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…