World Building: Setting
World building is the part of the writer's craft that establishes the very world(s) that your story is set in. In genres like Sci-Fi and Fantasy, worldbuilding must take center stage in the writing process if the you want to craft a great story. As a fantasy author, I have become well accustomed to worldbuilding. In fact, it has not only become my favorite aspect of the craft (aside from the writing itself), but it is actually what drew me to the genre. That being said, worldbuilding is every bit as big as the word suggests. In this series, I will be diving into each of the major areas of worldbuilding; Magic Systems, Settings, Cultures, Technology, Economy, and History.
Let me know when the rest of this series is available...
As an author, there are a few questions that you get rather frequently. One of those questions is “what do you do well, or what are you known for”. I used to hate these questions because it always felt like I was in danger of giving myself undeserved praise. My fear was that I would say that I was good at something, only for readers to turn around and tell me that I wasn’t. After a while, some of that fear abated, simply because I kept getting praise in a few specific areas. One such area, you guessed it, is the sense of setting I’ve created for my audience. So I’m here to share my approach to creating a setting from a world building perspective. I hope you find it insightful.
People often wonder what it is about the fantasy genre that captures the hearts and imaginations of the readers. Of course there is no singular answer, but I know for myself and many others that the setting is key. I've climbed the beanstalk with Jack. I've flown over the shattered remains of Outland. I've seen the glowing forests of Pandora. I've crawled the dungeons below the Tristram Cathedral, and I've battled atop the plateaus of the Shattered Plains.
While it may seem like a silly thing to say, the truth is that these fictional places made a big impact on me, and have helped form my imagination and my writing. Whether in a book, a game, or film I always wanted to explore new places full of wonder and awe. And the truth is, I'm not alone. In fact is that, most avid readers read to escape reality for a time. It's our job as writers, to help them do that.
Now before we dive into setting, there is one sort of philosophical conundrum to deal with. Now like everything else in world building, it leaves us with a chicken or the egg debate. Many writers will propose that you sort out the issue of your cultures first, because after all the characters are the most important part of the story—which is absolutely true. As such, many authors will choose to figure out what type of cultures they want before or during the process of building their settings. If that works for you, then do it!
That generally just doesn’t work for me.
I am too visual, so I really need to see what I am working with. For me personally, it is easier to start visualizing mountains, rivers, deserts, etc., than it is the people that inhabit them. Those things usually capture my attention first and then inspire me to ask the question of, who lives here?
The original Diablo game on the PC wasn’t great because of the zombies and skeletons that lurked below, rather it was because they lurked just beyond your view in the dark, haunting labyrinth below the cathedral. Bradley Beaulieu’s Twelve Kings in Sharakhai is a pleasure to read because of the desert setting and ships that sail across the sands and all the myriad of other things that come with the package. The culture of the various people groups within the setting are all wonderful, but they are really the icing on the cake. That’s the way that I generally approach my world building.
Tolkien is the granddaddy of them all.
J.R.R. Tolkien is commonly regarded as the grandfather of modern fantasy. If you took the time to research it, you would find a litany of essays on the topic of why that is so. The most obvious answer is simply that his works had a direct influence on so many successful fantasy authors, whether they acknowledge it or not. If you read enough of the essays and indictments against other authors for being knock-offs, you will essentially see that Tolkien created a sort of model that many have followed. Now I’m not here to criticize any of that because Tolkien’s works are still one of my largest inspirations. However I suggest that a large part of the appeal goes far beyond the races, the metaphors, the bonds of friendship, and the symbolic battle of good versus evil. In my humble opinion, one of the best things Tolkien did was that he created a vibrant setting that capture our imaginations. From the Misty Mountains to the spider infested Mirkwood forests to Rivendell to Lake Town to the Lonely Mountain, we were left with incredible visuals of a diverse world that while dangerous, we couldn’t wait to explore—and that’s just in The Hobbit. We haven’t even mentioned any of the fantastic places we get to visit in The Lord of the Rings.
Though among the noted criticisms, you will undoubtedly hear someone say that Tolkien spends too much time talking about trees, it worked. Tolkien created a rich story that fills the reader’s mind full of vivid backdrops upon which the story unfolds. It is a large part of the grandeur and allure of his tales, and we can learn much from it.
Okay, okay make pretty trees. I get it.
Here’s my approach. When I am world building, it is obviously important to make sure that the settings fit within the framework of the story, but often we have far more freedom than we realize. So what I do, is I find a setting that inspires me. When I started writing Dragon’s Fire, I really wanted to tell a story about a people nestled within the jagged peaks of a mountain range. So, I began to visualize what that would look. It prompted many questions. What do the mountains look like? What is the weather like? What about the flora and fauna? Who lives here? How would the weather affect their day to day lives? How would they feed themselves? What industries would be able to succeed in that environment? How would my mountain dwelling people defend themselves from invaders? What would a fortified city or castle look like way up in the mountains? Why would a people choose to live in such harsh conditions (back story)? As I began to answer these questions, the setting underwent a marvelous transformation, and Storm Vale, and the Sky Reach Mountains were born. My mountain setting went from being a backdrop for my story, to actually become a well-woven part of the story’s fabric. Anyone who has read Dragon’s Fire will tell you that this location is integral to the story.
Now obviously a lot of these questions start to drift into culture territory, which is natural. I personally find that all of that becomes a lot easier once you square away as much of the setting as possible first. When I envisioned the people of Storm Vale and began to understand where they lived, it was easy to really get a feel for how they lived, and what would drive them. I think it is by no coincidence that some of the most powerful scenes in Dragon’s Fire also happen to take place there. A strong setting can drive your story.
Of the contemporary authors, I’ve yet to find anyone that does this better than Brandon Sanderson. If you’ve read much around here, you know that I hold Sanderson in high regard. He isn’t the best writer, but when it comes to world building he is fantastic. This is due in large part to his establishment of setting. His Stormlight Archive series is a great example of this. The world of Roshan suffers devastating storms of magical energy. The storms are a regular part of the world, and as such the entire world is changed. Everything from the plants to the animals have had to adapt to survive these violent storms. For example, most of the plants and animals have some form of protection or defense mechanism to shield them from the storm’s wrath. The storms have also dramatically altered the landscapes around the world.
This all works together to help create the picture of a beautiful but tragically scarred world, where survival is always in question. Then you factor in that the storms are actually fueled by some form of magical energy. In a roundabout way, the magical energy that powers these storms can also be harvested in gems. This means that gems are suddenly much more valuable in the world of Roshan, than say in another world, which leads to constant wars between certain nations, and so on and so forth. So what you can see happening here is that Brandon Sanderson has developed such a strong setting, that it naturally helps establish the economy and the cultures for him. Now as bother readers and writers, we know that the best stories are ones that are driven by the characters themselves. The good news is that a strong setting only helps you make that happen. Dalinar Kholin is one of my favorite characters, but I’m not sure that he’d be anything special in say Westeros or in Middle-Earth. Yet, when you place the “Black Thorn” on the Shattered Plains and allow a seemingly sentient magical weather pattern to continually assail him with ominous visions, you find that Dalinar Kholin is a wonderfully complex character that drives part of the narrative.
Now I don’t know Brandon Sanderson’s world building process. I’d love to sit down and have a chat with him one day, and find out exactly what his world building process looks like. Even still, I speculate that the setting came very early in the process (at least for Stormlight).
As always, I like to be transparent with you guys. The truth of the matter is, I wish I had done a better job using this model for my own world building. Unwittingly I did it quite effectively in Dragon’s Fire with the Storm Vale region, but I can’t say I did a great job with all of the settings in the book. So what did I do? When I dove into the world building aspect of the second and third books in the Beating Back the Darkness series, I focused heavily on the setting. So for you fans of the series, I think you are in for a real treat. ;)
Let me know when the rest of this series is available...
Worldbuilding I - Magic Systems
Worldbuilding II - History
Worldbuilding III - Setting
Worldbuilding IV - Cultures
Worldbuilding V - Technology
Worldbuilding VI - Economy
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