A huge part of every great story is the world it takes place in. A story isn’t a story without it’s setting, and it’s hard to envision one without being able to place characters or cities, mark journeys across vast lands, or place actions into an environmental context. Readers will always rely on their imagination when visiting another world for the first time, but wouldn’t it be great to give them all the tools necessary to imagine that world exactly how you do? If you know how to flesh out this brand new world, then you can bring it to life just as easily – for this reason, it’s important to think of the world itself as just another character in the story. And every character needs depth and a rich background.
To begin, you should ask yourself this:
Where does the story take place?
There’s two general categories for this: On Earth, and Not On Earth. Anything that takes place on Earth requires a little less creativity on the part of naming and geographical layout. You and the reader both know the names of countries, the size of continents, the nature of biomes, cultures, flora and fauna, and anything else that you’d imagine to be present in our world, so you don’t have to do quite as much explaining. That’s great! But it can make things a little drab, a little predictable, and takes away the importance of world building. That being said, don’t hesitate to make your story take place on Earth. There’s still a thousand things you can do to spice up this world of ours!
For one, shed a little light on a facet of the world that most readers might not be familiar with. If your story places a spotlight on a particular country, city, culture, or environment, write about it in detail. Embellish your writing with facts and descriptions such that your reader is drawn into this part of the world that they may have never known about before. Tell us about the traditions and rites of the people living there, or what kinds of trees grow, or what it’s like to live with so little or much daylight during a particular season, for example. This place may not be solely of your own invention, but you can still make it yours by turning it into a character in the story. Give it a life of its own.
You can do the same with the history of the place. And, as with any good fiction, inject some of your own ideas into it too – weave elements of your story into our world’s past. Give us an alternate timeline or dimension that leaves an air of mystery about the world we thought we knew. Set it in a far future where the places we once loved, we now barely know only by a few recognizable features. Twist our world into a brand new creation, but keep it familiar, even if in the slightest way.
So your story doesn’t take place on Earth, but an entirely new realm. You must evaluate to what degree you want to build your new world, which requires you to take into consideration the scope of your story. If your story never leaves a fictional city, then you can restrict all your details to that city – but you’ll need to build that city from the ground up. If your characters journey across a vast land, then you need to develop this region and map out it’s cities, towns, forests, lakes, mountains – sometimes, coming up with a name for this single region is enough, like the Kanto region in Pokémon, or Westeros from the A Song of Ice and Fire series. Once the story begins to traverse oceans and multiple regions, or ventures into the expanse of space, you’ll need a name for your planet – your whole world becomes the setting for the story, and it needs to be developed appropriately.
This will likely require some research for various topics. If you’re writing an alien or fantasy world, research how certain aspects of the environment are formed. How do certain minerals affect the appearance and texture of rock and soil? How does the atmosphere influence the way plants have evolved? First, you need to decide on how you want your world to look, including all of its geological and ecological features. You can also find photos of places on Earth that might resemble the places you have in mind. Then, research. Make it work. Find out how it could have become this way, even if you have to fudge the science a little – as long as it’s believable, not only will it make it easier to imagine, but it can open doors to advancing the development of your world and help add depth to your writing.
It’s not just the geography and landscaping that needs to be built, but the ethnology of its inhabitants as well. Remember, life is brimming with diversity. Don’t restrict the inhabitants of your new world to just one or two races with societies that mirror those on Earth. You’ll want something dynamic, something fresh and new that really proves your new world has evolved on its own and isn’t just a carbon copy of Earth with a different name. Think of how these races got their beginnings, how they evolved just as humans did, how they developed forms of agriculture and domestication, infrastructure and trade, how they interacted within their own groups and with outsiders. And if one of the races on your world is human, all the better – there’s another excuse to develop your world further. You’ll have to ask yourself, how and why are humans here and not on Earth? In science fiction, this is easy – in fantasy, it’s a little more difficult to justify how humans appeared on a planet with no evidence of interstellar travel. But that just makes it more interesting to work with. This isn’t absolutely necessary, but can add a new dimension to both the history and the setting of the world if expanded upon.
Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide how deeply you build the world of your story, but to truly turn it into a character of its own, you need to examine as many elements of the world as possible, looking into every who, where, what, how, and why. Don’t worry, you don’t have to do this entirely alone – here’s a list of resources that are wonderful aids to world building.
While the website itself is a little slow to load, this mapmaker is wonderful for anybody that needs to produce a map for their world without the use of different programs on their computer. All you need to do is register with an email and a password, and the program becomes available for you to use. It’s easy to understand, as well. The program allows you to create landmasses on a map using a variable brush size, which you can then decorate with a wide variety of textures like mountains, trees, ice and snow, water, or just different colours. It also comes loaded with an array of icons representing kingdoms, villages, compasses, and more, allowing you to accurately relay any geographical points of importance. You can overlay a hexagonal or square grid to divide your map into segments. The general style of this map isn’t particularly unique, but it offers enough resources to allow a writer to accurately present their world without loss of information.
Let me first point out that I love Seventh Sanctum, and due to the broad selection of generators on the site, there’s a lot of things it can be used for – I’m going to feature it here for it’s list of setting/place generators. These for the most part are just names and ideas you can build off of. It won’t generate a random map or an in depth description of a place, but it can lead to the development of your world by offering up unique, randomly tacked together names. The Particle Generator and the What-If-Inator are two intriguing generators that can alleviate some of the brainwork behind any science fiction piece and I would highly recommend at least giving them a few spins.
Planet Map Generator
However, if you do want a random map generator, this is it. You won’t be able to dictate the size or shape of landmasses as they are generated based on a random number input, but if you’re just looking for a unique makeup to begin developing your world, this map comes with options that allow you to see the difference in elevation, adjust amount of water vs. land, and view the map in varying projections. Here are my recommended settings: Conical (Projection), Bumpmap on Land Only (Shading), 0.01 (Water Line), as well as max width and height. Each map comes with rugged coastlines and visible geological features, which is really nice for the purpose of building your region.
This page gives us quite a few generators, mostly geared towards tabletop roleplaying games, but their village, city map, and random inn generators can be useful if your world contains such places. Wonderful generators to play around in to get ideas, too.
Hop by tomorrow to check out the topic of our first Writing Prompts & Exercises!