What Makes a Setting Believable? My Favorite World Building Criteria

So, it has been a little while, but I have talked about what makes a character likable for me, and I have talked about what makes one loathable. With this post, I want to talk about what makes a setting believable.

Settings are important. It is where the reader goes when they immerse themselves in your story. It can be as simple as the house the character lives in, or as complex as an entirely different world with different cultures, rules, and physical features. Regardless of where, when, or what the setting is, if it isn’t believable, it is hard for the reader to really get into it. For example, it would be very hard for me to get into a story where there are five secret passages in a small log cabin. One secret tunnel might work, but otherwise, it just wouldn’t make much sense with the size. (Unless it was magic. Then that could totally work. Dibs on that story idea!)

At any rate, here are some things I find help me really get into a setting, and feel like I can really go there.

1- Consistency. A setting has to remain constant. First of all, you need to stay true to your genre. If you are writing a historical fiction set in the American Revolution, you probably aren’t going to have a unicorn frolicking around. If you are writing a medieval style fantasy, a unicorn might be fine, but a sports car would be very out of place. Within your genre, you need to adhere to the rules you set from the beginning. For example, in Harry Potter, it is always impossible to apparate inside Hogwarts. This doesn’t ever change. It becomes a fairly important plot point. If for some reason they couldn’t apparate in book three, but then all of a sudden everybody starts popping in and out in book five, we would have a problem. In Aviandria, my main characters walk almost everywhere. If they had to walk everywhere in the first half of the book, but suddenly have horses in the second half, it would be kind of weird. There are horses in Aviandria, but they are somewhat rare, and usually only used by the very rich, or by higher ranking officers in the military. The only exception to this are the Traders. They use draft horses to pull their wagons. However, they most likely didn’t get these horses in Aviandria. Therefore, it would not feel consistent for my characters, who are fugitives on the run, to have horses. If there is magic involved, the magic needs to keep it’s own rules. It can’t just be there one minute and gone the next without a good reason. The reverse is also true. If magic was never part of the story, to begin with, it probably shouldn’t just show up to be a convenient crutch. It doesn’t have to pervade every part of the story, but it shouldn’t just pop up out of nowhere.

2- Culture. You don’t have to be writing an entirely different world with different races and species or anything to have this. If you are writing about a family living on an army base in Oklahoma, it may not be incredibly different, but it will have subtle things that are unique. If you are writing about somebody in Japan, the culture will be different. Developing a culture in books makes the setting real. Sometimes it is a matter of researching an already existing culture. Sometimes it is creating an entirely new culture. In the Inheritance Cycle, there are several different cultures, and each is explored and developed. The cultures don’t always have to be explained in depth. In many of the Star Wars books, there are different cultures depending on the alien species and planets the characters are dealing with. The cultures aren’t always spelled out, but there are enough little details mentioned that it gives the illusion of a good understanding. It still feels real.

3- Diversity. If all the people in every place start feeling the same, it doesn’t feel real. If all the wizards in Harry Potter were as rich as the Malfoys, it wouldn’t ring as true. If all the characters in a story have blond hair, blue eyes, and a sprinkling of freckles, something is off, unless you have a story about clones. If everybody is nice all the time, it might be a great place to live, but it won’t feel real. If a story is happening in a limited setting, like a neighborhood or even one building, this is harder to accomplish, but even in a single house, not every room is decorated exactly the same. In a neighborhood, not everyone will have the same moral standards. In a grocery store, some carts will have a squeaky wheel. Giving the setting a sprinkling of diversity will help it be believable.

4-Visualization. If you can’t picture a setting, it is going to have a hard time becoming real to you. An overabundance of description can become burdensome and interrupt the story, but if you don’t have enough, you start feeling a little lost, and the characters are just acting out their tale in front of a green screen. If Jamie steps out of her spaceship and walks to the nearest restaurant, it’s just somebody doing something. If Jamie steps out of her spaceship to fight her way through the swarms of bustling shoppers in the busy capital city of the tropical planet on a quest to find a cafe of reasonable cleanliness where she can purchase a hot bowl of soup and some soda, it goes a long way toward helping you be there with her. (Yes, I know that was a terrible run-on sentence.)

There is a lot of work that goes into world building and designing a setting for a story. There are so many aspects you have to keep in mind. However, as a reader, a good setting is very welcome. It can be the difference between simply reading and experiencing. These are the things that have helped me become immersed in my reading.

What are the things you look for in a setting?

2 Responses to “What Makes a Setting Believable? My Favorite World Building Criteria

  • World building is definitely the thing I struggle with most when constructing a story. The characters and theme, and even the plot are easier for me than setting. I guess that means I need more practice! Thanks for the list. They are all important to keep in mind 😀
    Something I do look for when world building is how it can provide conflict for the characters who live there. I think imperfections help provide that, as well as realism.

    • Thanks, Bee. I hope this list helps. It can be hard to world build. There is so much to think about to make it realistic and not simply idealistic. I think looking for ways it can provide conflict for the characters is brilliant. In fact, in my latest story I am working on, without even realizing it, I am about to write a chapter using the setting to provide conflict! Thanks for your thoughts.

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