Thinking of Your Story's Setting / Worldbuilding as a Character

Your story’s setting–the geography, city/town, culture, beliefs, traditions, etc.–is important. It grounds the story in a world readers can imagine and one your characters can interact with. The setting can further your story by helping or hurting your characters on their journey.

So what does it mean to make setting its own character? How do you make something a character when it’s not a person?

Like characters, your setting has its own personality, traits, and backstory. These are what make it character-like.

Where do you start?

As you begin framing your setting as something with a personality and backstory–and not just a place with some buildings and weather–ask yourself some of these questions.

  • What’s the backstory of this location?
  • Are there distinct eras in this setting’s history? What are they? Why are they important?
  • What moments from history have impacted the setting’s culture? And in what way have those moments impacted the culture?
  • What’s the current culture, the ones your characters exist within, in your setting?
  • What expectations does society have around things like education, occupation, and family life?

Thinking about the average person

As important as your main characters are in your story, think about the average person living in this setting and how it impacts their life.

  • What kinds of jobs are available?
  • What kind of identity do residents have related to this setting? In other words, how do residents see themselves in relation to the culture and locale?
  • What beliefs does the average person hold?
    • These might be religious, political, & so forth.
  • What does day-to-day life look like for the various tertiary characters in your story?
  • What common threads run through the average population’s story? Do they have common experiences and interests?
    • For example, we all have our own stories from 2020’s events that share common threads. In a story, this might be some historical event, a landmark, or even a local restaurant the neighborhood rallies around.

Knowing how the setting impacts the average person will help you weave these kinds of details into your story, and it’ll also inform potential obstacles your characters face in some way.

How does setting impact story?

it’s great to know all of this information for the purpose of worldbuilding, but setting isn’t just about the history of a place and the food residents eat. Those things are important and can influence your story, but there are also power structures within your world.

Ask yourself:

  • Who has power in this world?
    • How did they obtain it?
    • Is this power religious? Political? Economic? Some combination?
  • What are the socio-economic stratifications in society? How does your main character fit into this?
  • Is your main character fighting against this big power structure? For it? Simply existing around it?
    • For example, if your character simply exists around the power structure, they probably don’t interact with these ‘power players’ much. Their story might hinge on some other type of power or problem.
  • Does your character want some kind of power for themselves?

Beyond power, other elements of your story can create conflict for your characters and obstacles for them to overcome.

  • How do the weather and seasons impact daily life?
  • How does your character’s socio-economic status influence how they interact with the world/how the world interacts with them?
    • Does it create any specific problems? For example, a princess will have different problems than a chef.
  • What faux pas could your main character commit that leads to some kind of misunderstanding or issue?
    • Are there other unspoken rules and expectations your character breaks?
  • How strict are the laws and regulations in society? Does your main character have to break one to continue on their journey?
    • If they do have to break some law, does this put them in danger with the authorities?

Everything comes back to your characters

When you’re thinking about setting, everything circles back to how it hurts or helps your character(s) on their journey. And by considering the complex layers that go into any society, you can create a more interesting, engaging experience for your readers.

Need a writing exercise?

As you continue working on your worldbuilding, you might find you’re still struggling to nail down some of these details. If that’s the case, don’t worry! The writing exercise below should help.

Imagine your friend is visiting your fictional world for the very first time. Surprise–you’re their tour guide!

  • What landmarks do you show them?
  • How do you explain the political and economic systems?
  • What clothes would you have them wear during the summer to blend in? The winter?
  • What ‘day-in-the-life’ activities would you have them do to get a taste of your world’s life?
  • Think about food next; what food would you have them try?
  • What details in this fictional world would engage their five senses? How would these details make or break their visit?
    • For example, do you take them by the fish market at the docks on a summer day? That probably wouldn’t smell great and could be a negative factor on this tour.

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Your book's setting is so much more than just a few places! It plays a big role in your story. | Between the Lines Editorial