One of my favorite things about starting a new story is figuring out the world where I want it to take place. Most of the time, when I come up with an idea for a new story, the world spawns into being at the same time as the characters, but not always. Usually, I have nothing more than a vague idea of a setting, and I need to flesh out the rest of the landscape and the culture before diving into the writing part.
Here is a general list of considerations that I ask myself when building a new story:
1.) What races of people do I want to include? Where are they from? How are they divided?
I like to write about characters of different races, and I draw a lot of inspiration from real world history, so if I wanted to write about white characters, I might base my world on northern Europe or the British Isles. If I wanted to write about tribal characters, I might choose pre-Colonial America, Africa, or parts of Asia, depending on which location works best for the story. Or if I wanted to write about cultures with impressive architecture, I might choose historic China, Egypt, or Central America to give me inspiration.
2.) What kind of cultures exist in this world? Is there religion? Government? What kind?
Are there large cities or small village communities? Are the people in my setting tribal, communal, nomadic, warriors, hunters, philosophers, patriarchal, or peaceful? Are they separated by class, race, belief, or other? Do they worship many gods, one, or none at all? What rituals do they practice in their daily lives that is a part of their religion? Are the people ruled by a king and queen? Or by a governor, thane, clan chief, warlord, elected body of representatives, or exalted priest? How did the leader come to power? What demands do they make of their people? Is there a hierarchy of power?
3.) What is the climate like? The geography? What do they eat? How do they get food?
Is it cold, hot, temperate, rainy, dry, or seasonal? Is the land fertile? Are there forests, mountains, lakes, plains, or rivers? Or is it nothing but endless desert and weathered ruins? Do people farm, hunt, or fish? What kind of plants and vegetables might grow in this climate? What kind of animals are native to this land?
4.) Is there magic? How obvious is it? What kind of magic is there?
Could be as simple as “no” to the first question, but if “yes”… How is magic cast? Does it require spell focuses, like throwing stones, magic circles, special implements, or herbal components? Or is it mere mental or physical energy that fuels it? Where does it come from? How do people access it? Do people have to learn how to use magic? Or is it innate? Can anyone do it? Or only a special few? Are there magical creatures and races as a result of the existence of magic? Do dragons exist? What about trolls, fairies, goblins, dwarves, elves, or other such fantastical creatures?
5.) What technology exists in this world? Any specific industry? Trade?
How do people travel? Do people walk, ride horses, ride in carriages, or use vehicles powered by some advanced technology? How do they acquire food? Have they invented plows yet? Or other advanced farming equipment? How do they fight? What weapons do they use? Swords and bows? Or firearms? What kind of metal do they have access to? How were their homes built? Do they have the technology to mine stone and build cranes and wagons for transporting it from the quarry to the town? What counts as currency in their economy? Do they rely on gold, silver, and jewels for trade, or do they barter goods and services instead? What is their primary resource—timber, fish, textiles, grain, stone, jewels, etc? Do they import or export anything?
6.) Are there any special rules about the world that might make things difficult for my characters?
For instance, if my character is a girl who wishes to be a part of the priesthood, is that allowed? Or are men only allowed to be priests? Why? Does a strict caste system govern the setting, preventing my character from rising above his station? Is it law that the prince or princess only marry someone of noble blood? What if they fall in love with a commoner? Are certain schools of magic forbidden? What if my character practices that forbidden magic? What if someone finds out?
7.) Is this a journey story? Or will my characters stay in one place from beginning to end?
This will let me know whether I need to build one setting in great detail, or many different settings in more general detail. If my characters will go on a journey across the kingdom, then I need to map out the whole kingdom—or at least their main route—and provide descriptions and general answers to all of the above questions for each location the characters visit. Not all of these descriptions may appear in the final story, but knowing them will help enrichen and differentiate each setting as my characters journey through them. On the other hand, if my story takes place in a single setting—a city, town, village, cave, school, labyrinth, whatever—then I need to break down that setting into much finer detail. Where a journey story might present a few key locations for each setting, a stationary story will require mapping out nearly every nook and cranny the character happens upon, whether it be knowing where all the shops are on this or that street and what they are called, to knowing the names of the people who own them and what they sell there. A good rule of thumb to remember is: the more time characters spend in one place, the more detail you, as the writer, should know about that place.
Answer these, and you should be well on your way to creating a rich and memorable world for your story. Good luck!
Brooke is a stay-at-home mom, amateur seamstress, RPG enthusiast, and art hobbyist, in addition to all that book writing. As the jack-of-all-trades bard of the family, she adventures through life with her fiercely-bearded paladin of a husband, their daughter the sticky-fingered rogue, and their cowardly wizard of a dog, with only a sleep spell in his spellbook.
They currently reside in Northwest Arkansas, but once they earn enough loot and experience, they’ll build a proper castle somewhere and defend against all manner of dragons and goblins, and whatever else dares take them on.
You can find more information about her first book, The Brass Giant, here.