What Fantasy (& Science Fiction) Writers Can Teach Us About Setting

What Fantasy (& Science Fiction) Writers Can Teach Us About Setting


Writers Write is your one-stop writing resource. In this post, we explore what fantasy and science fiction writers can teach us about setting.

What Fantasy (& Science Fiction) Writers Can Teach Us About Setting

World-building is a word or term used mostly in the genres of Fantasy and Sci-Fi, but if you think about it, it is pretty apt for any story.

You have a character who lives in a world. If this world is real and on planet earth, it is easier, but that doesn’t mean you have to spend less time on your setting. You, as the writer, should still be able to transport me to a place I have never been.

We can learn a lot from world creators about setting.

We tend to skip the details, because everyone knows what Johannesburg or New York or London is like, right? Maybe we do, but we want to know what is radiant or unique about that setting for your character. Regardless of whether we’ve been there or not.

If you write historical or dystopian fiction you are playing with time. If you are writing about a place you have never been you are dabbling with geography. Historical facts and geographical settings can be researched, whereas sci-fi, fantasy, and dystopian writers have to make them up.

[Read: World-Building For Every Genre: The Ultimate Setting Checklist]

How do they stay on track?

We all run the risk of falling in love with our research and creating something that reads more like a history textbook or a travel guide than a fiction novel. We don’t want that.

Fantasy and sci-fi writers have to consider every part of their world to make it believable and we should do the same. They use different approaches, but the basics are similar. You can use a ‘top-to-bottom or bottom-up’ approach or an ‘outside-in or inside-out’ approach.

Two ways to build a world

Basically you start small and go big or you start big and go small.

Start small:

To start small, you start with character. Spend the day with your character, following them around.

Do they press a button and have their breakfast printed by a 3D laser printer with added vitamins and emotional tracker pods? Do they have to milk the cow first or do they shake the cereal box and hear a few lost crumbs rolling around the bottom of the box?

The time frame and setting of your novel will help you narrow down the options. How do they get to work? How do they interact with their colleagues? Who is the ruling political party?

These little details will help to build a world. It serves as a starting point.

Can you see how it starts small and goes bigger the further from their home they travel?

Start big: 

If you want to start big, think about the world first, and then figure out how your story fits in.

In fantasy and Sci-Fi we often say the setting forces the plot. For example, the lack of oxygen in outer space, or the presence of magic or aliens, all influence your story and come from the setting.

Now ask yourself, why have you chosen to set your story in Johannesburg or in New York? Think of Nicholas Sparks, he sets most of his stories in the American South. The characters he uses are typical of that area, the conflicts they experience are typical and unique (mostly) to that setting.

You start big and go small, until you have character.

What Fantasy (& Science Fiction) Writers Can Teach Us About Setting

Settings that fascinate me are often found in animation. The Tinkerbelle series is amazing. A complete world for tiny people. In The Legend of the NeverBeast the fairies were armed with porcupine quills. How cool?  Not to mention the flower petal dresses and acorn hats. (Source for image.)

Is your story set in a time of war? What are their weapons? Guns and cannons or lasers or porcupine quills?

I love Toy Story, for all the attention they paid to the bottom half of the room. The walls are scuffed, the tiny little finger prints everywhere. They thought of everything. If you are writing about kids, sit or go down to their level. What happens if you can’t see what is on top of the counter?

What Fantasy (& Science Fiction) Writers Can Teach Us About Setting

What part of the setting forces your plot?

In the Sandra Bullock movie, The Proposal, a threatened change of setting (her American work permit is about to expire and she’ll be forced to go back to Canada) up-ends her life and she finds herself in Anchorage, Alaska. She and her Louis Vuitton suitcases must confront their fear of boats, a typical mode of transportation for that town. The waiter is also the stripper, which also apparently happens in small towns. The multiple employment scenario, not necessarily that all the waiters are strippers.

There is a lot I did not enjoy about Stieg Larsson’s trilogy, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, but one of the things I loved was the refreshing change of setting. I loved reading about the fjords and Strasse instead of another New York or London crime setting. There is nothing wrong with a London or New York setting, it was just cool to learn something new. I remember walking in Times Squares and Piccadilly Circus for the first time and it felt completely familiar, because I had been there before in books and movies.

As a writer you can also use a familiar place to your advantage. Imagine walking in Times Square and it is completely deserted, the Blindspot series started with exactly that scenario. Or at the end of Planet Of The Apes (2001), the Abraham Lincoln Statue. (source)

Watch out for our setting checklist. You will be able to use it for any story you write regardless of genre.

One of my favourites

P.S. This image below is called I am building a world for you. The artist is Sam Brown, and you should check out his blog, ExplodingDog.Com.

I love all his stuff. It is the closest I have ever come to describing the process of writing to anyone. Needless to say it is one of my favourite images of all time and it suits a blog post about setting and world building perfectly.

What Fantasy (& Science Fiction) Writers Can Teach Us About Setting

Top Tip: If you want to learn how to write a book, sign up for our online course or join our course in Johannesburg.