How to Choose the Right Setting For Your Novel |Worldbuilding 2|
Spoiler alert for The Lord of the Rings.
As promised, we’re going to start phase two of Noveljutsu and get into worldbuilding. I’ve planned a series of videos that get into some of the minutia of worldbuilding, but for this week we’re going to take a step back and look at the bigger picture.
What kind of setting do you actually need?
This is likely to be one of the first worldbuilding questions you’ll want to ask yourself—one of the first things you’ll want to answer in order to prepare yourself to actually construct your world. In this episode, I’m going to discuss four major things that will influence what kind of setting you need to tell your story.
Before that, this is your reminder that different writers begin the journey of a new novel in different places. Some people simply enjoy designing worlds and will begin having fun with a new world before they do anything else. If you’re one of those people, you might not have the four things I’m going to talk about figured out for your novel yet, and that’s okay. Have fun playing around with ideas for your world, and when you’re ready to work on the rest of your novel, you can take the world you’ve made and work backwards to figure out how the four things I’m going to discuss would function in the world you’ve designed or if you might to do some sanding and repainting to get your world to fit your story idea.
If you’re like me and you like to build your world at the same time as you work on other aspects of your novel, then here are four things you’ll want to pay attention to when coming up with the perfect setting for your story. Let’s start with:
“Not this again!” you say?
I know, I know. I’ve talked about theme a lot lately. I’m not going to go too in depth into this point since I already made an entire post specifically delving into how worldbuilding can reinforce the themes in your novel. If you’re new around here and you want to know more about how theme and worldbuilding work together, you can check out my post here.
For now, suffice it to say that the place you choose to set your story must provide the right stage for your theme to play out. It should provide plenty of opportunities for your theme to shine.
As a quick example, if your theme is something like “Respect your elders because they have wisdom,” this theme hints that your story may have some sort of generational conflict. So maybe you’ll want to set your story in a house where multiple generations live together under the same roof. Maybe make it a small house, so kids, parents, and grandparents have no choice but to bump into each other and get all up in each other’s business.
Another thing that might help you pick the right setting for your novel is thinking about the mood you want your novel to have or, in other words, the experience you want your readers to have.
Do you want your readers to feel scared reading your novel? There’s a reason so many horror films take place in a lone cabin in the woods or in small towns in the middle of nowhere. Setting your novel in an isolated place where your characters, and therefore your readers, can’t expect a quick rescue when things go wrong is a great way to put your readers on edge. Make the environment desolate or secluded. Make it dark, deathly cold, or both. Fill your world with bloodthirsty beasties or a nasty new virus.
On second thought, don’t do that. Too soon.
Maybe you want your readers to feel a sense of wonder instead. Dip into your inner child and design a world that’s full of whimsy. If you’re writing something more contemporary, maybe you set your novel in a toy store or theme park. My YA sci-fi novel has things like mountains that sail the seas, pygmy sea gryphons, and snapdragons that will try to bite your fingers off. Get creative and keep it fun!
Or maybe your goal is to throw your reader off guard. One great way to do this is have a setting that’s at odds with part of your story. By that I mean you might want to lull your readers into a false sense of security only to shock them later. Maybe you want a setting that seems like a utopia on the surface. Let your reader get acquainted with this wonderful, peaceful world, and then pull the rug out from under them and show your readers how everything that made them feel safe and comfortable was actually a sign that this world is sick, dark, or dangerous. Conversely, design a world that seems horrible, and then give your reader reason to understand or even fall in love with the bits of good they find in the world you’ve made.
In a similar vein, one of the reasons the setting for The Lord of the Rings works so well is because readers are introduced to the Shire before we know much of Sauron or orcs or Mordor. Readers get to see the peaceful, quaint, quiet Hobbiton and attend a birthday celebration. This is all pretty benign stuff, and beginning the story in the slow-moving, serene Hobbiton at first seems at odds with the urgency and danger of most of the rest of the series, but there’s good reason for the story to begin in the Shire. Readers get a moment to see a part of the world that’s still safe and good. They understand what it is the main characters want to protect—what stands to be lost if they fail—and the reader wants to protect the Shire too. Beginning the story in the Shire also makes the darker, more terrifying places of Middle Earth seem all the more dark and terrifying.
So, if you want to make the world in your novel seem treacherous, you may want to consider looking for places in your world where hope and happiness still thrive or at least survive. If you go the route of setting your novel in a lonely cabin in the woods, maybe one of the characters has a radio they use to contact a loved one each morning (or letters they write, if it’s set in an earlier technological era). You can find a way to get rid of that radio and fully isolate your characters if and when you need to, but having it in the beginning of your story can show your readers what your characters have to fight for.
Many writers are more attached to their characters than they are to the plot or world of their story, and it’s thinking about a character whose story they want to tell that first inspires them to begin a new novel. Maybe you’re one of those writers, and you know your characters well long before you know anything else about your story. Well, your characters can also help you decide what kind of world you need for them to inhabit.
Unless you’re writing a static character, you’re going to want your hero to do some learning and growing during the span of your novel. You want them to have an arc. Even if you are writing a static character to fill the main role in your story, chances are you are going to have other characters in your novel who do go through an arc. This means that these characters are going to be different at the end of the novel than they are at the beginning.
Duh, right? But think about how you want your characters to be different.
If you want one of your heroine’s defining traits at the end of the novel to be that she’s a tougher, smarter fighter than any man, first of all, maybe don’t make her a gifted martial artist already at the beginning. (I’m looking at you, Mulan). When it comes to setting, however, you’ll want to find or design a setting that is going to help test her and turn her into that tough, smart warrior. This may mean setting your novel in a time and place with an ongoing war, because if your story is about a warrior, you probably want something for her to do with her time. What will that war make the rest of your world look like?
Consider why your character wants to change. Or why they don’t want to change. Or maybe why they should change if they’re unaware they need to. Whatever the reason, aspects of your setting can sometimes help with that too.
If your character thinks they need to be something they’re not, maybe you want the world you create to give them that opportunity. Give them what they think they want, so they can learn what they needed was something else all along. Depending on what genre you’re writing, giving your character what they want could mean setting your novel in corporate America or a similar place where your character can finally get that promotion and hefty pay raise. Or maybe it means setting your novel in a future earth where they can get cybernetics. Or fantasy writers might design a setting where potions or magic lamps can turn the main character into someone else.
Take a look at who your character is, who they need to be by the end of the novel, and what needs to happen for them to start on their journey, and you’ll find hints for the kind of setting your novel needs.
Maybe all you have for your novel at this point is a cool idea or a trope you want to play with. Maybe all you know is you want to write a survival story or a “rags to riches” story. If you have an idea of the main plot you’d like to play out in your novel, it can suggest what kinds of settings would enable that plot to happen or enhance it above and beyond what the wrong setting would.
No spoilers, but for my yet-to-be published historical fantasy novel, the first idea I had for it was plot-related, not character or world-related. There was a murder mystery. There was also this Tarzan and Jane-esque romance. And a war (or fear of impending war) was also an essential part of the plot.
At first I’d planned to set the novel in a fantasy world of my own creation, but I decided I wanted the novel to be a standalone. I worried setting the story in a world I’d have to explain to the reader would take up far too many pages for me to do everything I wanted in a small enough word count that agents or publishers wouldn’t reject my query outright.
If I had to have a war. I’d have to have different sides of the war. I’d need to have a history for the world and then explain that history to the reader in an organic way.
I knew I wanted a setting that felt new and partially unexplored—that my heroine was living in a city only decades old rather than centuries. I also knew I needed her to live in a place partially secluded from more urban areas so she could get up to…certain hijinks without too much fear of being noticed by passersby.
In the end I decided that my needs for this story could all be fulfilled by setting it in Victorian era western Canada during a time when people feared being raided by Irish American revolutionaries. This gave me the fear of an impending battle that I needed. It gave me a setting that, for those of European ancestry, was still relatively new, unexplored, and isolated from the more populous parts of Canada. Although setting my novel in our real world’s past meant I still had to do worldbuilding, it also provided me with a shorthand to work with. Readers already have the basics down without me having to hold their hand.
Could I have told my story in a fictional world? Yes. But setting my novel in Canada’s past allowed me to narrow my focus much more on plot and character while still having the benefit of a setting that feels real.
If you know what your plot requires, take a look at your setting and figure out how it can help your novel’s plot along.
To think of the right setting for Project: Noveljutsu, I took a look at all four things I mentioned today: theme, mood, characters, and plot.
In the last Noveljutsu episode on theme, I mentioned that my main theme for this novel is “Your worth is not determined by what you are but by using what you have for a noble purpose.” This theme could play out so many ways depending on who was writing it, but since it’s me and I know I plan to make this an epic fantasy novel, I look at the phrase “what you are” and immediately start thinking about different social classes. Different cultures. Different races. Different religions.
If I want my characters to learn a lesson about what defines the quality of their character, they shouldn’t be born into a society that already has the same understanding and definition of worthiness that I think is right. My characters need to be born in a place that defines worth by things such as wealth, station, or heritage. Because of this, I know I want my novel to show friction between the different classes, cultures, and so on. This means I don’t want to set my novel in a small, reclusive town where the majority of people look, sound, and think alike.
I could set my novel in a major city where people of diverse backgrounds gather and clash with each other. Or I could write a story that spans nations and find a way to bring these different nations together in a way that highlights their problematic and false beliefs about the nature of a person’s worthiness.
Rather than either of those options, I’ve decided my characters will end up travelling across a single country. I want each town my characters stop in to be far enough apart in distance and custom that they can feel distinct. I mentioned in an earlier episode how different geography often leads to shifts in culture and values. For this reason, I know my setting is going to have diverse geography so the people can be diverse too.
I’ve also decided I want these people to be diverse not only in lifestyle but also in heritage and language, so I’ve decided to set this novel many years after a great war waged over the land. The war will have brought people from other nations who stayed after the war’s end, and their descendants have now made homes of their own here.
This also fits with the mood, characters, and plot I’ve planned. Travelling across a country of varied geography and culture will allow me to mix a sense of wonder with dashes of fear, and adventure. It allows me to have characters of different social stations. Characters who take pride in magical ability and characters who fear it. It allows me to have my characters go on the quest I need them to go on and have to fend for themselves without the aid of family or peers.
For this week’s challenge, I want you to do a quick experiment. Come up with a theme that’s important to you, whether it’s one you’ve written about before or not. Remember from my previous posts that theme as a tool works best when it’s framed as a moral argument. Take a look at my posts on theme if you’re not sure what I’m talking about.
Once you have your theme, I want you to pair it with one of these moods:
Write a paragraph about the kind of setting you think that theme needs given the mood you’ve chosen. Think about what kind of setting will provide the kind of conflict your theme deserves.
Got your paragraph done? Great! Now pick a different mood and try it over again. Do you feel the setting for your theme needs to change now that the mood you want the reader to experience is different? If you’re game, try this experiment on a third mood or even all of them! What do you learn?
That’s it for this episode but not for my series on worldbuilding. Now that you have an idea of what kind of setting you want to find or create for your novel, we’ll delve deeper into things like geography, flora and fauna, designing cultures and languages, governments, magic systems, and more!
You know the drill. Support me with a like and a share if you’re so inclined. My YouTube channel and social media are just a click away.
I’ll see you next time with another worldbuilding post!