Tag Archives: World Building

When Settings, Like This Title, are Boring

Ho hum. Yawn. This story world is boring. YIKES! What does this mean? How do you fix it?

A boring setting means that the story world is dull and that the character’s interactions with it aren’t interesting. Who wants to read about a character’s morning routine (let’s call him Ted) – getting out of bed in the morning, making coffee and toast for breakfast seated at his table and munching and slurping as he reads the paper. (I am yawning, aren’t you? But stay with me, this story will pick up soon!)

Setting, or world building, involves not only the time period, genre expectations (science fiction, fantasy, historical, steampunk, to name a few), the milieu but also the ‘invisible’ things such as economics, politics, stability (war, peace, civil unrest, dystopia). From these are borne personal beliefs (may include religion) and values (for something, against something, or taking pains to be neutral). Mix these elements together to create opportunities for conflict which spurs characters into action.

Back to Ted. Let’s add an alarm clock and let’s make it a nagging hologram. Hologram – that’s futuristic. Ted has been partying the night before because today was his day off from his job as a strategist for the Space Army. Only the hologram won’t let him sleep and it’s nagging him to contact his commander – code confidential and urgent. Only, Ted isn’t thinking clearly yet so he tumbles out of bed, hits the dispenser for coffee and it’s not working yet again. He stumbles back into the bedroom, searches for his laser gun and notices a lump on the bed. He rips the sheet off and sees a woman obviously dead. A hologram of the commander appears to tell him to get his sorry self to a meeting. Secret Agent Alvaret is missing and along with her, key information that will compromise Space Army’s plans to stop the advance of the Slimy Worms and to save Space City.

Ted’s world now holds the promise of a futuristic science fiction world with an impending war and a murder to solve. We have the sense of the politics, the chain of command, and although the economics and daily lives of inhabitants are somewhat sketchy at this point, there is a lot of opportunity to create something interesting. The murder victim provides an opportunity to explore and to learn about the world through the investigation of her murder (Ted will have to figure this out because he’ll be blamed, and as he searches for clues, we’ll get to explore the world through his eyes).

Someone may argue that what I’ve just created is a premise not the setting. Boring Ted in a boring setting wouldn’t have an opportunity for a dead body to appear in his bed let alone have the fate of a space nation in his hands. He’d likely just have read about it in the paper and then gone to work. But that does not make a story.

However, if it’s boring Ted you still want, he needs to somehow be made a character readers will want to read about. He may be an ordinary man thrown into extraordinary circumstances. He’ll need quirks, issues to overcome, a reason to overcome them in a setting/world which won’t want him to overcome them. So although Ted may be your ordinary man, he’ll still have to function in extraordinary circumstances. Those circumstances are setting, with attention to detail even if it’s set in current times. Again, that means paying attention to details and taking nothing for granted about time and place. For some great examples on how to do this, read current mysteries set in modern times.

If the setting you’re creating feels boring, here are a few things to consider:

1) You don’t know the setting well enough yet.
Settings, like characters, can become cliché and trite. In Ted’s case, the author would need to know something about military strategy, about life on a space station/city, how the science operates, who the Slimy Worms are (background, aliens, humans) and why and how they pose a threat. In short, we need to know how the world works and what the character’s place is in it and how he sees it and himself. If these details haven’t been thought through, the setting won’t be rich enough to hold the reader or for the character to interact with.

2) You know the setting well and have thought through the details.
You know it but does the reader? Have you shown it as best as you can? Have you shown us the important details and not assumed that we can see what you can? Find ways to integrate the description into the story. For example, pinpoint tangible details using strong nouns and verbs along with dialogue and action. This will help strike the balance between showing and telling.

3) Too much telling and not enough showing.
Too much telling can be boring. Description after description after description! Is that information important? Sometimes it is. Telling can be in the form of exposition, narrative summary or static description. There is a place for it but it must be used sparingly: if there is information that a reader needs to know: actions or time need to be sped up; or showing would be too long and would slow the story down. But always, avoid adjectivitis! Too many adjectives, too many descriptors, can bore readers and slow the story. Always consider if the details are important. If not, cut them. If they are important, use strong nouns and verbs.

No matter how and when you describe setting, how you show it through dialogue, emotion, internal monologue, action or exposition, setting has only one purpose. That is to help move the story forward.

When editing your story, ask these questions:

1) Is the sentence showing or telling?

2) Note if you or your beta readers feel themselves skimming over information. Ask: Is it info dump? What purpose does this information have?

3) Is the sentence too long? Does it contain too much information? Is it important? What do I need to say to move the story forward? How much impact or punch does the sentence have? This means accuracy, clarity and brevity. However, as Ken Rand notes in THE 10% SOLUTION, if accuracy and clarity (therefore more words) are needed to tell a story, then brevity must take a back seat.

Setting need not be boring. It is only if we don’t explain it well enough, or use it properly (either in info dumps or without clarity) in the context of the events in the story. Know your world well and explore it with your protagonist as you write. Use the editing process to determine if there is sufficient information about the setting and if your characters are serving not only the plot, but also to reveal the world to the reader.

Now, to do something about that boring title …

When Setting Sets the Scene for a Publisher’s Rejection


I Forgot Where I Am or Why



Will Build Worlds for Spare Change

A Guest Post by Sonia Orin Lyris

In this month’s theme of work-life-balance, author Sonia Orin Lyris tells us how a real-life encounter with an historian influenced the details in her novel. Sometimes it’s the people we meet in real life who have the most profound influence on our stories. Watch for my interview with Sonia next month on her new novel, The Seer.

Ace Jordyn


“I’m a historian”, she said darkly. “I don’t read fantasy novels. They get the details all wrong.”

Layout 1I don’t typically beg first readers for comments, but this one was special. It was the early days of my world-building on THE SEER and I needed all the help I could get.

I asked again, very politely, and it’s possible a bit of high-end dark chocolate changed hands. Never underestimate the power of a quality bribe.

World-building trade secret, folks: if you can get a historian to read your story and tell you their pet peeves, every one of them is going to be world-building gold. Whether you make use of their complaints or not, you’ll know something about the why of them, and that’s the path to creating a world that feels real.

I had already done my research, and plenty of it, but no matter how much you study, you’re still responsible for creating the world from scratch, and if it doesn’t hang together right, the reader can feel it. You-the-author are responsible for every detail. Every detail! Consider the world around you, the one in which you’re reading these words. How many millennia did it take to assemble? How many people — in this very moment — are busy making our planet what it is, right now?

A lot. Very, very many.

But to create your book’s world?

Just one. With a little help from first readers, if you’re lucky.

The historian finally agreed. She’d take a look. But she wasn’t making any promises.

I said thank you. (Always be appreciative for the time your advisers give you.) With trepidation, I sent her the first few chapters.

The next week my inbox was filled with indignant treasures, among them this: “No, no, no! This is NOT a D&D game. Coins have names! Coins have histories!”

I instantly knew how right she was. Knew it like the contents of my own pocket.

Pennies. Nickels. Dimes. Not “coppers.” Not “large silvers.”

I dove back into my research and emerged soaked in currency-related facts, from minting to metals, from Greece to China. The facts went on and on, as did the likeness of people and horses and birds and insects, of ships and buildings, of angels and flowers, of myths and monarchs.

So many coins, each symbolizing their culture’s prosperity and priorities. Its very self-image.

I now understood that not only did coins have names and histories, but they were keys to wealth and power, to trade and politics. Coins affected everyone, from rulers to merchants to the poorest of the poor. Coins mattered, and mattered quite a bit.

Coins had names and histories. They had faces. Coins traveled.

That’s when it hit me: Coins are stories.

I felt chills.

Armed with this new insight, along with an overview of thousands of years of currency history, I went back into my world’s empire and made money, and a lot of it. I emerged with sketches of coins and knew what I could buy with each one. I could feel in my hand the weight of the coins and hear the sound they’d make clinking together. I understood how each had come into being, how they were manufactured, and the politics and symbolism behind them.

I already had money in my world, but now I wove it more tightly into the story, and the repercussions of this affected the plotline, and the plotline in turn affected the currency. A circle, much like the coins themselves.

When I came out the other side, my story and its setting had a new shine and hard solidity that had not been there before.

I can tell you, for example, that the most common imperial coin of the Arunkel empire can be broken into quarters, and pieced back together like a puzzle, so you can see the picture of the dog, moon, and queen. Not just any queen, either — the Grandmother queen, a powerful monarch. Well-respected. Perhaps a little feared.

I named the queen and the coin after my historian first reader.

When I told her, she seemed pleased. She might even have smiled a little.

Sonia Orin Lyris is the author of The Seer (http://bit.ly/seersaga), a high fantasy novel from Baen Books (http://www.baen.com/). Her published fiction includes fantasy, science fiction, horror, mainstream, and more, and may be found at lyris.org/fiction . Follow her on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/authorlyris/) or Twitter (https://twitter.com/slyris). You can also read her blog at Noise and Signal.

World Building Tools

A guest post by Joshua David Bennett.

World BuildingIn fifth grade, I wrote my very first story about a raccoon space pirate named Bucky. Way before Guardians of the Galaxy, Bucky was breaking new ground for raccoons, flying through space in his minivan with his best friend Raven, looking for treasure.

I was trying to recreate the wonder I had when I first saw Star Wars or read Hitchhiker’s guide.

For better or worse that story is lost to the ages. But thirty odd years later, I still love the thrill of exploring a universe in my own mind.

This month on Fictorians we’re talking tools, with a focus this week on worldbuilding. We won’t be going deep on principles or philosophies in this article. For that, Writing Excuses has worldbuilding episodes that are relevant whether you are designing a magic system, mapping nebulae, or even trying to fill historical gaps in 19th century Paris. Perhaps the best advice from them is to stretch beyond your story’s core characters and conflicts to include everyday details. If you can show how magic and science have affected even the ordinary, your world will be much richer.

The tools below can help. There will be many. Grab a coffee and make sure your browser can handle twenty tabs at once.

Starting Big

Assuming I already have a character and a conflict, my process always begins with setting. Yours may start elsewhere. I need evocative scenery for the characters to play in, and what scenery is grander than the final frontier?

If you’re writing a science fiction, the tools below can help you populate your vast universe with solar systems for your characters to explore. For fantasy, these tools can provide the scientific backing for far stranger worlds than Tolkien imagined.

Universe Sandbox ($10) is a beautiful space simulation program. You can spin the Earth around the Sun at 10x time, restore Pluto’s pride by scaling it into a megaplanet, or add brand new worlds to our system. The upcoming sequel adds even more options, like procedural planet creation, terraforming, and planetary collisions.

StarGen is a free online tool with no graphical flair to speak of, but makes up for it with scientific rigor. Give it a few parameters and it creates a whole solar system of planets, each complete with data on surface temperature, atmospheric mix, length of year, and a dozen other things you might need to know.

For an actual image of your world, turn to Fractal Terrains ($40, Win) or the free Fractal World Generator. Either will generate a random world, but Fractal Terrains will also let you edit coastlines, mountains and islands to your liking. Tweak humidity levels and heat to see different terrains appear. Then let the program apply wind and water erosion, and pretty soon you have riverbeds running through your landscape.


A good map is a wonderful writing aid. I use mine for story consistency, travel times, and to see which keyWorld Building map locations haven’t yet been used in a scene. For a reference map, the only tools you really need to are pen, paper, and inspiration. For inspiration, I highly recommend the Cartographer’s Guild. Here you’ll find amazing fictional maps that can give you ideas for what kinds of details to include on your own.

If you want a more advanced tool, there are several. Campaign Cartographer ($45, Win) and Fractal Mapper 8 ($35, Win) are both fantasy mapping tools for the gaming crowd. Draw out continents and then use the available symbols to add forests and cities. Fractal Mapper goes a step farther and allows you to map building interiors as well.

Gimp and Inkscape are fully featured and fully free graphic programs. The learning curve is steep, but either can create maps, mock up covers, house sigils or anything else you can imagine.

But perhaps the easiest way to get a detailed look at your world is to let a game make it for you. Games like Dawn of Discovery ($10, Win) and Anno 2070 ($30, Win) simulate building and managing a city, in Renaissance Europe and the near future respectively.


Filling your world – Order, Chaos and a little help from friends

World Building population

Unless your story is dystopian, you’ll want to fill those empty maps with life. This can be an enormous task, and it can be hard to know where to start. Fortunately, the fantastic and amazing Kitty Chandler has put together the WorldBuilding Leviathan and the equally amazing Belinda Crawford has created a Scrivener template out of it. In either form, the Leviathan prompts you with questions about your world’s timeline, culture, technology level, economy, biases, taboos, factions, and a dozen other variables. In the end, you’ll feel as if you’d actually lived there.

Sometimes the ideas won’t come, and trying to brainstorm will send you into a glassy eyed stupor. When that happens, introduce some chaos to get yourself unstuck. Seventh Sanctum has a trove of random generators for anything from currency (two Imperial credits) to dragon breeds (Persian Rockstrike), to diseases (the Gray Sneeze) and more. If you’re lacking for a detail to get you out of a rut, this can be just the ticket.

Other times, the ideas come freely, but leave you with more questions than answers. The Worldbuilding Stackexchange is a great place to get general help. When I last checked, the top question was “How to create a nuclear explosion localized to only a few square feet.” We’ve all wondered that. Now you can find the answer.

If your questions are specifically about the creatures you’re putting in your world, the Speculative Evolution forum might be more your speed.

Or, if you are developing your own magic system, Brandon Sanderson’s fansite hosts a Creator’s Corner with people doing the very same thing.


Building a Story Bible

Story BiblePretty soon, you’re going to need a story bible to hold all the details about your world. Scrivener ($40) is fantastic not just for writing but also for brainstorming and storing every snippet about your world.

Personal wikis are another popular option. These act as your world’s Wikipedia, with easy linking between your various topics. You can quickly build a network of articles, complete with tables or inline images. WikidPad is a favorite tool of folks over at Writing Excuses, but I’ve found TiddlyWiki or ZimWiki to be more intuitive. All three are free to use. Whatever your preference, these tools can help you to build a great reference tool for your world.


As enticing as these tools can be, Know When to Stop. Worldbuilding should not be an exercise in filling endless binders with your own private sandbox. Instead, it should always serve to enhance the story. I love the way my friend James Artimus Owen puts it. “We have the best job. We get to create things in our minds that are so amazing, other people are going to pay to know what they are.”

Make sure these tools drive you back to the open page, and to finishing the story so you can share it with others.

Josh BennettAuthor Joshua David Bennett is a scotch lover, history enthusiast, graphic artist, and world traveler. His first novel, Seacaster, is a Caribbean-Aztec fantasy that tells the story of a young man at war with the magic coursing through his veins. Joshua lives in Colorado with his wife and son.

Setting as Character: How to Give it Voice

It’s the quiet ones you’ve got to watch out for like when the kids are suddenly quiet and that tells you there’s trouble’s afoot. It’s the same in a story. When setting is too quiet, your story is in trouble. The problem with setting as character is that setting has no real voice, at least it doesn’t participate in dialogue directly – or does it?

Setting, we are told, must do more than be a background for characters to engage in. It should determine HOW they engage, WHY they engage and REVEAL how characters see their world, themselves and others. Setting is the voiceless character who niggles, needles, exaggerates, creates, destroys, challenges, extracts and dampens. How do you write a voiceless character?

For great ideas and the basics on creating setting and world building, you can peruse our archives. But to understand how to make setting as real and alive as your other characters, here are some things to be aware of:

6) Setting is personal. To understand what is important to POV character ask him how he’d react and feel if his world was suddenly changed or destroyed. What would he miss? What would he fight for? When a person loses their home whether it’s because of weather, war, politics or even choice, there is loss and grieving. That makes setting personal. Does setting herald change or present a conflict? Is there a storm? A volcano about to erupt, a nuclear device about to explode? An impending war? Political change? A lost love? A demand to convert?

2) Setting is the voiceless, albeit dynamic, character with whom the POV interacts and relates to varying degrees. This interaction reveals both the world and the character just as any good dialogue reveals something about its participants. How will the man in a suit react if he finds himself: in the midst of a medieval battle against dragons? Hitchhiking with a suitcase in hand? With an extremely belligerent client threatening a much needed sale? Performing on stage?

Let’s take the suit analogy one step further: Setting is more than just the background fabric of your character’s experience, it is the tailored cloth, designed, sewn and fitted just for him. In the pockets of that tailoring, he carries with him the tools he needs to be his larger than life self or not – sometimes it’s the pockets which are stitched shut or the empty ones that are the most revealing.

3) The POV can only see what’s import to him so we must be able to see and understand his world through his eyes. His experiences and his reactions form his dialogue with setting. Is a hot sunny day a reason to hide indoors, play on the beach, curse the office job, time for a cold beer in the pub, a perfect day to move the troops? Is a fog depressing or an opportunity for mischief? Thus the reader learns the most about the character and his setting when the descriptions are filtered through his point of view.

4) Setting reveals what is unique an important for the POV thus allowing his voice to come through. Not every character experiences (physically or emotionally), understands or reacts to the same environment in the same way.

5) It’s more than just geography – it’s the sociology, economy, level of technology, religion, politics, societal and personal values of the POV and those he interacts with. These are areas of potential conflict. Just as importantly, setting tells us what we need to know about the POV. What does the world/setting expect from him? Saint or serf? Hero or villain? It can also include sensory inputs: sight, smell, sound, touch, taste, heat, cold, or the passage of time. Remember the suit? In some societies, clothing symbolizes status and what the POV and others wear is important.

6) Setting is active, has impact and can change throughout the story. Is it friend or foe? Is it a place to hide (friend), a fight on a cliff (foe), dystopia (foe), utopia (friend), does it impede (foe) or help (friend) the POV’s plans? How does it help or hinder a POV from achieving his story goal? If it’s too dull, blow it out of proportion to make it larger than life just like you do to achieve maximum impact with plot or character. A POV can always change the setting, or strive to. Change may be societal, political, within a community, family or locales.

Like other characters, setting can based on an archetype. Archetypes typically offer challenges, gifts and opportunities for POVs. Does the the setting in your story have archetypal traits and if so, what can you do to make it a stronger character?

The Sorcerer: a place of magic which has interesting consequences
The Magician: where we can be made to believe anything but is it real? Is the situation sustainable? What happens when the luck wears off? Is this a place of transformation with the gift of power?
The Green Man: a life force that impels growth, vitality but growth has a dark side of death and decay.
The Mentor: possesses wisdom, is a teacher and sometimes a healer. Can serve as a motivator, conscience and gives the hero a gift once he’s earned it.
The Herald: a challenge for change the herald can be a force, a thing, an event (tornado). The herald disturbs, unbalances.
The Threshold Guardian: tests the hero by providing obstacles; not always defeated but the hero learns from the experience.
The Shape Shifter: friend or foe, will the shape shifter help or hinder/betray? Crafty and charismatic, the shape shifter confuses and tests the hero.

So maybe setting isn’t such a quiet character after all. Voiceless in some ways, but it speaks its own extremely complex language. Archetype, friend or foe, setting is a dynamic environment that is as alive as any other character because it illuminates, challenges, and demands calls the POV to action.