On Writing: Developing your Fictional World

Writing fiction requires the creation of the world within which your characters exist. The shorter the fiction, the smaller the world, simply because you don’t have much time to include or describe a very large world in short stories. In fact, one of the limitations of a short story is restricting the action to a single scene. On the other hand, if you write a novel, your world will necessarily be as big as wherever your story takes your characters.

World creation is not simple and becomes less so as the world expands. You need to know every single detail of your story world, whether it is modeled after a real setting or completely fictitious. The easiest way to do it is, of course, to pattern your story world after the real world you know. Whether it is a single room, a house, or a whole village, you can create your story world with better details than if you have no idea what the story world looks like. Is your character a teenage male? Pattern that after your teenage son or nephew or brother’s room. Is it an old house? Use your grandparents’ house or some old house in town which you have access to. Is it a museum? Visit your local museum. Do you want to use a complete village? Get a map of your village or some little village you want to use, rename the streets, change the names of the commercial establishments, put in your landmarks, and voila! You have your own village. You can add or remove buildings as you need, but regardless of the changes, you will have a complete setting where your characters can come alive. It’s a little more difficult if you’re writing fantasy and creating a whole world because you don’t have much to go by. Despair not! All you need to do is take a detailed geographical map of a particular area, region, island, country, or continent. The geographical map will give you a land with the physical features you want. Throw in forests, add a few more mountains or water systems and you’ll have a wonderful land your characters can explore and adventure in. As usual, I advise students to take advantage of the Internet. Get your maps from Google maps or Google Earth. You can also use Google to explore specific areas by using street views or searching for photographs that give you incredible details of nearly any place in the world. The Internet also provides you with boundless information on architecture, history, culture, anthropology, economics, technology – just about everything you need to create your own world in such minute detail the information could overwhelm you. Unlike the past when writers were limited to write only what they knew or imagined, writers nowadays can travel around the world and experience different cultures enough to include that in their stories. Your biggest problem will be how to become more selective, what to include, what not to include, and how to make use of the information you gather in your writing.

With the glut of information available on the Internet, writers can be overwhelmed and end up creating an information dump. Beginning writers, in particular, need to restrain themselves from including every bit of information they write when developing their setting. This is often the case with my writing students, who have felt so attached to the settings they developed, they felt compelled to include everything in their stories. The point of creating detailed settings prior to writing the actual story is to know the setting so intimately your characters can walk through them blindfolded–or, at the very least, not walk right through a wall another character just bumped into. Creating a detailed setting description helps you create consistency in the physical environment so it is clear your characters are moving around in the same space. What you should not do, however, is to describe the whole setting before the story begins. As far as I am concerned, the best way to describe your setting is to reveal it as the characters encounter it. If your story begins in the bedroom, by all means, describe the bedroom, but don’t go ahead and describe the rest of the house until your character leaves the bedroom and moves through the house. If your character stands at the bedroom window and looks out, by all means, describe the scene outside the window, but don’t describe what the rest of the neighborhood is like. If your character eventually goes down into the basement, don’t describe the basement until your character goes there. That way, you will never be in danger of dumping a load of irrelevant information on your readers. You will have less of a tendency to digress, as well. The same rule of thumb should be applied to other characters in the story, as well. Do not describe them or introduce them until your active character meets them or encounters them. It’s a good way to keep your readers involved and keep your writing focused.

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