Fictional settings, whether modern-real world, historical, sci-fi, fantasy, or paranormal, require some level of worldbuilding.
Setting should transport the reader to a particular location and not feel like it could have taken place anywhere. To accomplish that, some level of worldbuilding is needed in every story.
Worldbuilding is creating a fictional world that still feels realistic.
Details make all the difference in worldbuilding and keep a setting from feeling generic. Worldbuilding should highlight unique and quirky elements and integrate them into the storyline and character profiles.
The amount of worldbuilding needed depends on genre.
Realistic, Modern Settings
While these types of settings typically require the least amount of large-scale worldbuilding because readers are familiar with the rules and concepts of the world, it is still needed on a small scale.
Consider the mini-worlds within a setting, such as the culture of an apartment building or workplace or neighborhood. Each of these settings will have specific rules that guide interactions, a history that has helped develop its culture, an atmosphere linked to the people and culture, and a character developed by its physical components.
Each worldbuilding element will then interact with the characters and story, such as the tone of an office making a character feel either welcome and inspired or fearful and anxious. Address pertinent elements in description and exposition, or use dialogue between the characters to share thoughts and opinions on the mini-world and how it affects the characters.
Don’t expect characters to automatically understand a setting just because it exists in the modern world. James Pietragallo, co-host of Small Town Murder, mentioned on a podcast episode that he couldn’t get into the TV series “The Office” because he had never worked in an office and didn’t get the culture.
Historical settings require a great deal of research, because historical fiction readers will catch mistakes and be put off by them. Research should be conducted on two levels, at least: era-accuracy to get historical facts correct and daily-living accuracy get the small details right.
The most obvious elements to be researched for a historical setting are elements, such as clothing, socio-political events and impacts, transportation, and technology. Many of these elements are affected by less-obvious research areas, such as available social services, laws regarding various aspects of life, how the justice system functioned, healthcare and knowledge of diseases and treatments, and similar topics.
Before developing a story line, consider how the time period will effect the events your characters will engage in. Female business owners were uncommon prior to the 1900s in many countries, and even then the types of businesses women would own were often limited. If a female business owner married, business ownership could transfer to her husband in many situations, which could make a woman think twice about marrying. Make sure your storyline will actually work in the time period you’ve chosen by doing thorough research.
Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and Paranormal Settings
Non-realistic settings offer the greatest opportunities for worldbuilding, demanding creativity and organization. Whether working with futuristic machines, dark creatures, or mythological beings, it is important to develop an organized and functional world for them to inhabit.
Research is an important worldbuilding technique for these types of worlds, but it is only one component. Depending on how closely you plant o follow establish science, mythology, or folklore about worlds and beings in a setting, research needed may vary. Even if you plan to vary from what is already established, it’s a good idea to start at common ground so readers have some familiarity before introducing new or different elements.
The second component of non-realistic worldbuilding involves development or rules and structures. Even though these types of stories do not exist in the “real world,” they still need to be realistic enough that the reader can understand how it operates and by what rules characters make decisions or interact. Rules should provide organization to the world and allow readers to make judgments and have expectations about character actions and choices or what may or way now happen. Once rules and structures are developed, they should be followed in order to avoid confusing or frustrating the reader.
Along with creating a non-realistic world that makes sense to the reader, the same types of worldbuilding techniques needed in realistic settings should also be applied in order to develop the necessary mini-worlds of community or neighborhood.