- Genealogy: How important is lineage in your story? If your heroine is a princess, her family tree will be well-mapped. If she is a street urchin no will know where she comes from? How does this affect her?
- Work life: What do they do for a living? Are they assigned jobs in a socialist state, do they work in tall buildings for hours on end or do they sell flowers on the steps of the train station? Are they a cubicle-ninja or plough pusher on a farm? Everyone has to earn their keep.
- Clothing: We know we’re not supposed to judge, but we do. What is your character wearing? Are they dressing the part or dressing above their means? Do they wear a uniform, like a soldier or a nun or do they twirl about a pole butt naked? Clothing, or the lack thereof, will tell us a lot about who your character is.
- Food: If you set your story in space freeze dried, powdery nibbles will be the norm. If you set your story in Italy or France a juicy, sun-ripened tomato will feature somewhere. If your story is set during a drought or a food shortage, how does it affect the characters? And where do they shop? Grocery store, an organic food shop or do they harvest the carrots in their veggie patch?
- Hygiene: How important is cleanliness in your story? Is it a super sterile environment or are you writing about a London with no sewage system and an abundance of rats. How do the surgeons operate? Do they have luxurious bathrooms or open plan showers in the school locker room?
- Rituals and holidays: How we celebrate holidays and rituals shows a lot about a society and a person. These are vital in wold-building. Do they hate their birthday? Do they adore weddings, but shy away from baby showers? Think about how they feel about certain events. Mothers want their children close for holidays, but children don’t always want to hang out with drunken Uncle Arnold.
- Technology: This is tricky, technology changes quickly. Facebook is almost second nature to us today, but five or 10 years ago it wasn’t. The same goes for cell phones. In the Eighties we memorised telephone numbers, if you take our phones away today we are lost, because can’t remember any numbers.
- History: When you create a world you have to consider what happened before. The same goes for your story. What happened in the country before your story takes place? Is it set in post-World War Two Germany or during the great depression or just after these devastating events?
- Religion: Are your characters religious or not? Is your story set in Orthodox Jewish environment or at a meditation retreat? A religious person would have different moral conflicts to someone who is not religious.
- Language: Is your story set in your protagonist’s home country? Then language wouldn’t be a problem. They’d be a native, but if it’s set in a different country would multiple languages be a challenge? What kind of conflict would be caused by translation errors?
- Gender roles: Does your story take place in a traditional gender setting or not? A female had only marriage prospects to consider a few years ago. Today they have many more options. This differs from country to country and culture to culture.
- Family life and structure: Is your protagonist single, married or divorced? Do three generations live under one roof or have they not spoken to their parents in five years.
- Procreation: How do they procreate? Out of love or duty? Back in the day they had sheets with holes in strategic places. Do they get to choose their own partners?
- Politics: What is the political situation in the country you have set your story in? Is the political climate unstable and violent?
- Education: How highly is education valued in your setting? Is literacy a right or a privilege reserved for the chosen few? Are books and reading an everyday thing? Is it in the Dark Ages where knowledge was controlled by the Church?
- Geography: How does the terrain influence the story? Is it set on a tiny island or in a desert or in Antarctica? The rainfall, the amount of sunshine and duration of the seasons will influence transport and clothing.
- Water and resources: A lack of resources can be enough to drive your whole plot. Is there enough water or too much? Is the food running out? What happens when a country runs out of space? What laws exist to ration food and supplies?
I have left a few blank squares for you to add your own ideas. This will vary from story to story, but I hope this setting checklist for worldbuilding will help you shape your story to create a complete world.
If you’re looking for help with setting, buy our Setting Up The Setting Workbook.
by Mia Botha
If you enjoyed this post, you will love:
- What Fantasy Writers Can Teach Us About Setting
- How To Convey Setting In Dialogue – Without Sounding Like A B&B Brochure
- 7 Simple Things To Remember About Setting
[Top Tip: Learn how to write fantasy. Buy The Fantasy Workbook]