World-building: Settings for all Genres – Guest Post by, Diana Peach…

As a fantasy/science-fiction writer, I’ve stacked up a bit of experience with world-building that I’ve wanted to share, and The Story-Reading Ape’s blog is the perfect venue.

Now don’t run away if you don’t write speculative fiction. Clearly, world-building is a key part of bringing fantasy and science-fiction stories to life, but it plays a role in all fiction, and in some non-fiction as well.

Setting as Character

Most of us probably agree that the physical places within our stories need to feel authentic. But if we create them as mere backdrops to the action, we’re missing an opportunity to enrich our readers’ experiences. In great fiction, setting plays a role in the story. It’s changeable, a help, a hindrance, a metaphor, a mood, possibly even a character in the drama.

Fantasy author Brandon Sanderson is a proponent of the idea of setting-as-character and builds a “character profile” of the world he’s designing. From his character’s point of view, the world has “personality” including strengths, flaws, and quirks.

Regardless of your genre, the world in which your characters live shapes their experiences. Selecting an effective setting is as vital as choosing the right players and plot. The world might be a friend or foe to your protagonists and villains alike as they navigate a dynamic environment.

The setting of a book may rejuvenate or deplete, trigger buried flaws or instill hope. It may force the characters to learn new skills or gather greater knowledge, or it may confront old fears and force choices that break the heart and soul. It may assist your hero in evading a villain or trap him with no way out. The impact of a world may be physical, emotional, psychological, or spiritual.

In choosing a setting, consider how your plot may play out as you increase the challenges the world imposes. How does the conflict unfold in a sweltering city or on a damaged ship at sea, stranded in a mountain snowstorm or stuck living with controlling parents, in high society or in the trenches of war? What if time/fuel/medication/food/oxygen is running out?

If a scene is falling flat, intensify your setting to up the ante.

But that’s not the only way to bring a setting to life nor the most important.

Setting is Emotional

More important than the “facts” of the physical setting is the character’s emotional connection. A setting truly comes to life when it’s infused with meaning, when we as authors connect the character’s emotions to the details of the physical place and all they evoke.

What about the setting does the character love or loathe? Is the place new to the character’s experience or does it raise memories? Does it elicit excitement, longing, or fear? Combine the character’s feelings with the details as perceived through his or her senses and the setting becomes something that interacts, pulls or pushes on the character’s personality and goals.

If your story is about a couple working through issues, consider the difference if the characters are stuck for the holidays in a cherished family home versus a home that was filled with abuse. What are the key details that symbolize the relationships with the environment? Perhaps it’s a belt hanging on the back of the kitchen door, or a treasured grandmother’s silver tea service.

Sometimes feelings are evoked by the passage of time and how a place changed physically. Or perhaps the place hasn’t changed, but the person who views it is no longer who she or he once was. The contrast is what makes the relationship between character and setting dynamic. Again, link the changes in the physical details or the character’s perception to the emotions they generate.

Setting will also evoke different feelings in different characters. What one finds dull another will find peaceful. What fills one character with a sense of adventure will terrify another. The various reactions to setting create tension, not only with the setting itself but between characters. Take the time to explore each character’s relationship with the world they find themselves in and pit those feelings against each other.

Remember that setting is more than place – it’s the weather and seasons, the sounds and smells, textures and tastes, the values and attitudes, the politics, the people, memories of the past and hopes for the future. Characters will have feelings about all these elements of the world, whether your story takes place down the street or on another planet.

Happy World-building!

Diana

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125 thoughts on “World-building: Settings for all Genres – Guest Post by, Diana Peach…

  1. The first book of yours I read, Diana, was The Sorcerer’s Garden, and the world you created was integral to the plot and the characters. I told many people about it, because you’d done something new in a genre that can become all too samey.

    With your most recent set, The Rose Shield, you yet again created a memorable world that holds up to everything you speak about in this post. From the tiered cities and the social implications they carry, to “mundane” farmlands being the novelty, to the moons (which not only effectively show passage of time, but alter mood), to the self-restoring walls and the loophole you create … for all the wonderful characters and plot, I can’t imagine having been as enthralled without the clear and compelling world-building you accomplished.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yeesh. Thanks for the wonderful comment and my big grin, Erik. I like writing about settings and actually have to be careful not to over describe. I’m glad you enjoy the books and the balance I achieved. I’ll be glowing all day. Have a lovely week!

      Liked by 2 people

    • Oh good, Pam. In Twin Desires you used the storm at the end to move the plot forward as well as increase tension. I think we do some of this naturally as writers, but it’s nice to go back and tweak intentionally, too. Often, that’s all that’s needed. Have a great Sunday, my friend. ❤

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post, Diana! It’s so true, the amount that setting can affect the story. Poe used setting so very well in his work. It’s not just a place to put the story, it colors the story both by the location and by how the characters react to it. Now to keep that in mind as I write! 😀

    Liked by 3 people

    • Poe is a great example, Julie. I can’t think of a fiction genre where these techniques wouldn’t apply. Personally, I don’t worry too much about making the setting work hard until a later draft. I have enough trouble getting the story out in the first place. 🙂 Happy Writing!

      Liked by 3 people

  3. An excellent article, Diana and the value and importance of setting cannot be underestimated. I found myself nodding in agreement with all your points and through my writing I’ve found that the setting not only sets the mood it also strengthens the character’s personality- how true that his/her engagement with the surroundings is as critical as many other components. At times I’ve worried that my setting has impinged too much on a story but you’ve put my fears to bed!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Great points, Annika. Yes, setting can help define and strengthen character. I’m glad you have a strong setting and feel better about its role in your book. We only need to look around at what’s happening in the real world to see how environment intensifies personal stories. Happy Writing. 😀

      Liked by 2 people

      • I’m reading a book now that has a very Earth-like setting combined with fantasy elements, and I like that too. It seems that just about anything works if the writing is well done and a sense of plausibility is maintained. It the setting is authentic and natural to the characters it has a good chance of being that way to the reader. Just the right amount of rich detail seems key. 😀

        Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks, Sarah. If you think about it, in some stories the setting is actually the villain! Call of the Wild or The Perfect Storm. It’s just another layer to think about when reworking and revising a story. Happy Writing, my friend.

      Liked by 3 people

  4. Excellent post. I’ve alluded to the same ideas–that setting is character especially–but you’ve fleshed the idea out beautifully. When I researched world-building as part of a collaborative post I did on my blog, that was when I first realized the other part of what you write: that it’s part of all fiction. Nicely done, friend.

    Liked by 4 people

  5. This is wonderful information; it reminds me of my creative writing courses. Sometimes I think, I will revisit one of my stories–strengthen the characters, some are a bit flat and then also emphasize the scenery a bit more. I, also, like that you mention the characters will have feelings about the scenery and each one will respond to that scenery differently. Oh boy…I am almost exhausted thinking about a revise. Lol. Much credit to you for what you do. It’s a lot of work! 😉

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks for the reading, Sharon. The more I learn about writing, the more anxiety I have about my older work! Ha ha. I think some of this we do instinctively, but we become more refined as our awareness of all the techniques increases. And I think a lot of this is “revision” work anyway, once the story is down on paper. Happy Writing!.

      Liked by 3 people

  6. This is great information, Diana. Though I don’t write fantasy, I still do some world-building in the sense I have to try to bring a hospital to life (or whatever my main setting is for my medical thrillers). It’s a tricky skill and one I think we develop over time, but I know I still have plenty of room for improvement!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks for the visit, Carrie. I have a few more posts lined up with Chris, but this one more than the others applies to fiction in general. You’re so right about medical settings – they’re great for evoking feelings. Some people hate them or are scared of them, and yet for others, they’re lifesavers. Plus all the emotions of the caregivers (I’m thinking Seneca Scourge here – the stress, fatigue, and sadness that was a backdrop to the thriller elements of the story). You get it. 🙂 Happy Writing!

      Liked by 2 people

    • Carrie, I think one of the biggest pitfalls non-fantasy writers fall into is taking “world building” for granted. In doing so, hospitals and corporate offices and courtrooms and grocery stores wind up feeling stock. In real life, they’re not. Some hospitals I’ve been to have small, crowded waiting rooms. Some make attempts at cheer. Some read that they cater to wealthy patients, playing classical music and having large welcome-and-information desks, while others are missing ceiling tiles or have lights on the fritz. Some have easy-to-follow navigation with thoughtful maps, whereas you can get lost in others quite easily. Is the elevator claustrophobic? Or is it large, well-lit, gliding smoothly between floors and opening on both sides?

      I’m always disappointed when a non-fantasy fiction writer hasn’t put enough thought into bringing the world to life. So I say go for it.

      Liked by 3 people

  7. Thank you, Chris, for hosting, Diana and her wonderful post on world building. I agree with everything she says. In one of my books, the large kitchen becomes the emotional crutch for the characters to sit and discuss things and to eat the yummy pies that the cook bakes.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. Brilliant post, D. As I read it, my mind immediately jumped to Dune and the impact the planet had on both the characters and the readers. For my money it’s definitely a character in its own right.

    Liked by 3 people

  9. A director I worked with in my acting days spoke of it as “ghost rules.” Meaning that you set the scene that the “ghosts” had to live with – distinctly enough to guide the piece, with room for surprising interpretations by the characters (ie., “dynamic,” as you point out).

    Another great piece, Diana. Thanks for sharing, Chris.
    xx,
    mgh
    (Madelyn Griffith-Haynie – ADDandSoMuchMORE dot com)
    ADD/EFD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching co-founder
    “It takes a village to transform a world!”

    Liked by 3 people

  10. I absolutely agree with you Diana, settings set the imagination rolling, even of readers and most of the times they get transported to the places mentioned, the paths taken and the favorite spots to which the characters return. I liked the classics of Lawrence and Hardy for their authentic settings and emotional connections. Even Bronte sisters, Jane Austen and Pilcher had an excellent control over settings. When their books finish, a yearning to return to those places hits hard…that is probably the secret of their success. I like the way you say…’setting is more than a place….’ So true!

    Liked by 4 people

  11. Diana,
    Brilliant post.
    World building as you rightly said is not confined to fantasy worlds… though aren’t all worlds found in fiction fantasy worlds? Which seems exactly the point you are making.
    An author wins when readers are emotionally invested in the characters, I have read and loved books I would never normally read because I have become quickly attached to the characters and the world they inhabit (E F Benson’s Tilling of Mapp & Lucia lives in my imagination quite distinct from the Town of Rye it was based on and I visited).
    As you so rightly said, in any novel every single thing is an extension to the characters’ movement through the plot.
    Further it is not only the author who world builds but also the reader inside their own head. How easily the reader does this is down to the skillful choices the author makes in the text – evoking atmosphere through description and even subtle cues.
    To go off at a tangent, it seems to me this is the true difference between a book and a movie of the book. With a book you become involved because you, as the reader, builds the world the author guided you to build. In the movie each aspect of the world hits you in an instant as that world has been created by someone else… love or loathe it, you are simply a witness. Whereas as a reader, you are the author’s accomplice.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Ah – the reader is “the author’s accomplice.” I love that, Paul, and I hadn’t thought about that point when comparing movies to books. Personally, I think character development is far more important than “setting development,” but we miss wonderful opportunities to enrich the readers experience if we treat the setting like a flat backdrop. And it all has to work together subtly too, doesn’t it? Without the reader’s awareness. Thanks so much for the great comment. Have a wonderful week. 🙂

      Liked by 3 people

      • I’ve read books with what I’d consider strong character development … and yet was continually brought out of the flow of suspended disbelief by stock worlds, inauthentic settings, overdescription for the sake of overdescription, etc. Character and world must both be well developed in order for a book to work, at least for me.

        Liked by 3 people

    • Paul, your comment, for some reason, caused me to extend to the idea that even non-fiction requires that rich worlds be built. That world may really have existed, but if the writer isn’t skilled or astute enough to capture it, the work falls short. I’m reading E. B. White’s One Man’s Meat right now, which is non-fiction — and yet the “world” he creates with his words is every bit as big a part of the work as the rest of the content (maybe even the biggest).

      Liked by 3 people

  12. Reblogged this on K. D. Dowdall and commented:
    Chris posted D Wallace Peach’s World Building, Part 1 World Building for All Genres. This is a great post by a very prolific writer who knows how to truly build worlds, whether fantasy, Sci-fi and even for any genre. Her Book “The Sorcerer’s Garden” is a great example.

    Liked by 3 people

  13. D. Wallace Peach is a prolific fantasy writer and what a writer she is! World Building Part 1 is inspiring and whether fantasy or not, sets the stage for the characters. World Building is an artistic creation of amazing creative vision and this writer is a master of world building! This is a wonderful learning experience for me because in my first novel I had to develop a fantasy world on an Alien Planet. So very difficult to do. Thank you Chris for sharing this with us. K D 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

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