myself down to the facts.

  47. These days, I am also working on it every now and then. Since fantasy will be my next project 🙂
    I really enjoy world building, it is a really fun part of novel writing. And for it, my go-to resource is always Holly Lisle. Her method of world building is actually quite a blast in itself. 🙂

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  1. […] worlds instead of researching them, do as much of your world-building now as possible. I offer world-building questions here. Also, be sure to check out Patricia C. Wrede’s amazingly comprehensive Fantasy Worldbuilding […]

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