Why Fiction and Nonfiction Novels Need Worldbuilding
Why do both fiction and nonfiction novels need worldbuilding? Isn’t worldbuilding for fiction? Whether you are writing fiction or nonfiction, setting is one of the most important features of your story.
Good worldbuilding can make your story seem real.
When most people think of worldbuilding, they think about epic fantasy. It is true that epic fantasy requires a massive amount of worldbuilding. One of the most successful epic fantasies Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings is a massive 400,000 words long. It is no wonder that most people associate worldbuilding with a massive word count, but building your setting is important for all genres.
Why is setting important?
● It determines the atmosphere of a book. If your book has zeppelins, it is going to feel like it belongs to the steampunk genre. If everyone is smoking cigarettes and all the girls have ridiculously poofy hair it is probably set in the 1980s.
● It determines the age group. A book targeted at middle schoolers will have a different setting than a book targeted at adults. Remember The Magic School Bus or The Magic Tree House? Books targeted at middle schoolers often have a setting at school like Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
A book for the young adult audience might be at a high school or a college. A book that is set during a world war or during a famine will feel grim like it belongs to an older age group.
● It helps facilitate the conflict within the story. If your book is set in a school, conflict could be centered around drama and peer pressure or bullies. If your setting involves a war, the main character could be drafted and face a life as a soldier.
● It helps shape your characters. If the characters exist in the Victorian era, they will be subject to a strict gender and class divide. If the world is set during a feudal era, they will either be a serf or a lord with all the privilege or hardships that comes with it.
Setting and worldbuilding are necessary for both fiction and nonfiction. Creative nonfiction and historical fiction, while they are based on real events, require the author to fabricate some level of detail. A book based around World War II will still need to set scenes, include vivid descriptions of places and things, and help place the reader into the era. Building the setting within an existing history requires many of the worldbuilding techniques used in fiction. Research is important for all stories but especially for creative nonfiction. The details help the story feels real.
Five Tips to World Build
How do you world build and make your setting feel real? Here are five tips that apply to fiction and nonfiction.
- Have an interest in history. If your characters are at war, studying actual wars might add to the realism of your story. History will also teach you about war tactics and war blunders. If you are writing about a soldier, general, or the wife or child of a soldier, understanding the wide-reaching effects of war will raise the tension.
If your book is set during a time where a major political event is taking place like suffrage or prohibition, these details of history will impact your world and characters.
If you are worldbuilding a completely new world, knowing a real history will help you fabricate one[SN2] .
- Understand economics. Is your book set in a world that has a capitalist or socialist economy? What kind of currency does your character use? Do the people use a barter system? How hard is it to get a job? Is this an era that has worker’s rights? Do people get food from the grocery store or from their own fields? Understanding what kind of economy your world has will help your readers understand the world.
For nonfiction, understanding and researching real world economics will help add details to your setting. For example, during the American revolution there was a point where American currency was almost useless because merchants and shop owners would only accept British currency.
- Don’t info dump. It is very easy to get carried away with worldbuilding. For fiction, worldbuilding is a delicate art. World build enough so your character understands the setting, but too many details will tire out the reader. Exposition is like salt. A sprinkle adds favor, but too much ruins everything.
For nonfiction, exposition could feel more like a history lesson then a narrative. Nonfiction books need to be careful when adding historical facts. These facts need to be wound into the story and personalized by a specific person. In Francine River’s book A Voice in the Wind, the prologue details a roman army conquering Jerusalem. However, the first chapter focuses on the main character, a Jewish girl taken captive and marched to Rome. In this way, the historical fact, the fall of Jerusalem, is humanized through the main character’s enslavement and suffering.
- Remember the era. Different eras bring different levels of technology. The technology influences the economy, average life span, war, and trade. This will determine what kind of medical treatments are available. A world that has space travel will be very different from a world that still uses a horse and buggy as the primary transportation. Imagine how different life would be without electricity. Looking into the Amish community may help with some of these practical questions about how people lived before modern technology.
- Infrastructure. What kind of government is there? Democratic or dynasty? Are the leaders elected or dictators? Does this set up a rebellion? Is a civil war brewing because of terrible politics? What do the different political parties advocate for? Politics have taken many different forms over different governments, but they are always there. While politics can seem very distant to your main character, governments can have drastic effects on the everyday man. If the government passes a law that it is illegal to print the Bible and your main character is on a mission to put Bibles into the hands of the common man, he may end up martyred like William Tyndale.
Whether you are writing fiction or nonfiction, setting is equally important. If the setting of a book is shallow, it will make the whole story feel unreal and shallow. It is easy to underestimate the importance of setting, but it is truly integral to any story.
About the Author
Rebecca Lawrence is an English student. She is currently completing an internship with CIPA and plans to pursue a career as a literary agent after she graduates.