World Building In Fiction

about_usAll writing requires a setting, something to connect that writing to. In the case of technical or scientific writing the setting will be the program, research, or piece of machinery you wish to explain. In the case of non-fiction it will be based on a real place and time.

My particular interest is in the writing of fiction. Why? Because that’s what I do. That’s what I know best.

The writing of fiction allows the writer much more creative leeway in creating a setting, or world, for his/her story to unfold. That said, it is an element we ignore at our peril. If our setting, our world, is not clear and believable our story will fail to engage readers.

Modern fiction may seem to have an advantage. Much of what we include is present in our everyday lives. Yet, even here, vigilance is needed to make sure our readers will be encouraged to picture themselves there. If we use a real place, the details must still be accurate. If we create a place that does not exist, it must still conform to the general assumptions the reader will have about similar places they know of. They must feel ‘at home’ there. This applies even to Urban Fantasy where the events may be fantastical but the setting must still conform to what the reader is familiar with.

True Fantasy and Science Fiction stretch those boundaries even further. The reader will expect the unfamiliar and perhaps implausible. Yet, even here, certain elements must be present for the reader to buy into your story.

The setting, or world, is much more than a description of the surroundings within which the story unfolds. That is one important element, to be sure. Readers must get enough description to imagine themselves there, to feel that their presence there is plausible even though they are only ‘observers’. Sometimes too much description can hinder the very immersion we aim for. Where is that elusive balance? That is a topic that can wait for another time. Suffice it to say that the reader must have some impression of where the story takes place and that it must have enough description to make that possible.
But there is much more to consider, when we build our world, than physical surroundings. We need to make our world real to our readers.

There are many ways to do this. One I use is food. Our characters must interact. One comfortable way we do so in the real world is to share food. If we make our food, and the consumption of it, an integral part of our world it, will convey many things about that world. Is it casual? More formal? Different for different classes or characters? How is it prepared? What ingredients are used? The level of detail will vary according to the writer’s interest in that aspect of life and the degree to which it plays a part in the development of the plot or characters. Another aspect may be of greater interest to another writer. Include what fits what you know and like.

Another device I use is to include small bits of daily routines from the lives of the characters. Another is to show my characters making use of personal, common items in their daily lives. Watching an innkeeper chop carrots for a stew gives the reader a sense of familiarity that makes it easier for the reader to become immersed. These mundane parts of everyday life that we can identify with help the reader relate.

Plot is also an integral part of our world building process. Events must unfold in a way consistent with the environment we have created. We cannot have peasants wielding swords if only the elite receive weapons training. If they must fight they will use knives and cudgels.

Patterns of speech can be varied according to class, education and even local idiosyncrasies. When a character says “I seen” instead of “I saw” it tells the reader something about the world in which they live and their place in that world. These subtle details eliminate the need for long explanations about where they fit into your world. I would caution the writer not to make these too dissimilar from the common speech or the reader may feel overly challenged and be pulled out of the story. A few quirks can go a long way.

Some may disagree, but I personally believe that we cannot separate the world we create from the characters that interact within it. For me this is one of the most important things to keep in mind. Our characters must interact with their environment and with each other in a way that is supported by and reinforces the setting. They must use that setting to grow and develop and are how it restricts the directions that development will take. Their actions, and indeed their thoughts, must ‘fit’ with the world we create. While they may, or even must, challenge that environment based on the situations the author presents them with, their actions must not conflict so much with the expectations that setting creates that the reader no longer finds them believable. The writer can only stretch credulity so far.

Are there other elements you include in building your world? I’d love to hear about them. This is by no means an exclusive list.

Author: Yvonne Hertzberger

Yvonne Hertzberger is a native of the Netherlands who immigrated to Canada in 1950. She is an alumna of The University of Waterloo, with degrees in psychology and Sociology. Her Fantasy trilogy, ‘Earth’s Pendulum’ has been well received. Learn more about Yvonne at her blog and her Amazon author page.

29 thoughts on “World Building In Fiction”

  1. A wonderful overview Yvonne. I write fantasy as well, and not only do I use food unique to each land, but things as simple as sleeping quarters, daily chores, harvesting etc. My characters only wield weapons that fit their class, meaning no long swords for women. I hope to give enough color to let the reader’s mind run wild. Fantasy can be a joy to write as you well know. Thank you for a nice post.

  2. I am interested that you chose food as one of the characteristics by which to identify your world in the Earth’s Pendulum series. It struck me when reading that the people lived on a remarkably limited diet. This grew a little in the second and third books, but seemed to be centered mainly on bread, cheese and stew.

    There is nothing wrong with that, of course for, as I know, there are huge swathes of Earth’s population who live on an equally limited diet. There were times when I was working in Africa when I ate the same thing twice a day, every day, for two years, because that’s all there was to eat. So your paradigm made perfect sens to me and let me feel a sense of identity with your Earth.

    Food gives both a cultural identity and a context to your planet and to the story. It’s a very creative use of something so simple that lifts the story and adds to its substance. I like it!

    1. I know you mentioned that on one of your reviews. It took me a bit by surprise.

      The diet in my books reflects what a ‘hundred mile diet’ would look like in an isolated, temperate climate. There are vegetables, game, fruits, some grains, some dairy and some domesticated livestock. As well, they forage in the forests for greens, berries and mushrooms. While you are correct about the staples, especially during meetings, there is quite a bit of variety there. Of course the only sweetener is honey and the only preservative is salt. And of course the seasons affected what was available.

  3. Great article, Yvonne.

    I write sci-fi, so for me, the world building generally includes whole planets, space vessels and space stations; as well as the food, the plants and animals said food comes from and of course setting (and physics) appropriate weapons.

    For me, the setting in each scene is like an additional character which helps move the story as well as transports the reader to distant stars.

  4. Great tips, Yvonne. Food is one I hadn’t thought a lot about, but definitely a good idea to look at. Remembering a character’s social status and what will be available to them (or unavailable to them) because of it is also good to be mindful of.

  5. Good stuff, Yvonne, thanks. Your world-building ability is one of the things I enjoy about your novels. 🙂

    You’re right about urban fantasy. I try to make the details of the setting almost hyper-realistic, to help readers buy the fantastic stuff.

  6. I’m going to read those books again and pay particular attention to the diet. All the same, the idea of a restricted diet has some appeal. Given how many problems modern western eating habits cause, we might be better off without a lot of the rubbish we eat.
    And R.J.Clayton makes a good point about social status too. Food is a great qualifier.

    1. Aw, hugs, Ian.
      And I agree about RJ’s comment on social status, too. I even gave the peasants different speech patterns in my books. I think it adds colour and dimension to show the differences in status with traits rather than stating it.

  7. Great suggestions, Yvonne. I don’t write fantasy, and I never intentionally thought about the importance of using food. But near the beginning of my – so far – only novel, I have a family gathering around the breakfast table near Christmas time, and describe the smells, sounds etc. of cooking and eating.
    One of my supporting characters is an elderly widow who loves to bake, and every so often we “smell” fresh bread in the oven, or brings a plate of chocolate chip cookies to the main character, etc. I’m glad I did that instinctively and that you have now shown me a good reason for it being there.
    My setting is not a real place, but I have used descriptions of real places for parts of it, so hopefully it rings true. And I have used real places a couple of times as secondary settings, one of which I have been to myself so could describe things I did and saw. The other place I researched online to make sure it was correct. I find writing the descriptions fun, and have been told numerous times by the ladies in my writer’s group that I have a gift in description. That makes me feel good. Hopefully the story itself will be pleasing to readers once I get it published.

  8. Good stuff, Yvonne.

    You mention the problem of “too much – too little” setting. I think a point to consider is that if you give the reader something that sparks the imagination just enough (whatever that is) that the reader then creates the rest, you have created buy-in on the reader’s part.
    Something I always try when creating a fantasy world is to use my knowledge of world geography: prevailing winds, mountains, rain shadows, etc. Not that most readers think about stuff like that, but it firms up in my memory the type of desert, forest, jungle, etc. that my characters are going through.
    For the novel I’m working on now, I found a place on Google Earth that looked just about right, and copied it out as a .jpg, and now I’m using that to lay out my world. I suppose I can’t use it in the book for copywrite reasons 🙁

    1. Exactly, Gordon. We take the things we know, or are familiar with and use those to flesh out, or suggest settings. In your case that’s geographical info, in mine it’s food and cultural info.

  9. I don’t write fantasy, but with world building an important element in writing historical books, this is a really interesting articles. Food can be such a good way to ‘transport’ us to another time since it’s something we all prepare and eat every day; not only that, but what people eat and what they have access to defines in many ways their social standing. Thanks for sharing, Yvonne!

    1. Thank you Carolyn. I think that we build worlds in almost all the writing we do. Even in non-fiction we need a setting and elements of culture that make our writing accessible and attractive to the reader. As you say, it is an important element in historical books, too.

  10. You’re right, Yvonne, but in non-fiction we don’t so much build worlds as illustrate them, creating images with words that enable readers to develop their own understanding of the context and culture, the people and their environment, how all these interact and have relevance to the story.
    One almost always needs a location, at least, and that is better coming out of description rather than just being a bald statement of where it is.

    1. You are correct to say that it is illustration rather than creation in the case of non-fiction, as we are limited to reality. But the process and the results are very similar.Thank you for pointing that out.

  11. I’m with you, Yvonne. I write about food all the time, both on my blog and in my novels. If I haven’t personally cooked the food my characters enjoy I’ve eaten it. This is, of course, different from how you are using food in your world building, to add the realistic touch your readers crave. Several of my readers are requesting a cookbook, but I don’t think I have the energy.
    Last night my dinner club featured Vietnamese cuisine, so you can expect a blog post with a yummy recipe. 🙂

  12. Until you started this thread and I began reading other people’s comment I hadn’t thought about how I use food in my own writing. But it’s there, even is many people wouldn’t recognise some of the staples we lived on: caterpillar and palm oil stew (I kid you not!); foufou, made from cassava or yams; aduke, made from okra and beans; Baobab leaves, bush meat, and a host of other unusual things commonly eaten in Africa.
    Some of it tastes foul, but it keep you alive!

  13. Donuts shod be called ‘cop fuel’ ! Burgers are ‘belly builders’ and coffee is ‘lubricant’.

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