Writing 101: Setting and Worldbuilding

Writers often tend to overlook setting, but a vivid, well-developed setting can be a powerful part of your story and bring it to life for readers. Learn how to set your story apart with setting and worldbuilding!What was the setting of the last book you read? New York City? Dublin? The wilds of Africa? Outer space? Where did the author take you?

Now, let me ask you another question: Did the author succeed in taking you there?

Sometimes, I read books where the setting is such an integrated part of the story and so detailed that I feel as though I’m really there.

But other times, I’ll read a book that says it’s set in Montana but the setting is so empty that it feels as though it could be taking place anywhere. Or, even worse, I’ll pick up a book and have no idea where the setting is or forget where I’m supposed to be halfway through.

When we read, we love to be taken on a journey to somewhere new where we can experience that place and its culture without ever having to leave the comfort of our home. So it’s a shame that we writers often tend to neglect setting in our stories.

Maybe it’s because we’re overwhelmed with all the other details of plot and character. Or, maybe it’s because we don’t think that setting could be that important or make that big of a difference. But don’t be fooled–setting plays an important role in your novel just like your plot and characters!

What is Setting?

A setting is the place where the story’s events unfold. Novels contain multiple settings, which can be categorized a little something like this:

  • Big picture location—the country, state, world, etc. in which your primary and small picture locations are contained.
  • Primary location—where most of the story takes place.
  • Small picture locations—additional settings where scenes take place.

Let’s look at a couple examples. First, from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone:

  • Big picture location—The United Kingdom
  • Primary location—Hogwarts
  • Small picture locations—The Dursley’s house, the shack by the sea, Diagon Alley, Platform 9 ¾, the Forbidden Forest, the Gryffindor dormitory within Hogwarts, etc.

What about The Hunger Games?

  • Big picture location—Panem
  • Primary location—The Arena
  • Small picture locations—District 13, the Tribute’s train, the training center, the Capitol, the cornucopia within the arena, etc.

When you’re trying to figure out your story’s setting, first start the the “big picture” location. This could be a real place like Russia or California, or somewhere fictional like Westeros or Middle Earth.

Next, narrow your focus to the primary location. Where within this big picture will most of the story take place? This might be tricky to pin down if your story is split between locations, or if you have multiple story lines with characters in different locations.

For example, in Lord of the Rings the characters are on a journey and visit a variety of settings along the way. And in Game of Thrones you have many different story lines with characters spread out across a number of primary settings like the Night’s Watch, King’s Landing, Meereen, etc.

After you figure out your primary location, start exploring other settings your characters might visit during your story. These will be both within the primary location, and beyond it.

When done well, setting will make a story colorful and memorable. This is because the author is creating a place that feels real and that the reader wants to return to over and over again each time she picks up the book. You don’t want your setting to be a blank in the reader’s mind because this takes away from one of the pleasures and expectations of reading—to be taken to another place.

You should treat your setting like you would treat any other character in your story. Characters need to be developed or they will end up feeling like flat pieces of cardboard. The same goes for your setting! Take some time to sit down and get to know your setting, researching or thinking about things like:

  • The layout/geography
  • What’s beyond in the outlying areas
  • Politics, laws, and governing system
  • Culture and traditions
  • Weather
  • Local plants and animals
  • Jobs, economy, inports/exports
  • History, enemies, and allies
  • Folklore, urban legends, etc.
  • Details only locals would know
  • The hero’s feelings and opinions about the place

But now this brings us to the second point I wanted to talk about: worldbuilding.


The term “worldbuilding” is usually used when talking about fantasy and sci-fi novels. It’s the process of creating a fictional world from scratch that still feels realistic. This process could include creating races, religions, histories, currencies, mythologies, cultures, traditions, and so on.

Worldbuilding is an important part of fantasy because the reader is being taken to an unfamiliar place that doesn’t exist. That means the author needs to make it feel realistic by weaving a web of details so complex that we begin to feel that there’s no way the author could be making this all up, that this place must really exist somewhere.

One example of fantastic worldbuilding is J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world in the Harry Potter series. Her attention to detail is phenomenal—she gives the wizarding world its own currency (galleons and knuts), sweet treats (Bertie Botts Every Flavor Beans, anyone?), newspaper (The Daily Prophet), drinks (Butterbeer), transportation (The Knight Bus), and sport (Quidditch), just to name a few of the many details.

Rowling creates a world that is so fleshed out that you can become completely lost in it to the point where if someone came along and told you she made it all up, you’d probably call them a liar (let’s admit it, how many of us are still waiting for our Hogwarts acceptance letters?).

That is how powerful worldbuilding can be, when done well. But a word of warning: although you can get away without too much damage from lack of setting in most genres, in fantasy and sci-fi worldbuilding is critical to your story. It’s an expectation of the genre since readers turn to fantasy to be taken to a new, magical world. If you only have a cardboard world to offer, your story is going to suffer.

Worldbuilding Isn’t Just for Fantasy

Now, even though we mainly associate worldbuilding with fantasy and sci-fi, this doesn’t mean it doesn’t apply to other genres. There is an element of worldbuilding within any story you write. The only difference is, when the story is set in the real world rather than a fantasy world, we are working with fact rather than fiction.

What do I mean? To use my own hometown as an example, let’s say your story is set in Louisville Kentucky and your hero is a jockey who will ride in the Kentucky Derby. You have two worlds to explore and build here: 1) The physical setting of Louisville Kentucky and the Churchill Downs racetrack where the Derby takes place, and 2) The culture of jockeys and horseracing.

First, your physical setting. Whereas in fantasy you would make everything up, in this type of story you’ll need to do research to learn about the layout of the city and Churchill downs, the history of these places, famous landmarks, the climate of Kentucky, how the locals speak, and so on. You’ll also need to uncover details that will bring your story to life.

For example, there are details about my hometown that outsiders likely wouldn’t know. Like we’re very picky about how you pronounce Louisville (it’s Loo-uh-vul, not Lewis-ville or Looey-ville, in case you were wondering). And even if you’re a local and you’ve never been to the Derby, you still know that Derby hats and Mint Julips are a big thing because the local news will inevitably run stories on both of these every year around Derby time.

Your job as a writer is to uncover all these quirky little details to bring the setting to life. Every place has its own culture, and your readers want to experience it. These are the details that are going to give your setting character and make it stand out.

The second “world” you’d need to delve into is that of the horse racing culture, and also the life of a jockey. You would need to get the inside information about these worlds so they’re accurate and believable.

“Worlds” like this exist all around us, and everyone belongs to one world or another. For example, you and I belong to the “world” of fiction writing. We have our own lingo, jokes, processes, etc. that outsiders wouldn’t know. Your job is to bring the reader into whatever specialized world you choose so that by the end of the story, they feel like an insider.

Either Way, There Will be Work Involved

As you can see, it doesn’t matter whether you’re writing a fantasy, contemporary, or even historical fiction novel—there’s going to be a fair amount of work involved to develop a realistic setting, whether you’re making up all the details or researching them.

Having written both fantasy and historical fiction, I don’t know that one tactic or the other is really “easier.” With research it can be challenging to find the information you need, especially if you’re writing about something set in the past where you can’t visit the place at that time period or ask locals for inside information. On the other hand, creating an original, interesting fantasy world that’s detailed and realistic is no small task.

Whatever genre of story you write, take the time to put the extra effort into worldbuilding. Not only will help your story come alive and give your setting character, but it will make readers want to return to your book time and time again for a visit.

What books have you read that created believable, detailed settings that made you feel as though you were there? Tell me in the comments!

P.S. Behind on the Writing 101 series? Click to catch up! Part 1 (The Fundamentals of Story), Part 2 (Writing Term Glossary), Part 3 (Creating a Successful Hero & Villain), Part 4 (Unraveling Tension, Conflict, and Your Plot), and Part 5 (Let’s Talk Dialogue).

Ready for Part 7? Click here to read about Creating Effective Description!



How to Bring Your Setting to Life

How to Bring Your Setting to Life | Want to create a realistic, vivid setting your readers will wish they could visit? Learn the secrets of creating a setting that comes to life!

I love a book that can really bring a setting to life. You know, the stories that have these places you wish you could visit, and are so detailed you’re convinced they must exist somewhere. Narnia. Hogwarts. Middle Earth. Westeros.

Er…on second thought, I’d rather not go to Westeros. I’m fine admiring that one from afar.

But I’m not just talking about fantasy books here. What about books that are set in real places? For example, Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, which is set in South Carolina. The setting became a character in and of itself, and was so detailed that it made me want to visit South Carolina (which I eventually did!). I can’t imagine that book without its setting!

So how can you bring your story’s setting to life for your readers? Here are my top tips.

1.Sensory Details

In real life, our world is full of sensory experiences. To make your fictional world feel real, you need to engage the reader’s senses. Especially since your world is likely (though not always) one the reader has never been to before.

We need to be able to feel the desert sun on our face, hear the sheep bleating on an Irish farm, see two knights hurtling towards each other in a joust, taste the eye-watering spices of a chicken curry, smell freshly baked baguettes.

Writers tend to favor visual details because they’re obvious and the easiest to write. But really challenge yourself to use your other senses when you’re writing a scene.

2. Specific Details

To really bring a setting to life, use specific details over general ones. The more specific you can get, the better. Instead of a tree, say elm, poplar, cedar, or willow. Instead of a bird, say crow, chickadee, owl, or pelican. This will create a more vivid picture in your reader’s head

Also, avoid saying things like “there was a variety of fruit in the basket” or “he had a room full of complicated-looking scientific equipment” or “the walls were lined with paintings.” What kind of fruit? What sort of equipment? What type of paintings? This can be seen as lazy writing because creating specific details takes more work and a lot of times research.

Being specific doesn’t just give a more vivid picture, but it also lends credibility. When something is so detailed, readers will begin to think “How could this not be real? The author obviously knows what they’re talking about.” It shows that you’ve either done your research for historical/contemporary fiction, or have put a lot of time into developing your fantasy world.

3. Interesting Details

When you’re describing a setting, leave out the obvious details. You can’t describe everything, so you want to focus on the important stuff and leave out the clutter. The reader can fill in the blanks on her own. If you say “bedroom” the reader will automatically picture a room with a bed, dresser, and desk. We know what a bedroom looks like.

But, what’s different about this specific bedroom? What are the interesting details that make it different? Maybe the bedroom has a week old box of half-eaten pizza, a collection of dream catchers, or a shelf filled with books on big foot. Maybe there’s a mural of Justin Bieber painted on the ceiling. Or maybe there’s a giant crack in the wall with a mysterious light pouring out.

Coming up with interesting details for every setting can be a challenge, but it’s well worth the effort.

4. Similes

Similes play an important role in description. You need a way to link the unfamiliar sights and experiences of your world with something more familiar to the reader. How can we understand something we’ve never seen or experienced? It’s your job to bridge the gap with similes.

If you’re trying to describe a fantasy creature that doesn’t exist, you compare it to things we’re familiar with so we can see it: It has eyes like an owl’s, a tail like a lion’s, ridges like thorns growing out of its back.

What if you’re trying to describe the taste of Greek tzaziki sauce to someone who’s never tried it? You could say: “It tasted fresh like cucumbers and dill, with a pleasant tang.” Or what if you’re trying to describe the call of a kookaburra bird?: “The trilling sound coming from its beak sounded like laughter.” Notice that adjectives are also helpful for describing the unfamiliar, but be careful not to overuse them!

Find a way to translate the unfamiliar into the familiar so your reader isn’t left in the dark.

5. Subjectivity

What makes a setting interesting isn’t necessarily what it looks like, but what the viewpoint character notices and how she feels about it. Different people will view the same setting in different ways. They will notices different things.

One character might find a circus magical and exciting, and another might find it silly and boring. One character might admire the decor of a house, while another might admire the architectural design.

What does your character see and feel? Everything we’ve just covered–sensory, specific, and interesting details–should be filtered through your character. The similes you use should also come from your character. So, if you want to compare someone’s eyes to the sea but your hero lives in a desert and has never seen the sea, you need to find a different simile. When your character experiences new and unfamiliar things, he will pull from familiar details of his own world to bridge the gap.

6. Interaction

Your setting does no good if you paint a pretty picture that just sits there. A setting needs to do more than look pretty–it needs to work and be functional. You don’t want your keep your setting and characters separate, you want to mesh them together.

You can do this by having your characters interact with your setting. Give them “props” to handle or something to do in the scene. Maybe they’re cleaning a gun on the dining room table, rolling out cookie dough on the kitchen counter, or shelving books in a library. Your setting isn’t a museum where you can look but not touch!

Another tactic you can use is to make the character struggle against the setting. Maybe she’s biking home when it starts to storm, trying to hike through an overgrown forest, or gets lost in London while on vacation. We encounter struggles with out environment in everyday life, so showing that your setting isn’t perfect helps add realism.

What makes a setting feel real to you? Do you have any tips for making a setting come to life? Share them below!


Why Your Story World Needs Flaws

Why Your Story World Needs Flaws | When #worldbuilding for your fantasy #story avoid creating a perfect world. Add flaws into your world to make in more interesting and realistic.Creating a fantasy world can be really challenging. It takes a lot of work and creativity. But setting is extremely important in the fantasy genre–it can make or break your story.

When done well, fantasy worlds linger with the reader after they’ve finished the story. Hogwarts. Narnia. Middle Earth. Westeros. Each world is different and memorable.

But there’s one aspect of world building that a lot of writers (especially new writers) tend to overlook: flaws.

Think of your fantasy world as one of your characters. When you create your characters you don’t want them to be perfect, so you give them flaws. Why? Because perfect is boring. Flaws create interest.

When I wrote my first fantasy story, I created a perfect world. There was no poverty, no slavery, no hungry children, women were equal to men, the streets were clean of filth, and for all I knew there weren’t any prisons. All of the kingdoms got along and no one had enemies. All of the kings and lords were fair and just except for the “evil” king and my “evil” villain who wanted to take over.

It was a very black and white world in terms of good and evil, as fantasy can tend to be. And pretty boring. This is not the kind of world you want to create. Your story world needs flaws! You want to make your world as grey as possible.

What do I mean by this? Well, think about it. In real life, no country is perfect. Every place has its pros and cons, its prides and issues. America is the land of the free, but we had slavery. China now has the world’s largest economy, but they have severe pollution. Australia is beautiful, but everything there tries to kill you.

So, what are the issues of your world? It’s flaws? It dirty secrets? It’s atrocities?

When you create your story world, you need to go beyond the obvious flaws of a tyrant king, evil villain, and a war to save the kingdom. I get it, it can be hard to create flaws. No one wants to create a dark, terrible world–heck, we get enough of that on the evening news every night. It’s tempting to create the fantasy land of your dreams where you would want to live.


“But why not?” you ask. “I want readers to like my story world!”

Trust me, giving your world flaws won’t turn readers off. It will actually make them like it more! Strange, I know. But let’s look at the wonderful things adding flaws to your world can do for your story.


Giving your world flaws creates conflict. Yes, you’ll already have conflict from your plot, but having inherent conflict already worked into your story world creates even more options for conflict. And readers love conflict.


You know what else conflict does? It creates tension. And you want tension, because that’s what keeps readers turning pages.


Flaws make your world feel real to the reader. No place in real-life is perfect, so why should your story world be? Just like you give characters flaws so readers can relate to them, give your world flaws so the reader can relate to it.

To get you started on brainstorming flaws for your story world, here’s a list of examples.

Types of Flaws

  • slavery
  • racism
  • banning interracial marriage
  • greed
  • poverty/starvation
  • gender bias
  • disease/sanitation
  • savage, poisonous, etc. beasts
  • corruption of justice system
  • class divisions
  • contempt for certain field of work
  • persecution for religion, race, etc.
  • spies
  • civil war
  • drugs
  • alcoholism
  • severe weather/harsh climates/natural disasters
  • mistreatment of animals
  • mistreatment of mentally ill
  • mistreatment of handicapped
  • child/arranged marriage
  • adultery
  • polygamy
  • prostitution
  • rape
  • sex trafficking
  • kidnapping
  • orphans and widows
  • torture
  • murder/hired killers
  • restricted education
  • banning books, teachings, practices, etc.
  • mobs, riots, protests, rebellions
  • violent/extremist orders, religions, governments, etc.
  • unjust laws/limited rights
  • thieving, looting, raiding
  • debt, taxes
  • violence as entertainment
  • Child and spouse abuse
  • genocide, infanticide, suicide, etc.
  • refugees
  • bribes and betrayals

Does your story world have flaws? Do you find it challenging to create a flawed world?