Every book lover has had that “Little Mermaid” moment. That moment where we fall so deeply in love with a fictional world that we’d die happy if we could spend just ten minutes there. But what happens when we’re not just experiencing fictional worlds? What happens when we’re creating them? Creating a fictional world can be challenging, but not to fear fellow mermaids! Here are a few starting tips to leave readers wishing they were part of that world.
As discussed in an earlier post, setting is a powerful tool, so it’s important to use it to its full potential. When designing a fictional world, making borders is a great place to start.Building land-based borders can help define the edges of a character’s world. These edges can be limited to something as small as a single street, or as vast as a universe. There may be entire continents that make up your world, but the ones that really matter are the ones that effect characters.
There are other ways to define borders as well. Unless it’s a Doctor Who-ish world where anything can happen at any time, there are usually basic laws to how things work. Consider: What are the physical limitations of the story and characters? For example, in my novel some people like Rumpelstiltskin use magic, but they can’t go around doing whatever they want. There are lines that cannot be crossed, which adds drama by creating consequences for people who try to overstretch their limits.
Who lives in your world is a large part of its construction. What do these people value and how does it shape their world? Do they blow apart mountains to get to the other side because they value efficiency, or do they avoid the mountains because of folklore? Culture will determine how characters interact with their environment and each other. When considering creating fictional cultures, it can be difficult to find a place to start. Research can help. I often borrow aspects from already existing cultures and integrate pieces into my work to form something new.
Often culture sculpts character. Much of a character’s personality depends on the values she’s gained from her culture. In many cases, it is then her backstory, the specific events throughout her life, that decides whether a she accepts or rejects those cultural values as her own. Culture can then be used as a form of support or conflict for a character.
Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo
Thrown together by war, Alina Starkov and best friend Mal have grown from orphans to soldiers. When their regiment is shredded upon entering the Shadow Fold, Alina unleashes a power she’s suppressed since childhood in order to save her comrades and Mal. But this revelation tears her from the life she’s known, including Mal, to become a Grisha. Far from home and entangled in dark conspiracies, Alina’s magic may be the only thing capable of ending the war. She must decide who she is willing to trust, and what she is willing to sacrifice for her country.
This intriguing, chillingly beautiful story captured my attention from the start. The first in the Grisha series, I was struck by Bardugo’s stylistic noir and strong characters. Alina is a true heroine faced with a delightfully sophisticated villian. The Darkling stands out for his elegance and ruthlessness, so much so it was hard to decide whether I wanted Alina to kill him or marry him (read it, you’ll see what I mean). Bargudo has created a world real enough to step into, and who wouldn’t want to explore the enticingly dark yet enchanting world of the Grisha? Well written, suspenseful, and romantic, I adore this entire series. HIGHLY recommend to fantasy fans (and totally going on my Christmas list). Also by Leigh Bardugo: Six of Crows
Imagine if, instead of leading to a winter wonderland, the wardrobe in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe dropped the Pevensie children in outer space. It would change the entire story, wouldn’t it? The setting a writer chooses is incredibly important to the story, whether the tale unfolds in a single place or along a pilgrim’s trail.
The Earth is Flat
Earth may be circular to us, but a character’s world has edges. Unless the story takes place in a universe where absolutely anything can happen (think Doctor Who) it’s going to have boundaries based on where the action is. Setting provides context. The familiarity, and even unfamiliarity, of a setting gives the reader an idea of what to expect, lets him settle more fully into the story the writer is creating.
Man vs. Nature
Setting can also create obstacles for the protagonist, making the setting a character all its own. Maybe the hero is scaling a cliff but in the last few feet the rock beneath her hand comes loose, or he comes face to face with Mother Nature in a storm that threatens to sweep his town away. A setting can be utilized as an antagonist, whether it creates an element of danger or just a temporary inconvenience.
Tone It Down
Tone is vital to any story, creating mood and emotionally drawing the reader into the plot. Establishing tone is a large part of what setting is for. It all goes back to establishing context, forming a connection with the reader. Most people aren’t afraid of a carousel. At least not until the sun goes down. Not until it starts spinning with a rusty groan, all on its own. There’s a significant difference between what’s expected of a place based on something as simple as time of day. When and where something happens can completely change the tone of the scene, and sometimes the entire book.
In my novel, Holden and Marley face a slew of different settings — castles, tar swamps, lakeside towns and underground tunnels. What’s more, the settings they encounter allow them to bond as they watch each other react to their surroundings. Each place they visit presents new challenges, new excitement, and more dangerous enemies.