World Building: How to Develop a Realistic Setting for Your Novel
Hey everyone! I’m S. M. Boyce, a paranormal and fantasy novelist and author of the Grimoire Trilogy. I also designed Boyce’s Guide to Writing to encourage other authors to constantly strive for excellence. My online guide is free and rife with how-to posts, lists of helpful vendors and awards sites, guest posts, and more to help writers learn from the mistakes I (and other successful writers) have already made.
But today, Jen asked me here to talk about world building and how I do it.
Because of the heavy high fantasy influences I’ve had in my writing career, I tend to give the setting a fair amount of detail. I do my best to keep it as secondary, but many tell me the worlds I create become characters all their own. That’s one heck of a compliment, right?
In my opinion, setting is crucial to a novel. It establishes the where and settles the reader into the novel by giving them a concrete location. With a stable setting, the reader can dream as big as they want and let the characters move through what is for all intents and purposes a real place. The background becomes solid, and in making the setting as realistic as possible, the author lets the characters take ownership of the space.
The process of world building itself is incredibly complex and subject to massive rewrites and revisions. It’s all about finding a balance between too much and too little description. Fact is, you’ll never make everyone happy. I hear reviewers say the setting was perfect just as often as I hear others complain the description went on too long. So I do what makes me happy.
When I sit down to create a place, I’ve already daydreamed about it. I’ve pulled in my past experiences or looked up amazing pictures (which you can see on my Pinterest boards “Swipes & Ideas,” “Creature Swipes,” and “Character Swipes”). I’ve let my mind wander, and I have a sense of what it looks like. If you’re going to build a world, you need to already have an idea of how all its pieces fit together. That’s step one.
Step two in world building is to start out small. Plan out how you’ll introduce your bits of the world and plan out why each bit of the world matters. You may not talk about every nook and cranny, but you should know about them. Realistic writing comes from understanding even details that are never shared.
If you’re building an entirely new world like I do in Lichgates (Grimoire Trilogy #1), you can’t info dump. Telling the reader all about this crazy world all at once in the first chapter will make them slam the book closed. Don’t inundate the reader; spread it out instead. Let the characters visit the various places in your world and explore it with the reader. Have a character who knows all about the world join up with one who doesn’t—having this dynamic will prompt dialogue that explores the nuances that aren’t visible to the naked eye, like the land’s history (or city’s, or whatever). It lets the reader learn along with the character.
Step three to building your world is to sit down and actually write out your first draft. It’s okay if it sucks. The point is to get it out.
Visualize the location, right down to any movement within it. Ask questions. If you’re in a forest, what do you see? Are the trees close together, or separated? What’s on the ground? What kind of canopy do you see—green leaves, fall colors, or dead limbs? Are there animals? If so, what kind? If not, why not? Are your characters taking a path, or are they wandering, lost?
Write the details as your narrator—not you—would notice them. Use cues from all five senses to bring about action, rather than just describing the world. So instead of describing the red and yellow leaves on the forest floor, describe the crunch they make under your narrator’s boots as he runs through the woods. Show us how a gust kicks them up, and how the wind’s biting chill races down the nape of his neck.
I heard someone tell me I used too much “telling” in my world building, and I’m sorry, but I laughed. That debate is so old. That’s a whole other post, but you’ll need to balance showing and telling in your world building, and that is why I bring it up. Visual cues will obviously be telling, and frankly, you’ll see mostly telling while establishing your setting. I mean, don’t get carried away with it or anything. “The woods were dense” is just weak. But, you can tell us how the trees congregated close together. Use active verbs, and you’ll make your writing both strong and interesting.
Continue to build the setting. Take risks. Let it interact with your characters as much as they interact with it. Let it breathe, and I think you’ll be impressed with what you create.
Rewrite. And rewrite. And tweak. And rewrite again. Sigh deeply. Repeat.
That’s how I work, anyway.
First drafts are typically pretty bad. Don’t let that discourage you. As you build your world, it will teach you things. It will grow and develop, and your subconscious will uncover new nooks and crannies you hadn’t realized existed.
Feel free to drop me a line if you have questions, or go ahead and check out my online blog Boyce’s Guide to Writing to get more insights on the writing world and publishing industry. Keep writing. Write well and often. And above all else, stay awesome.
Boyce writes fantasy and paranormal fiction. She’s a sarcastic twit, but she still has friends because some people seem to like that. Her Creative Writing degree qualifies her to serve you french fries, but it helps her write books, too. She’s currently working on the YA epic fantasy series the Grimoire Trilogy.