3. Setting/worldbuilding

Welcome to my How To Write A Novel series (the title of which is rather self-explanatory). I’m taking you through the key components and most common questions I get asked about novel writing – from the very first idea to how to know when you’re done – in a way that aims to provide real, practical, and not-so-generic advice, so you can write a novel you’re proud of, as painlessly as possible (but let’s be honest, you’re birthing something here – there’s going to be at least some pain involved).


You’ve got an idea, and some characters to carry it. Now we need to put them somewhere.

Treat your setting as another character
Decide if it’s fiction or based on reality
Option one: the “real world”
Option two: a made-up world
Option three: a fictional place within the real world
Keep notes
Key takeaways

Treat your setting as another character

Maybe I’m just weird, but the settings for my stories usually end up becoming their own entity. It takes on traits and quirks that give it a life of its own. It’s part of the story.

If you think about it, where you set your novel should change how the story’s told, much like it would depending on what characters you throw into the mix (I went over why your story should be affected by your characters during the last part of this How To Write A Novel series here). So why shouldn’t your setting get its own personality?

It needs to feel real, and real places have their own atmosphere. They have their own soul. Think about your favourite place in the world, and your least favourite. They’ll feel different. They’ll both have positives and negatives about them. The way they make you feel and the way you feel about them is similar to how a good or bad relationship should make you feel: you either want to spend time with them, or you don’t.

Decide if it’s fiction or based on reality (or something in-between)

You have about three options for your setting:

  1. The real world (e.g., New York).
  2. A made-up world (e.g., Narnia).
  3. A blend of the two – so a fictional place within the real world (e.g., a made-up town in Scotland).

As with anything, there are benefits and downfalls to each option. Your decision should be based on what is going to work the best for your story, or what appeals to you most (because the more something appeals to you, the better your story is likely to be).

Option one: the “real world”

Notice how above I said “based on reality”? If you’re telling a fictional story, even a real-life setting will never be one hundred per cent accurate. It does, however, give your story some immediate realism, meaning you have less work (initially) to convince your reader of the legitimacy of the story.

There’s less to think about as well, since the real world already has detailed necessities like currency and laws. However, depending on how authentic you want it to be, you might need to do further research to ensure you’re remaining accurate, as you can’t just start making up scientific rules or landmarks that don’t exist just to write yourself out of a hole.

If you decide you want to set your story completely within the real world, you need to consider the following:

  • How well do you know this place? If you know it like the back of your hand, great. If you’ve never even been there before, you might need to do some research. Having things like a map, with street names or landmarks on, might be useful either way.
  • Have I spent any time there? Remember what I said about places having an atmosphere? If you’ve never been to your setting, you might want to see if you can make at least one trip – how you make a reader feel about a place is something that helps the story feel real, and that ability comes easiest from first-hand experience.
  • What timeline am I in? London in the 1600s was vastly different to how it is now, so you (obviously) can’t use the current version if you’re writing in the past. The seventeenth century is not exactly somewhere you can visit to check your accuracy, so your chosen time setting may take more or less research, and it will vastly alter the story (and potentially its believability), so keep that in mind.
  • Am I going to use existing places? If you grew up on the streets of Melbourne and you know there’s a McDoyle’s Burger Bar on the corner next to an important park and want to use that, go ahead. But remember, businesses often change, and if you go with one real-world business, are you going to want every building in your story to be factually accurate (which requires yet more research)? Decide how strict you’re going to be (and remember this is often where the “based on reality” often starts to come in).

Option two: a made-up world

You might decide you want complete creative control and to build your world from scratch. This is often seen in fantasy and science fiction, but there are no definitive rules or pre-requisites.

Building a world should take time. You need to build it like a character and, again, not everything you come up with will make it into the story – but they’re still facts you need to know. World building should be enjoyable, so really go to town.

Some things to consider (or get the braincogs started):

  • Geography – Is there one small country or vast continents, are they divided by seas or something else, is there lots of open space or clusters of cramped cities, is the landscape grass, desert, or something entirely brand new?
  • Climate – Is it hot, cold, doesn’t even matter? Is there one sun, ten suns, no suns?
  • Technology – What kind of technology exists? Is it a level like ours, is it further advanced, is it completely non-existent? What implications does that have?
  • Transport – How do people get around? Horseback (or some other brand new kind of animal), public transport, underground, overground, do they fly, sail, walk, can they teleport, is there even anywhere to go?
  • Education and occupations – What kind of jobs do citizens get? What kind of schooling exists? Do they go to school? Are they home-schooled or apprentices of their parents? Is there even any kind of education? How are they expected to contribute to society?
  • Currency – How do people trade for goods? Is there a kind of money, or is one object traded for another, or is everything bartered through favours?
  • Science – What kind of scientific laws are around? Is their physics the same as ours? Do they have magic?
  • Religion(s) – Is religion a big deal? How many are there? What do they believe? Is there friction between groups? Is there an origin story?
  • Authority/leadership – Who leads this world? Is there democracy? A dictatorship? No order at all?
  • Housing – What kind of homes do people live in? Do they live with families, or in giant communes, or single apartment blocks, or out under the stars?
  • Life expectancy – How long are people expected to live? What affects it? Is there healthcare?

As I said, not all of this needs to feature in your story, but it will affect how your character has grown up, what experiences they’ve had, and how they’ll think.

Option three: a fictional place within the real world

This is often my preferred option. The idea is simple – you create a fictional place, like a town, but place it somewhere within the real world. It means you get to keep all of the existing world’s rules and structure, but without having to worry about the accuracy of street names and public transport schedules.

You still need to do some thinking: where is this fictional place set and what does that mean (for example, I know British laws and schooling and climate and things, but very little about all of that in Iceland); is it a typical, average town, or an eccentric, off-the-grid village; are my characters able to interact with real places in the real world (e.g., can they catch a train to Paris or fly to China)? Are you in the future, and was this place somewhere else before (e.g., a brand new city built where an earthquake-destroyed San Francisco used to stand)?

You’ll also need to flesh your place out. You might not have to do the more foundational creations, like laws and scientific rules, but you will need to decide how big your place is, what kind of features it has, what sort of landmarks or buildings are around, how many people live there, is it known for anything particular, does it have a main source of trade, etc.

Basically, you need to keep going until it feels real – until you get to a point where you expect to be able to book a ticket there.

Keep notes

Regardless of what option you choose, keep at least a few notes of your decisions as you go. For example, if gravity applies in your world in chapter two, you can’t have a bunch of characters able to defy it in chapter ten without a rational reason. Likewise, if you looked up the name of the ice-cream store that definitely lives in the very real city your character is visiting, you don’t want to have to go trawling back several pages later trying to remember what it was.

Some novelists also keep maps – whether their world is real or fictional – as reference; even if you don’t think you need one, they often help you get a deeper feel for the place, to believe its legitimacy, and to keep your facts straight. Trust me, even though you think you can remember everything, when you’re 60,000 words in and your characters are trying to find the highway by taking the second left off Fifty-first Street, you’ll be grateful for the map.

Key takeaways

  1. Your setting should have its own nuances and quirks – it should have its own presence in the story.
  2. You have three options for your setting: an existing place, a made-up place, or something between the two.
  3. For real-life places, try to go there, or at least do some research (especially if you’re writing in the past).
  4. Write down as many of the details of your setting as possible, even if they don’t make it into the story – it’s useful to know how the world works and how this could have shaped your character.
  5. Keep notes as you’re writing of things like place names and what’s possible in your world, so you don’t contradict yourself or forget details later.

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