If we want our world to come alive in our readers’ minds, we have to make it feel real.
This is particularly important for those creating worlds that live only in the imagination.
If the reader cannot picture the world, they will not feel connected to the story or its events.
I find reimagining the real world can save a lot of time and provide plenty of places to create conflict in my stories.
Not everything has to be made up.
We can use the same plants and animals in a fantasy setting or even mimic our cultures on past civilizations.
Use them as a jumping-off point to make something different if you want to.
If you take a civilization and change its environment, you can come up with an entirely new one by redefining their survival conditions.
The food they eat might change, they might wear different clothing due to a change in climate, or they might go from being hunters to being fisherman.
Adjust things however you want, and you’ll have an entirely new world waiting for your readers to explore.
But every world needs the same basics to feel real. Here are some things to consider when building your world:
1. Geography and Climate
What’s the weather like in your world? Is it hot or cold? Wet or dry? How many seasons are there?
The environment will determine how your people live. Covering everything from clothing to the buildings they live in.
Weather can drastically change the effect a setting has on the characters and the story.
Fighting in the hot sun on solid ground is much different than fighting in the middle of a storm in the mud.
Geography combined with the weather can produce dramatic effects on a story.
Much more tension can be generated by a trek through the mountains during a blizzard than a ride through the plains on a sunny day.
Especially if the characters are not prepared for the environment they are thrust into.
Consider the settings you want to use as you plan your world and use them to their full advantage.
If used correctly, they will bring the story and its world to life for your readers.
2. Plants and Animals
What lives in your world? Trees, plants, sea life, land animals?
All of these will determine how your people live—the houses they live in, their furniture, clothing, food.
Plants and animals can even be used to add conflict to your plot.
You can use anything from living vines that wrap around your characters’ ankles dragging them deeper into the jungle to them being chased up a tree by a pack of wolves waiting to rip them to pieces.
Use the geography and climate of the area to determine what lives in your world and use it to build a rich realistic-feeling world your readers won’t soon forget.
What plants and animals of the area have your people domesticated for their own use? Or do they hunt and gather? What and how do they eat?
When answering these questions make sure to take into consideration how close your people will live and how large of a society you want to support in the area.
Hunting and gathering will usually develop small, close-knit communities living far from the next settlement as the area’s plants and animals can only support so many people.
Most times these societies form temporary settlements, moving as the game moves, much like the Native Americans.
Societies that have developed agriculture tend to form large communities surrounded by farmland.
These communities are permanent and bound to the land they live and depend on.
Trade-based societies that import the food and goods they need tend to form communities as large as cities.
In societies such as these, social division is more prominent as wealth determines a person’s status among their people.
The type of society your people live in will determine the foods that are available and perhaps even how they eat.
Do they eat the local food, or do they like to try exotic flavors? Do they eat the same things time and again, or do they like a variety?
Remember social status affects what is available so be sure to choose what is appropriate to your character.
4. Resources, Technology, and Economy
What resources have been found and turned into a source of industry?
Metals and gemstones lend themselves to use for the military, artwork, jewelry, and goods of all kinds.
Animals can be used for furs, skins used in hide and leather products, food, and a variety of other uses.
Virtually anything you can think of can be used or sold for profit.
Your industries should depend on the surrounding resources, and some areas might hold a monopoly in the production of certain goods.
Remember, trade leads not only to the exchange of goods but also of culture and technology.
It can also lead to war as jealousy forms over land rights and what another society has accomplished.
Determine the primary industries for each setting and consider these questions:
- What is the job structure? Is it a one-person job or multiple? What are the levels of management?
- What class of work does this industry represent? Is there a stigma attached to working in this industry? (Think: gravediggers, sanitation workers, morticians)
- How are these goods distributed? Do they have to be bought in person or can they be delivered?
- What is exchanged for these goods? Food, services, goods, money? The higher the class of work, the greater the exchange value needs to be.
- How and where do they get the needed materials to produce these goods? Remember, stores have to get their goods from somewhere.
- What technological advances has this industry contributed to? For example: The creation of steel lead to better weapons, armor, transportation, and a variety of other uses.
What deities do your people believe in? How many gods are there? Do they participate in everyday life or are they merely myths?
Is there an established religious structure or a general set of beliefs everybody follows?
What expectations does this religion place on its followers? What are the debated topics within the religion? What effect does it have on people’s lives?
How did this religion form? Through observing nature, direct contact with a supernatural force, assigning things that couldn’t be explained to a higher power?
Religion can be a subject of hot contention, both between religions as well as within it.
Some people are devout in their practices, while others might simply go about their daily lives with barely a thought to it.
It can also determine the morality and ethics of a person.
How you use religion within your setting is entirely up to you but don’t underestimate the power religion can have on the masses.
What types of entertainment do the different social classes participate in? Are there any that are inappropriate or illegal? What group events are available?
Morality, ethics, and religion often determine what is considered fun in a culture.
Some events might even be tied to something local, like a festival or a set of games.
The type of entertainment offered can be used to show the communities values, for example, brothels, strip clubs, gambling establishments.
These types of activities can be seen as a normal part of living in the community or something it’s disgusted by and wants to be rid of.
Available activities, as well as views on what is fun (and legal), should vary between communities to give each their own unique flavor.
7. Art and Architecture
How do people express themselves? Do they decorate their homes or public places? Does it show in their architecture?
Is artistic expression limited by social class? Is it religious? How much does the culture value it? What materials do they use?
Art and architecture will vary depending on beliefs and culture.
One side of a city may express itself differently than another—think Chinatown.
Smaller subcultures might form their own communities alongside that of the recognized culture, such as the Amish or Native Americans.
Cultures moving to a different environment can produce their own unique subculture.
Building materials, clothing, and the food they eat might all change depending on where they moved.
For example: The Mexicans retained a lot of their Spanish heritage when they came to the Americas, but now they’re a completely different culture because of their change in environment.
They eat different food, changed the way they eat, even their dialect is different.
Consider how the different types of people and their cultures intermingle to create a rich, realistic world.
Use it to create obstacles for your characters if you can.
Do your people have an established educational system? Is it optional or required? What types of skills are taught?
Does the quality of the education depend on class, wealth, or gender? Are there any learning opportunities outside the system, such as apprenticeships?
Do they learn from books and know how to read and write? Or do they learn through stories passed down through the generations? Perhaps they are taught through example?
Views on education will vary depending on the area and culture.
A wealthy upper-class boy might have access to everything the society has to offer, while a girl of the same standards might be expected to learn etiquette and taking care of a household.
A boy living on the streets might be forced to learn how to survive because society has cast him off.
People come from all walks of life and education.
Different backgrounds can lead to conflict or embarrassment no matter the situation.
Use it to create interesting situations as your characters intermingle with others.
9. History and Politics
What major events have been recorded in the history of your people? Natural disasters, wars, great kings, famines, plagues, droughts? Anything that would have been memorable enough to be recorded or passed down.
What has been the historical interaction between countries or social classes? What is it currently?
Perhaps a neighboring country had been an enemy for generations, and now a fragile peace has been established that could be broken at whim.
Do the leaders of the current government get along?
Divisions within the political structure of a country are not uncommon.
The more people involved, the greater the chance for conflicting opinions and jealousies to arise.
Politics plays a major part in our society and news. Let it play the same role in your stories.
As you create your worlds, think of all the things we deal with in ours and use it to build realistic settings for your stories.
The more complex and diverse your world is, the better your readers will be able to relate it and the easier it will be to generate a variety of conflict for your characters.
FOR FURTHER READING
Renea strives to help writers develop the focus and skills they need to finish their first novel, offering writers practical writing advice they can apply one step at a time.
She is the author of Conquering Writing Pressures: Living a Balanced Writing Life in a Busy World where she helps writers find the courage to accept life will never be perfect. And if we want our dreams to succeed, we must fight to make them a reality.
She currently lives in St. Joseph, Missouri, with her husband Joe, her three children, and her five lovable furballs.
From a young age, Renea was mad for books and reading, and especially loved Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series, which she read in the ninth grade.
She is an avid reader, with her main interests residing in history, mythology, and fantasy, along with some romance and science fiction in her earlier years.
When Renea’s not writing, she enjoys genealogy, role-playing games, and dreams of traveling the world. In a past life, she plucked chickens and milked cows.