The earth, seen from space, is beautiful. A shining sphere of blue and green and brown, swirled and spotted and striated with white clouds. The side hidden from the sun is darkened where cities do not glow. Even the daylit hemisphere is obscured from time to time with crossing moonshadow.
Here on the ground we get a different view. We see the roads and schools and zoos everyday. We read newspapers and eat in restaurants. People of endless variety and potential swarm across the globe, each known in and knowing of the smaller world of their experiences. They cannot see the bigger picture.
As creators of worlds for fiction and gaming, we must see the big picture. It is our duty to paint the landscapes of our settings with enough detail to engage and fascinate. We may find ourselves responsible for entire cultures and continents. Truly epic works may find us bearing the weight of galaxy-spanning civilizations.
But like our audience, we must also be able to relate with the microcosms as well. When building believable settings we naturally draw on our own experiences and the themes of the work itself. Each theme, each culture, each great wonder becomes a facet in the spinning, glittering jewel of your universe.
In our last article, we looked at scope and gained some perspective on what our audience needs for the story. Seemingly minor details that fill in the corners of imagination become vital tools to capture attention.
Larger themes and elements of setting are just as important. What are your story’s geographical traits? The weather? How have these things acted on your characters’ culture? Are your paranormal gumshoes clad in greatcoats against Londonesque damp? Do the villagers of Edenvale go without shoes in the summery glow of the White God’s Hearth?
Intimate familiarity with the environment allows for the rich texture that fantasy and speculative fiction require.
Try these exercises to sharpen your vision:
1) Are you familiar enough with your setting to describe it in succinct and powerful prose? Try your hand at it. After all, you may need to write a similar passage later for the finished story. Here’s an example:
The Babylon Project was our last, best hope for peace. A self-contained world five miles long, located in neutral territory. A place of commerce and diplomacy for a quarter of a million humans and aliens. A shining beacon in space all alone in the night. It was the dawn of the Third Age of Mankind – the year the Great War came upon us all. This is the story of the last of the Babylon stations. The year is 2259. The name of the place is Babylon 5. -The opening monologue for Babylon 5, season 2.
2) Look back in your world’s history and imagine a geological event. Say for example that your setting is a great port city perched on an enormous, mountainous island. A port wants a nice, protected bay. What were the effects on flora and fauna? What if, long ago, a meterorite plummeted into the mountainside, carving out such a bay? There may be remnants of an ancient society scattered across the floor of the surrounding ocean. More history can be developed to cover the current culture, detailing the time and circumstances of their arrival and development. How much of this information will make it into your game or manuscript will vary of course, but world builders are well-served by the knowledge. Try writing a short story or flash fiction depicting the event.
3) Consider the human-made (or elf-made, etc.) wonders of your world. Who created them, and what kind of effect do they have on their cultures? Are they magical or technological in nature?
Each feature can become a backdrop, a tool, or even a kind of character. A diamond is cut to capture and reflect as much light as possible, each facet harmonious with its like. Such is your world, a robust miracle of elegance and complexity.