Quick note from yours truly:
I’ve never had a post about world building before, so I’m really excited to feature someone who is excellent at this storytelling technique. Rami Ungar is one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet, and if you enjoy thrillers and/or horror, why not check out one of the books listed below this post?
Thank you, Rami, for doing this post for this blog!
Now for Rami’s post:
Building a Fictional World
Setting is one of the most important aspects of writing any story, especially speculative fiction such as fantasy, science fiction, and horror. In many ways, the setting of a story is another character, because it interacts with the characters on almost every level of the story. Doesn’t matter whether it’s modern-day Columbus, Ohio, or Victorian England, or the moons of Jupiter, or the fantastical land across the waters that elves come from. One can’t write a great story by neglecting its setting.
This becomes more and more apparent to me the more and more I write. Luckily, I’ve come across a few techniques over the years that I feel might be helpful to authors of all genres and levels of experience. And the first one that I have to impart is this:
1. Be aware of how much setting shapes the story. And I really mean that when I say “shapes.” A setting is history, culture, fashion, literature, language, economy, government, religion, politics, and a whole lot more wrapped into one. Even if we include only a fraction of that in the stories we write—especially short stories, because seriously, where’s the room?—it still holds true. After all, all the stuff I’ve just mentioned shapes our own world, and isn’t all fiction some reflection of our world?
Now I’m not saying you have to think about every aspect I’ve just listed when deciding to write each and every story. I set a story partially in a beach-front property, I didn’t think about the real estate for Florida rentals near the beach or which beach I was going to set this property on. I think the farthest I went was looking into swimsuit fashions and styles. But if you’re creating a world where one in one-thousand people are born with animal features and it’s considered normal or a fantasy world in which biological sex is determined later in life, you’re going to want to consider how that would change society and the people in it. How were the animal-like people treated throughout history? Can you urge your children towards one sex or another? It’s something to think about.
This brings me to my next point:
2. Your world has to be believable. I cannot stress this enough. If you create a setting that has a huge logic hole in it, the readers will disconnect from the story so fast, it’ll make your head spin. A great example I’ve heard is a writer who says, “I’m going to write a story about a world where everyone has guns but nobody has ever thought to use them.” Well, why? That doesn’t make any sense. Why would no one use guns if everyone has them? They do know what guns are, right?
So you really want to be careful with creating these fantastic worlds and really think them through. Even worlds that seem to make sense on the surface can occasionally have huge logic gaps if you really think about them. For instance, one of the reasons I dislike the Hunger Games books is because if you really think about it, Panem doesn’t need the Hunger Games to keep the threat of rebellion at bay. They’re a technologically advanced society that can whip up genetically-engineered monsters in a short period of time. Instead of a gory death battle that takes away valuable human resources every year, they can just add an aggression-diffusing drug to the water supply. Problem solved! It’s that sort of logic pitfall that you want to avoid putting into your stories as an author, because they can come back to haunt you, and the best ways to make sure you don’t fall into these traps is the same way we grow as writers: constant practice, having our work critiqued by impartial readers who will be honest with us, and reading the works of other authors whose worlds have stood the test of time.
If you want an excellent contemporary example of a fantastic fictional universe where nearly every aspect is thought out and makes sense, I highly recommend the Red Rising trilogy by Pierce Brown. The story’s whole premise centers on a society that created oppression on its lower classes precisely because it was the most economically sensible thing to do, and it works! I’m in the middle of the final book, and I still can’t find anything that doesn’t make sense in this story. It’s very well thought out, which is why I recommend it if you want a good example of logical world-building.
3. Research, research, research. Authors will debate what part of writing is the hardest. This usually isn’t one of them. In fact, I like to think research is one of the easier parts (and, depending on what you’re researching and how you’re researching it, one of the most fun). For many stories, you’ll have to do lots of research, and I advise you to not skip it or skimp on it. Believe me, the more research you do for a story, the better the story will turn out. Even if you continue researching throughout the writing process, and not everything you research appears in the final story.
Back in high school, I wrote a short story about a teen who was a member of Hitler Youth in Nazi Germany. At that time, I didn’t know a thing about the Hitler Youth, so I got a book from the library that gave me the information I needed. That story never got published, but it came out a great deal better because I did my research. A couple years later, I published my first novel, Reborn City (which is below), for which I did a ton of research into gang violence, Islam, and a variety of other subjects. To this day, it’s still my most popular novel, partially because my research into those subjects helped make the world of the story feel so real (though I’m hoping the sequel proves to be even more popular).
So definitely don’t miss out on the research stage. It can be one of the most important parts of creating a successful, believable world in your stories.
Above all, keep reading and working. As I mentioned earlier, checking the work of those who came before and practice makes us better at finding those holes in the logic of our stories. But they do so much more than that: they make us better writers in general. Reading other authors, finding what works or doesn’t work in the story, and then testing out what you’ve found is the best way to figure out how to create your own amazing fictional universe. You can read all the articles you want on the subject, but until you start writing, progress cannot be made.
So go out there and give it a go. You never know what’ll happen until you try.
From a young age, Rami Ungar has known that he’s wanted to write, and from his teens he’s known that he’s wanted to write scary stories. A graduate of The Ohio State University, Rami writes and blogs nearly every day. He’s published two novels, the sci-fi epic Reborn City and the terrifying thriller Snake, as well as a collection of short stories, The Quiet Game: Five Tales To Chill Your Bones. In addition, he’s written and published many short stories, and is constantly working on something new.
In addition to blogging and writing and publishing horror fiction, Rami is also a writer and administrator for the blog Self-Published Authors Helping Other Authors, where he gives advice to authors on writing and publishing. His bucket list includes collecting lots of weird and nerdy stuff, meeting his idols Stephen King and Anne Rice, and going ghost-hunting with the Ghost Adventures Crew.
But before he can get to any of that, he’s got a lot of projects to get through, and very little time to do it. Wish him luck!
Find him at: