One of the most compelling elements of any novel is the setting in which it takes place. If a reader can smell the burning sugarcane in the hazy Caribbean heat or feel the scratchy mittens that ward off the chill of Irish winter, the author has done their job. But how does an author create a setting pulsing with life? There’s more to it than meets the eye. First and foremost:
Is your narrative set firmly in place and time?
Sometimes, writers make the mistake of waiting for several pages or even several chapters before constructing a world a reader can really fall into. We get caught up thinking it’s more important to introduce the character(s) or their backstory, or we even get tangled in the inciting incident. But we need all of those things and a strong sense of place and time immediately. It can be irritating as well as jarring for a reader to believe they are reading one genre of book only to discover the book veers in a different direction entirely.
For example, recently, I was reading a contemporary novel that turned out to have magical realism elements about a third of the way into the story, and even a bit of an alternate world as well. Because there had been no groundwork laid from the get-go, no clues or foreshadowing or a sense that not all is as it seems below the surface, I found it unbelievable and I put the book down. We must establish place and time—and any sort of funky, different, magical, far-away, historical elements—on page one. Let’s look at some tips to get us started.
Location, Location, Location: Researching locations far from our homes is so much easier these days with Google and its giant database of resources and maps. That said, it is not the same thing, at all, as having spent time in a location. There is an essence to a place—its smells, its heartbeat, its soul—that cannot be found on the internet. When you can, travel to the location you plan to inhabit in your mind for the next year(s) while working on your manuscript. It’s expensive, but you will bring an authenticity to the page that can’t be faked. Once you’ve done your prewriting and research:
Choose the location wisely.
- Is it real or imagined, and what is the probability that the story could take place here? Does it fit the character and their journey? Consider choosing a location that will give your protagonist the largest number of obstacles on their journey. We want to challenge her and force her to face difficulty in order to change.
- Who owns the location or space in which the protagonist will be moving – the narrator, someone else, an organization – and what insight does it give us into that character/characters? Are they poor or wealthy? Proud or ashamed? Fashionable or dowdy?
- What is unique about the location? Remember to note any items or details of importance to the character or the plot, always being certain it’s done through your narrator’s lens
After you’ve chosen your location, next do a language check.
Language Check. Be sure the language you have used is indicative of the era and location. I will add a note of caution here, however. Keep in mind that adding dialect (or historical speak, foreign languages, fantasy-speak) is like adding a seasoning to a dish. The right amount of salt makes the dish delicious. Too much makes it inedible, so handle with care. Language goes hand-in-hand with culture so guess what’s next?
Be True to the Culture of the Character. A woman from Zimbabwe will not say, do, or eat the same things as a woman from San Francisco, and will likely have an entirely different view of the world. Be sure you have researched any culture you are portraying thoroughly so as to avoid landmines that come with writing what you don’t know. Now that we’ve established the basics, let’s look at how making our manuscript pretty with description adds to world-building.
Description paints a vivid picture, but then again, how much description is enough? I tend to believe that less is more; make description short but impactful. That said, I’m a lean writer so of course I would say this. However, I do adore a slow burn of a novel with lush descriptions as well. Know your style and own it, but keep this very important key factor in mind: description is never filler. It serves a purpose and should do one of two things: 1.) it should advance the plot, or 2.) reveal something pertinent about the character’s inner life. If the description does neither of these things, and is long passages of telling us what Texas bluebells look like and where they grow and how they grow and how beautiful they make the countryside, it should be cut. If Texas bluebells are your protagonist’s favorite flower and they gain a real sense of being home and at peace in walking through fields of bluebells, they stay in, but only within the context of your character moving through this descriptive scene somehow. Or perhaps your character is triggered by the smell of bluebells and they elicit some sort of emotional memory. Action, sensory cues, and description all go hand-in-hand. That’s a big part of balanced pacing and visceral, life-like world-building.
Set the tone and the mood from page one. Just to clarify the difference between the two terms, the tone is the author’s attitude toward the subject, and mood is the emotion the reader derives from the story. These elements are absolutely key to world-building. Tone and mood are clues, or indicators as to how the reader should feel about the character(s), as well as what they should expect from the story. Is it humorous? Feel-good? Sensual? Dark? Is there an impending sense of doom?
Creating a believable and engaging storyworld is bigger than location, mood, description, language, and culture. (I know! There’s so much involved!) It’s about digging deeply into our characters’ hearts and minds. Every piece of this story and this world we’re creating should revolve around our protagonist. Even if you’re writing with a distant third person narrator, the world you build should be a means to illuminate your characters inner lives. Which brings me to my next point.
Construct a Setting as Seen Through the Eyes of Your Narrator
The most important aspect of world-building is to think about the way the setting affects your protagonist as well as how they react to it. A setting is lifeless and is just a bunch of extraneous details without your narrator’s emotional lens in place. For example, no location is the same for everyone. Take two people and place them in the same setting at the same time and then ask them to talk about it. A socialite and a pauper walk into a banquet. How would the socialite describe the setting—what would she notice? Perhaps who was there, what they were wearing, the music playing. A pauper would be hit with the smell of roast and crab cakes and cream sauces, and groan at the pitiful gnawing in their stomach. They would be feeling gauche and ashamed of their appearance, or maybe they would be furious these people have an embarrassment of riches while he sleeps on dirty straw in a barn outside of town every night. If the two sets of impressions from very different characters are similar or have the same emotional tenor, we have a problem.
A single paragraph depicting your narrator’s emotional reaction to the room, and the few individual things he or she notices, will tell us infinitely more about your character than cataloging the inventory. It will give the reader tremendous insight into who this character is, as well as the owner of the space they’ve entered.
Other ways to incorporate a character’s unique view through world-building:
- Focus on the narrator’s hobbies or interests. The way my protagonist Camille Claudel, a sculptor, would both view and interact with a space would be through her hands. She learns by touching, molding, creating. She also sees beauty in ordinary objects. Kind of like the way a writer sees a story in everything, down to a simple forgotten polka-dotted umbrella on a moving train.
- Incorporate a narrator’s mannerisms and personality into your descriptions. Is your character an introvert or an extrovert? Does the room overwhelm and overstimulate them? Does it bore them?
- Use the protagonist’s mood or emotional state for effective world-building. How does their mood affect what they see? If they are already frightened and pensive, then a dark, spooky castle will seem more menacing. If they have just lost someone they love, a bright blue, spring sky could be a mocking sky. Again, this goes back to utilizing the character’s emotional lens.
We want to capture our reader’s imagination, sweep them away to a world that isn’t their own. To do this, we must make our world-building count! Incorporate your unique brand of metaphors, sensory details, and writerly style to make the fictional world as vibrant as if you were Jane Q. Protagonist. And above all, delve deeply into her emotional lens. This, my friends, is how we win hearts and our readers become fans.
How do you approach setting? Tips, tricks, problem areas? Let’s discuss.