World Building Tip: Craft Your Story Setting

by Ruthanne Reid | 33 comments

Greetings, fellow word-slingers! This is finals week for me, so today's post will be an exceptionally broad overview of an exceptionally important topic: your story's setting. The story setting includes everything that affects your characters. It is the environment in which they live, breathe, and find meaning. It is where they fail and learn to succeed. All this to say, your story's environment matters.

Why your story's environment matters

Creating an effective environment is a key facet to your story's success. It's part of world-building; and no, we aren't talking about weather, though naturally, that plays a part. No, my friends, the importance of environment can be summarized in two key reasons:

  1. The environment determines the ways in which your characters respond to your plot's stimuli (i.e., when you throw rocks at them). The way your character thinks is largely determined by who they hang out with, by the prevailing political systems, by the economic and technological advancement of their world.  (Yes, even if your character is full-on-Katniss-Everdeen, rebel in the world you've built, that character is still framing “rebellion” in relation to their environment).
  2. The environment determines how deep your reader can swim in your book. Ooh, that's a biggie, but it's invaluable. Here's a really simple example: did you ever wonder why Harry Potter is such a big hit? One of the reasons is the environment at Hogwarts. The readers can feel, hear, smell, taste, and touch that magical school; if the school hadn't been described, if the spells and their effects had been glossed over, the world of Harry Potter wouldn't seem nearly as magical as it is.

The real world engages all senses at all times. Whether or not you're aware of it, you're picking up stimuli from all around you (which is why when something changes, you notice).

What is your story's environment?

I like to break this down into three simple categories: senses, philosophies, and abilities.

Senses

  • What does it sound like to be in your character's world? Do they hear traffic? Wind? Fire? The clink of glasses in a bar?
  • What does your character see? What colors are prevalent? What architectural and clothing styles dominate? What animals, faces, skin colors, and law enforcement are part of your character's daily view?
  • What does your character smell? Is body odor a thing here (in which case they might not smell it because it was normal, but perfume would sure as heck stand out)? Do they smell smoke from fires? The strange burn of melted steel? The weird garbage/flower/exhaust scent of big cities? The salt and fish of the ocean?
  • What does your character taste? What spices are available? What meat is the most commonly used (fish, chicken, pork, venison, mutton…)? What kinds of vegetables or fruits would they know? Does their local cuisine know “sweet?” Is it sugar sweet? Molasses sweet? Honey sweet?
  • What can your character feel? Are the walls and streets made of something abrasive like concrete, or splintery like wood? Is there carpet everywhere, or just wooden boards (or metal, or dust and straw, etc.)? Does clothing feel machine-manufactured, or hand-sewn? How heavy are weapons/tools?

Philosophies

  • What does your character's society think about human (or your species of choice) rights? What does your character think of them?
  • How does money work? Does your character view it as a necessary evil, as super important, as something to be shunned, as barely worth a thought?
  • What religions are prevalent, and how have they shaped your world's cultures and people? This affects cuisine, fashion, music, and more.
  • How does your character view God (or gods)? Death? Birth? Are children innocent or not? Should the elderly be protected? Does worth stem from ability, or is it innate? How do animals rank?

Abilities

  • What does travel look like in your world? Bullet trains? Planes? Spaceships? Magic portals? Horses? Feet? Wagons? Ships? (Whatever form of travel this is, you'll need to know what it looks like and how long it takes to make it convincing.)
  • What does medicine look like? How quickly do people heal, and from what kinds of wounds? (For that matter, how is health on average? Nutrition? Are all your old folks bent double from lack of calcium when young?) What kind of technology is available to aid in everyday life? What kinds of tools? Weapons? How easy is it for those things to be manufactured and obtained?
  • If there's magic, try to answer why, how, and who. Don't just go, “It's magic and doesn't need an explanation.” Today's readers like explanations. They like magic that almost makes sense. Aside from all that, however, what are magic's limitations? What can it do and not do? Who can use it and who can't? Why?
  • Is everyone violent? Is no one violent?
  • Is everyone literate? Why? Why not?
  • How many languages does your character need to know?

How do you use your story's environment?

These are just a few of the questions you might want to ask yourself while world-building. I know it may seem overwhelming (and good news: it can get a lot worse!), but this is really worth your time.

Now here's the kicker: you need to know these things because they determine just how your characters can play in your world. However, your reader doesn't need all the details.

You don't have to explain the entirety of your environment in your story. For example, if you've figured out it will take your characters three months by horse to go from City A to City B, you don't have to explain the mileage and average speed of a horse in the wintertime and all that. But you do have to note that your character shows up with three months' worth of beard growth, or perhaps just three months' worth of sleeping on the ground, so he's really really ready for a bath and a bed.

To go back to Harry Potter, J. K. Rowling did something quite brilliant when it came to food production in her magical world. See, food has to come from somewhere; it doesn't appear out of thin air by magic. It isn't prepared by itself. The kids don't know this (as kids in developed countries rarely appreciate where food comes from, this is appropriate). They don't learn until much later in the series that the food isn't being magically conjured at Hogwarts, but purchased and prepared beforehand by an army of House Elves in the kitchens below.

So yes, Rowling did not explain that food couldn't be conjured. Instead, she showed it.

  • Wizards could struggle to feed a large family. Suddenly, this made the less-than-wealthy Weasleys welcoming people into their home an act of love.
  • Wizards could be in danger of starving. Suddenly, this makes the image of Sirius Black desperately hungry while trying to hide from his fellow wizards a realistic problem.
  • Wizards could be poor. Suddenly, we see why they'd need a bank, an economy, and jobs. Food needs to be grown and purchased.

Rowling showed it. Wow, she showed it.

This week, it's your turn. Explore your characters' environments. What do their senses tell them? What do they believe about the world? What are the able to do within it? Have fun with it! Let loose, and you'll be amazed at the results.

PRACTICE

Your challenge this week is to consider the environment in which your character lives. What do they feel? What do they think? What are they able to do? If you know the answers to any of these questions, your character's reactions will make more sense, and your readers will be able to dive more deeply into your book.

Take fifteen minutes and write down some of the results. Don't forget to share your thoughts in the comments section, and reply to three other writers!

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Best-Selling author Ruthanne Reid has led a convention panel on world-building, taught courses on plot and character development, and was keynote speaker for The Write Practice 2021 Spring Retreat.

Author of two series with five books and fifty short stories, Ruthanne has lived in her head since childhood, when she wrote her first story about a pony princess and a genocidal snake-kingdom, using up her mom’s red typewriter ribbon.

When she isn’t reading, writing, or reading about writing, Ruthanne enjoys old cartoons with her husband and two cats, and dreams of living on an island beach far, far away.

P.S. Red is still her favorite color.

33 Comments

  1. Katherine Rebekah

    Great tips! The world of my current project is very complex and very important to the story as it has a lot to do with the main plot. It’s a little overwhelming but also really fun to conjure this society with all it’s intricacies. What is it they say? That all writers have a little bit of a God complex? Yeah, I think I can see that. 🙂

    Reply
    • ruthannereid

      Thanks, Katherine! I’m really glad to hear it’s got you thinking. 😀

  2. Linda Strawn

    I loved this post because I love settings. In my current WIP, my character finds herself interning on an Indian reservation. Not just any reservation, but a large chunk of land where the vast plains meet the majestic Rockies. It boasts of fisherman friendly lakes, tourist welcoming sites, and a group of First Nations People I’m in awe of. The summer temperatures are mild, but in the winter it gets bitterly cold. When the winds blow out of Canada along the Rocky Mountain Front, those temps plunge well below zero. In fact, it holds the world record for the greatest dip in temperatures within a 24-hour period: 44 °F to a bone chilling -56 °F in January, 1916.Getting back to summer (ah!), one can feast their eyes on the colorful regalia of dancers and feel the pulse of the drum beats at the pow wow, breathe in the soothing scent of sage and sweet grass, and listen to the ground pounding Bison to the west. This is just a glimpse of the setting in my soon-to-be published book.

    Reply
    • ruthannereid

      Linda, this sounds amazing! I absolutely love what you’re describing here, and it sounds like it’s going to make a fantastic novel.

  3. Sandy Stuckless

    I sooooo need this advice. I struggle mightily with setting. Not just what it looks like, but how the characters interact with it. It’s something I have to consciously remind myself to take time to get right. It’s a work in progress… 🙂

    Reply
    • Deborah

      Yes this is some good advice, I find myself struggling as well, but I will take my time and put on my creativity hat, Thanks for sharing.

    • ruthannereid

      I’m so glad to hear that, Sandy! It’s a work in progress for all of us, believe me!

  4. Sarah Bourgeois

    Setting has never been a problem for me. In fact, it’s one of the factors that contribute to making writing fun. You are able to put yourself in your character’s shoes and to escape from the dull and ordinary for just a little while and create your own world of excitement. It might sound selfish but this is one of the reasons I love to write. I was never really a social butterfly but in my books, in my own little world, I could be whoever I want. I could slay a dragon, troll and talk to mermaids in the span of a day. It really is amazing if you think about it. Setting to me is one of the things that contribute well to the story. Without it, reading would be boring, because you wouldn’t be there in the way that you would when setting is there and it’s well written.

    Reply
    • Deborah

      Sometimes I get stuck, but what you said is very Important so It’s really about being creative and using your imagination. Thank you.

    • ruthannereid

      There’s nothing selfish about that! 🙂 You’ve nailed exactly why this is so very important.

    • Sarah Bourgeois

      thank you! lol

  5. Deborah

    .My character is a women who become homeless and find herself living in a nasty smelly garbage filled environment, she struggles every night to find a safe place to sleep.

    Reply
    • ruthannereid

      That sounds like a genuine struggle, Deborah. This is a potentially powerful story.

  6. Reagan Colbert

    My book is a contemporary, real-life novel about a young woman who is suddenly paralyzed. It’s set in Boston, Ma, in the bustling downtown, the people, cars, traffic, etc.
    The actual locations are 2 hospitals, the rehab center she live in, and the medical center the second protagonist, (who she later falls in love with) works. Hospitals are so full of description, the halls, rooms, lobbies, and in a rehab center there’s even more. And it’s seen from the POV of both a doctor and a patient.
    As for their worldview, she is a Christian, and the book is about her struggle to have faith in God’s plan. He,(the doctor), hates God until she makes him think. At the beginning, he hates people (which is strange for a doctor), but after he’s saved he begins to warm to them, and actually ends up bringing others to Christ.
    Setting is one of my favorite things to describe (I probably over-describe). But I learned early on that, while I collect all the information, the reader definitely doesn’t need it. I’ve found that even the details you don’t describe leak in, because it’s what your mind is full of while you’re writing it.
    p.s. (Sort of in line with this subject) I had a question for anyone on here who’s more experienced at this than I am. The hospitals in my setting are real places. Should I contact them to get permission to use their names/descriptions?
    Thanks for a great article, Ruthanne!

    Reply
    • ruthannereid

      Oh, wow, Reagan. This is a powerful idea; it actually matches some real lives I’ve seen, too.

      I would say don’t use the hospitals themselves. Learn everything you can about them, then make up the hospital itself (just place it two blocks away from the real one, or something). That way, there’s no risk of slander. 🙂

    • Reagan Colbert

      Thanks, Ruthanne! I appreciate your advice 🙂

    • allyn211

      Reagan, have you ever read Joni Eareckson Tada’s autobiography? Since it was written in the ’70’s, some of the medical stuff may be a bit dated, but the faith struggle would still be very real.

    • Reagan Colbert

      no I haven’t, but I’ll be sure to look it up. I’m always looking for reference material. Thanks!

    • allyn211

      You may also be interested in the stories of Jill Kinmont and Charles Krauthammer. Jill was a skier paralyzed in the 1950’s in a skiing accident (she died a few years ago). The ’70’s movie The Other Side of the Mountain is based on her life.

      Charles Krauthammer is a conservative columnist/Fox News contributor who was also paralyzed in a diving accident. I’m sure if you do some Internet research, you may find other examples of quadriplegics. I’m a former reference librarian, so research is one of my fortes, although I’m always on the outlook for new sources. 🙂

    • Reagan Colbert

      Wow, thanks so much! I’m not good at finding reference materials. I know of Charles Krauthammer, but wasn’t aware of his story. The only reference I’ve been able to find on this subject is the Reeve foundation, and I’ve been trying to research for 4 years! This info is great. I’ll sure look it up. Thanks again! 🙂

    • allyn211

      D’oh! :: smacking my forehead :: I completely forgot about Christopher Reeve!

    • Reagan Colbert

      LOL… at least I found something. Their foundation has the most info I’ve been able to find.

  7. kath

    In my story’s world, there is no technology; no computers, no TVs, no cars, and it’s a big moment in the book when the main character realizes those things exist, but she and her little world were unaware of them (yes, trust me, it’s a long story :p). But how do you point out what is not there? Please help! I have no idea how to write this effectively!

    Reply
    • ruthannereid

      Ooh, Kath, this is a terrific idea!

      How to point out what’s “not” there is simpler than you think. 🙂 Essentially, all it takes is having your characters live life, and casually mentioning what they have to do in order to manage that.

      Initially, you want to set the world as she knows it up. No running water; so bathing and cooking require walking to the river with buckets. (And you don’t want to just say “this requires walking to the river with buckets,” but show it: have your characters having an important conversation… while going to the river to get water.)

      No transportation. She has to walk everywhere, unless maybe she has a bicycle.

      No modern medicine; any injury could be a serious one. Simple things like ice? No burns, no baking soda, no aloe vera creams.

      Every aspect of her daily life would be affected. She’d have to gather wood for fire, and have to make her own clothes. Does this help? I hope so!!

    • allyn211

      I think M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village has a similar plot line. Maybe that will give you some inspiration?

      I understand what you mean about “pointing out what’s not there”. Ruthanne has some great ideas when she says “have you characters live life and mention what they have to do in order to manage that.”

      Some good sources to set up the world where she exists are “end of the world as we know it” fiction. Terri Blackstock’s Last Light, William Forstchen’s One Second After, and Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon are some good novels on this subject. Also, check out “prepper” websites that try to describe life without technology. It sounds like your character has never had TV, computers, etc., so it might be a little tricky to use the stuff I’ve mentioned as reference material, because they talk about a society that had them and lost them.

  8. allyn211

    My world is present day, and in this first book that I’ve been posting, there are different settings throughout. The main “world” is southwestern Utah/southeastern Nevada, with a side trip to a small college town in central Utah. There are two main settings. One is a hotel room in St. George, Utah. (I visited St. George this summer to get a feel for the place.) The other is the desert in SE Nevada (which I also visited for the same reason.)

    It occurs to me, as I write this, that there’s one major between those two settings that I have not thought of. The main plot arc is of my MC being kidnapped and held captive in a campsite in the Nevada desert. (Hence the title, Desert Ordeal.) His wife and close friends are waiting for word in the St. George hotel room. My MC is in a large, relatively open area, but he’s confined. His wife and friends are in a hotel room that will probably become rather claustrophobic. (I visited Anne Frank’s house many years ago, and the longer I spent there, the more claustrophobic I got–not to the point of panicking, but I could get a sense of the walls closing in. I think writing in her diary saved Anne’s sanity.) My MC is exposed to the elements–sun, sand, wind, insects, snakes :-), and the food of choice is rather limited. I have him sick of Spam. His wife and friends have a bit more of a food selection, but since they’re in a hotel room for their safety, they can’t leave unless it’s under protection. So they have to rely on what’s brought to them.

    Some good stimulus for thinking!

    Reply
    • Ruthanne Reid

      Oh, that’s a terrific line of thought! Yikes, the claustrophobic angle definitely gets me shuddering. Great world building!

  9. dduggerbiocepts

    All very good creative advice. Even so, all words matter. For example: “The environment determines how deep your reader can swim in your book.” Generally “Swimming” is an activity that takes place on the surface of the water. To “dive” would be an activity that takes you below the water’s surface. Your sentence would be more logically correct and precise – if you had used “how deep your reader can dive in your book.”

    The logic and precision of your words are inseparable from your readers’ perceived level of credibility. If your reader’s attention is “snagged” by a word usage that is uncommon, or inappropriate, or wrong – the illusion of your imaginary environment’s illusion – is interrupted – if not lost. If this happens repeatedly then your reader will be lost.

    Reply
    • Ruthanne Reid

      Nice thoughts! I appreciate your feedback. 🙂 Of course, by that logical reasoning, we have a pretty big problem with the fact that fish swim. 🙂 They don’t dive, do they? The word “swim” has more than one connotation.

      Precision is always difficult in a language that simply isn’t precise. One of my favorite jokes is still that English doesn’t “borrow” from other languages. It follows other languages into dark alleys, knocks them out, and steals their wallets!

  10. Susan W A

    Love this. I look forward to exploring how I can develop my writing (as basic as it is at this point) to incorporate these concepts.

    Reply
    • Ruthanne Reid

      I’m so glad to hear it, Susan! 🙂 I look forward to seeing what you can come up with.

  11. Robin Elizabeth Mason

    heading to the library, actually, for t his exact reason!!! researching history and geography of the area for my next story!! Late 19th, early 20th century, South Carolina. (did I mention I love history and I love research!)

    Reply
  12. Paul Nieto

    That is a great article! Thanks for giving so much to think about.

    Reply

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