Posted by: Phil Anderson | September 8, 2013

Creating a World

I’ve written previously about creating characters, and more specifically about creating villains, but that’s just one step in the writing process. These fictional people also need a place to live.

From a practical standpoint, all fictional worlds are based on the real world to varying degrees. We’re all familiar with it, we understand how it works, and it’s a common foundation to build a story on. Everyone understand the basic laws of physics, like gravity and motion. A world with different physical laws would be utterly alien, hard for a writer to describe and for a reader to relate to. For example, an author who uses the word “tree” can expect readers to have a general idea of what it is, whether it’s a palm, pine, or oak. On the other hand it would take a great deal of explanation for them to understand something completely unique and unlike anything in reality.

So it’s good for a fictional setting to be familiar, but not too familiar, because there’s a necessary sense of escapism in reading. I would not be very interested in exploring the world of an accountant who works in an office all day. Familiarity is relative however, and a person from the city might enjoy a story set on a farm while someone who lives out in the country may not. Fiction encompasses a vast array of genres (which usually describes setting) from realistic to sci-fi to wild fantasy, and there are readers and writers all along that spectrum.

For myself, some of my favorite books and series are set in fantasy worlds like Narnia, Middle-Earth, and Prydain. I like books with a good map and enough variety in the setting that I want to keep coming back to explore it. In my own worlds I like to include diversity, both physical and cultural. Landscape needs variety, and people should not be described as if they are clones (unless that’s what the author is intending). No civilization is monolithic, so disagreements and differences of opinion give a sense of realism.

Language can give diversity and verisimilitude to a fictional world. People from dissimilar cultures should describe things using different words, perhaps even different languages. Constructed languages (or conlangs) are surprisingly numerous. JRR Tolkien created several different languages for the elves and other races that inhabit Middle Earth. One of the most famous constructed languages in pop culture is Klingon, developed for Star Trek by linguist Marc Okrand, which has a dictionary and distinct rules of grammar. The Klingon Language Institute has even translated Shakespeare’s Hamlet into Klingon. I could be tempted to create a language for my own fiction, but while it would be fun, I don’t have the time or energy to waste on a project like that.

I have a lot more thoughts about creating a world, so I’ll probably continue this topic in a future post.  In the meantime, what are some of your favorite fictional worlds? What makes them unique and what makes them feel realistic? Please leave comments below.

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