In writing, the environment where the story is told is called the setting. When it’s a big environment, it’s called world building. When we talk about world building, often the large worlds of fantasy or science fiction come to mind, but the term is also relevant to urban or this-world settings too.
When I first started out as a writer, I wrote in the fantasy realm. (There’s also an unwritten steampunk alternative world niggling at me for years). I am not overemphasising it when I tell you that I could spend over a year simply in designing the environment of my lovely new worlds.
My world building duties (okay, addiction) involved drawing up maps of entire countries, designing costumes, creating entire dictionaries of phrases and words, and encyclopaedias of animals and humanoids. I designed their economy, monetary systems, history, education system and trade systems. I was God over my little fictional empires.
Now I write psychological thrillers, and am setting them in places I’ve lived and know well enough to not have to go into such detail. Even so, when designing a Police Squad’s metropolitan offices, it helped to get out some graphical software and actually design the office space. That way, I know that if my protaganist is going to make herself a coffee in the little kitchen out the back, I don’t accidentally turn her left and into the men’s toilets I talked about a smell coming out of, two chapters before.
Writers nowadays use all kinds of tools and software for setting creation and maintenance. My own toolkit includes diagraming and floorplanning software, mind-mapping software, and simple notetaking software like Evernote to capture images and screenshots.
Setting Vs Worldbuilding
There are actually debates on the internet over the differences between the two. I don’t really care, but in an attempt to pinpoint this –
I believe setting exists within the confines of the novel, short story, play, whatever, only at that point. It contains the place setting, social environment, timeframe and point of view of the story.
Worldbuilding is making or constructing that world – you don’t populate the new fantastic world until you actually have your point of view, sidekick and other minor characters walking (flying, swimming, materialising…) around in it.
A good example differentiation – atmosphere. When I think about atmosphere in a setting, I am normally thinking about the feelings and emotions of the scene. This may have come from the suspense or action from the scene beforehand, or it could come from a character’s viewpoint of his or her environment or thoughts towards a problem. In the world built around them, atmosphere normally means something much more scientific – most probably the oxygen or cloud layers containing a world of air-breathers (but you never know).
There are many good resources out there for you, if you’re about to enter a world building enterprise, or even for creating your settings. Some of the best I know about include (some free) –
- The Worldbuilding FAQs at SFWA
- Lazette Gifford’s Year of Worldbuilding – you can find this now broken down into parts at the Vision writer’s ezine, Part 1 is here
- Holly Lisle also includes a lot of worldbuilding in her writing courses, but these are currently transitioning to ebooks. In the interim, she provides a lot of information in this article. Her Create a Culture Clinic and Create a Language Clinic are available as ebooks to purchase via Kindle. Look them up.
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