When I write a world that my characters might live in, I want to express more than merely the sights, the sounds, and the smells. I want to convey the emotions that place evokes for me, the author.
The fact is, unless we are there physically, other places don’t really exist for us. For this reason, the only world that really exists in this incarnation is the space we physically occupy as individuals.
The only true reality is the space we can see, hear, smell, and touch. This is our setting, the world in which our life story plays out.
In literary terms, what is setting? It is the environment your characters live and interact with. It is scenery, topography, plants, and animals. The setting is also comprised of a place in time, defined by an era, or a level of technology.
These aspects of the setting are crucial to making a story real to a reader. However, if they are shown as unconnected elements, this setting lacks something. We must inject these elements with the indefinable fantasy thingamajig we call atmosphere.
Perhaps you experience a sense of longing when remembering a particular place. For me, one place represents a feeling of home and lingers in my heart. When I am writing in my fictional world, I am drawing on the memory of that long-ago place.
That lost time and place has a hold on my emotions and is made brighter and shinier by the false lighting of memory. This is why, despite the fact my childhood home is a real place, it is also a fantasy.
A reader’s perception of a setting’s reality is affected by emotions they aren’t even aware of. We must give the reader something they can subliminally recognize, something they can relate to. We need to convey a sense of familiarity to a place the reader has never been.
“Familiar” does not mean safe or comforting. It means the elements of the environment are recognizable on a subconscious level, something the reader can understand without having experienced it, or being bluntly told.
This is why I draw maps. If your characters must do any traveling in a fantasy world, you probably should make a rudimentary map. The map is my indispensable tool for keeping my story straight.
It doesn’t have to be fancy. All that is required is a pencil sketch showing a few lines for roads and the general location of any cities or topographical features that come into the story.
When your characters are traveling great distances, they may pass through villages on their way, and if these places figure in the events of the book, they should be noted on the map. This prevents you from:
- accidentally naming a second village the same name later in the manuscript
- misspelling the town’s name later in the narrative
- forgetting where the characters were in chapter four
Perhaps the land itself will impede your characters. If geologic features are pertinent to the story, you will want to note their location on your map so that you don’t contradict yourself if your party must return the way they came:
Even if your work is wholly set on a space station/ship, consider making a floor plan.
My novel, Billy Ninefingers, is set almost entirely in a wayside inn. I made a drawing of the floorplan for my purposes because that is the world in which the story takes place.
In the narrative, if you are writing fantasy, I suggest you keep the actual distances mushy because some readers will nitpick the details, no matter how accurate you are. Yes, you wrote it, but they don’t see it the way you do.
Using medieval distances won’t help, because they’re not concrete—a league might be three miles or one and a half, depending on the country and era. Some readers will argue that their version of a league is the only real version and blah blah blah….
When it comes to creating reality on paper, a perception of familiarity is everything. Use your memory to visualize the scenery:
Imagine the surface of a pond. On a windless day, the pool will be calm, still. The sky and any overhanging trees will be reflected in it.
Add in a storm, and things change. The waters move. Ripples and small waves stir the surface, which now only reflects the dark gray of the stormy sky.
Atmosphere is the part of a world that is created by colors, scents, ambient sounds, and how the visuals are shown. It is visual and tied to the setting, but the perception of it is affected by the moods and emotions of the characters.
From the first paragraph of a story, we want to use the setting to establish a feeling of atmosphere, the general mood that will hint at what is to come.
We do this by employing lighter or darker descriptions. A dark, gloomy setting created by “weighted words” establishes an ominous atmosphere, which will be reflected in the mood of your characters.
I think of “weighted words” as those with strong descriptive power, and which don’t need a lot of support from adjectives and adverbs to convey their intensity.
Lighter words will create an atmosphere that feels brighter.
We have mentioned before that while the two terms, mood and atmosphere, are usually used as synonyms, they are different from each other. In literature, mood refers to the internal feelings and emotions of an individual as often as it does the overall atmosphere of a piece. The term atmosphere is always associated with a setting.
Many sci-fi and fantasy novels are set in real-world environments. The settings are familiar, so close to what we know, that readers have no trouble accepting that world.
I love books where the author’s gift for world-building creates a layer of reality I can immediately “fall” into. Setting, action, interaction—these most obvious components combine to showcase the more profound aspects of the story.
I have been returning to the works of other authors to see how they create their worlds, how they choose words to build a setting and create atmosphere and mood.
Some of their tricks work, and some not so much, but I keep reading and learning. By figuring out what didn’t work for me in a novel, I hope to avoid those mistakes in my own work.