The Magic of Worldbuilding in Fiction
What imagined worlds teach us about setting, place, and atmosphere
Setting, Place, and Atmosphere
A wonderland chocolate factory, a tech-enhanced arena where adolescents fight to the death, a sprawling haunted hotel in the mountains of Colorado — each of these images trigger immediate recognition for most of us. They are the landscape in which authors have told great stories, and each is the product of pure creative invention.
While characters are tantamount to great fiction, so is the world in which a story unfolds. Extreme exceptions aside, humans don’t live an entirely internal life. Our environment constantly shapes our thoughts, feelings, and actions. For this reason, the environment or world you create informs your story as much as your characters. This is true for any genre. Imagine Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi without the ocean, or Stephen King’s Misery without Annie Wilkes’s remote cabin.
An imagined world is comprised of many parts, but it requires at least three things: setting, place, and atmosphere.
Setting is the location and time period of a story. It could be considered the backdrop behind the stage. In The Great Gatsby, the setting is 1920s Long Island. In The Hunger Games, it’s the dystopian world of Panem.
Place is a more specific locale within the setting, like Winterfell or Hogwarts (as opposed to post-war Westeros or modern England). This is the stage itself, where the characters will act out their conflict.
Following the theater metaphor, atmosphere is then the lighting and props. It’s the difference between Jurassic Park in the daylight and after the power goes out. It’s what differentiates the gray wasteland of Kansas from the varicolored Land of Oz. Lighting, objects, weather, art, architecture, flora, and fauna can all contribute to atmosphere.
It’s a mistake to think worldbuilding is a tool exclusive to fantasy or science fiction. Every story has a world, even if it’s based on real life. It could be a house, a city street, a farm in the Italian countryside, or a ship from the Starship Federation. Your story needs a stage, and you get to build it.
In-depth worldbuilding isn’t easy to master. It takes a great deal of imagination, rumination, and meticulousness, and maybe some spreadsheets or overflowing notebooks. Fantasy master Brandon Sanderson spent a year planning the intricate world of Mistborn. That’s impressive, but not necessary for every work of fiction. Unless you’re planning an epic saga like George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, you can probably scale back on the worldbuilding and focus on writing. However, that doesn’t minimize the importance of the world in which your story takes place.
The best way to learn worldbuilding is to immerse yourself in different authors’ imagined worlds, then consider how the world is enriched. Does it contain an invented language? What kind of foods do the characters eat? What is the currency? What do people do in their leisure time? What are the cultures, and if they’re imaginary, how do they mirror those in the real world?
If you want to improve your worldbuilding skills, nothing will teach you better than reading what other authors have done. Below is a list of several great novels with phenomenal worldbuilding. It’s by no means an exhaustive list, but reading these will inspire you to create setting, place, and atmosphere in your own worlds. They will show you how to make the stage come alive, even if you don’t write in these genres. Read them with heightened attention to every invented aspect of the worlds within.
The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
This one tops every list of great worldbuilding examples. While plenty of authors have accomplished their own stunning worlds since The Lord of the Rings was published, Tolkien was the first to do it with such an epic scope. Tolkien was a linguist, and he invented elvish using real-life linguistic rules. He wrote long histories about Middle Earth, its cultures, and its lore. He drew maps. He wandered in the woods to absorb the intricacies of nature. He built the world first, and the story grew from it as an organic byproduct. Almost a century later, these books are still considered masterful.
A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin
Martin cites Tolkien as one of his greatest inspirations. In one interview, he said he knew more about Middle Earth than Uruguay, for example, such is his love for Tolkien’s worldbuilding. This is clear in Martin’s own world of Westeros. It’s introduced in this first book with a sprawling cast, a deep history, a slew of realistic and mythological creatures, magic, religion, complex politics, and diverse cultures. Unlike The Lord of the Rings, though, Thrones utilizes place to build several unique worlds, and the story then spans an entire globe rather than the focused locales within a singular quest. It’s also a great study of the way weather affects people and behavior, from the frozen lands beyond the Wall to the windy heights of the Vale of Arryn.
Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson
The Final Empire is a place of political intrigue and environmental devastation, but it’s the system of magic Sanderson created that sets this book series apart. Allomancy is a fresh idea, and it encompasses the sort of complexity that requires charts to explain. The way this magic is utilized, how different characters are able to interact with it, and the depth to which it informs the world are all brilliantly rendered. Sanderson is a master at showing how a world can come fully alive through careful, well-constructed detail.
Dune by Frank Herbert
Widely regarded as one of the best science fiction books of all time, Dune kicks off a long series of books about the desert world of Arrakis. The book is even said to have inspired George Lucas’ Star Wars films. It’s not just the carefully built barren atmosphere that makes this book come alive, but also the intricacy of political plots, ancient mysticism, environmental and cultural realism, the iconic sandworms, and the ubiquitous and lucrative spice. Atmosphere pulses from this world; you can feel the desert heat, the dearth of water, and smell the cinnamon scent of the spice melange. You know a world is well-constructed when it awakens every sense.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J. K. Rowling
This classic has had its praises sung plenty, but from a worldbuilding perspective, Rowling is a master at those extra touches of realism. From various forms of magical travel, a full catalog of unique confections, a library of invented text books, a complete roster of classes, an encyclopedia’s worth of magical creatures, a government, a newspaper, and even a fully formed imaginary sport, this book contains it all. It’s no wonder it became so immersive to generations of young readers and adults alike. Rowling makes her readers feel like they could stride into this world and feel right at home.
Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake
Peake is an often overlooked hero of worldbuilding. This book is the first in a trilogy, and is rich with gothic imagery, Dickensian characters, mystery, and the macabre. It takes place in a castle called Gormenghast, a haunting place of spidery candelabras, black spires, and secret passages. The cast perfectly matches the shadowy atmosphere, from the twisted Rottcodd to the mischievous Steerpike. The rich, sometimes overindulgent descriptions make the world of Gormeghast imprint itself indelibly on readers, and invoke an atmosphere of dread and secrecy.
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
Clarke’s new novel is a marvel of setting, place, and atmosphere. It unfolds in a labyrinthine house with its own ocean, where the tides crash in the lower Drowned Halls and clouds hover in the upper floors. It’s a dreamlike place of countless statue-filled rooms that the title character, Piranesi, wanders through like an explorer. It mirrors the maze of the human mind in its infinity, and it pulses with the mystery of why it exists in the first place. While the story is compelling and exciting, it’s the world that makes this novel unforgettable.
Neverwhere by Neil Gamain
No list of fantastical realms is complete without a Neil Gaiman book. Neverwhere takes place partly in London, but mostly in a dingy underground full of shabby figures and magic. Atmosphere plays a big role in this book. While the world itself isn’t as deeply rendered as Middle Earth, London Below is rife with enough shadows, rats, and secret doors to make it feel like its own universe. Gaiman also succeeds at creating unique characters that could only exist in this world — like the creepy Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar — rather than relying on familiar tropes.
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
Part of the novel takes place in an overpopulated, dystopian future, where great hives of stacked mobile homes house the lower class. But it also unfolds within a limitless virtual reality universe called the OASIS, which easily belongs in the annals of unforgettable settings. In the novel, the creator of this VR world — an eccentric named Halliday —is obsessed with 80s pop culture. Before his death, he creates a contest in which someone skilled in obscure 80s trivia must find hidden keys to win ownership of his multi-billion dollar company. The book walks through 80s nostalgia with the sort of reverence that makes the era come alive again. It’s high tech, futuristic, and completely retro.
The List Goes On…
This a small sample of unique and unforgettable worlds. Consider, too, the nature of setting, place, and atmosphere in classics such as the following:
The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Shining by Stephen King
Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
We Have Always Lived In the Castle by Shirley Jackson
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
Readers certainly remember the characters in these books, but the vivid imagery the authors create in their respective worlds (real or imagined) is what solidifies the stories in our minds. A well-formed place leaves a reader with an enduring image.
Putting It All to Good Use
How does place inform your own work? Think about the ways setting impacts your own story. How does it affect your characters’ moods, thoughts, and actions? If it’s pouring down rain outside, how does your character feel about it? If he or she is dancing, what does that say about them? How do they behave differently when they’re in the woods versus in their bedrooms? In the office or on a roller coaster?
Understanding your story on this level can help you develop your world more fully. It can also help you determine where events should take place. If something horrible is about to happen, do you want it to take place in a field of flowers? Maybe, but it’s trickier to maintain atmosphere that way. If someone is about to propose to their significant other, should this take place in a dark alley during a blizzard? The point is, the world around your characters informs the story as much as the characters themselves.
If you have a tough time visualizing, try an online image search for something that matches your scene, like “somber forest” or “bright office.” Looking at pictures can help you speculate how it feels to be in a particular scene.
Remember, you don’t have to become a master worldbuilder to create a compelling environment for your story. But studying the greats can show you how much the world you create affects the way a story feels, and it will lift your writing to a higher caliber.