Part one of this blog post was primarily about internal worldbuilding: how strongly developed characters are essential in creating a convincing world. I also highlighted how vital it is to ensure that the place/situation you have chosen is a catalyst for conflict – conflict that needs to feel real to your reader, however fantastical your world may be. This time, I’m slanting even more toward external worldbuilding though, if working well, internal and external worldbuilding are interdependent.
1) What is the purpose of the setting?
Essentially, your external world (your backdrop) should be a careful selection of features most useful in developing or revealing character and plot development. It is there to maximise opportunities for interaction between your hero and heroine and reveal character traits both in terms of strengths and weaknesses. Your chosen setting should be the most impactful ‘stage’ for your conflicts to be played out on.
Your setting should define the type of romance you have written by reflecting or even enhancing the ambience of the developing relationship. Is the romance going to be intense, dark and sensual? Is it going to be light-hearted, relaxed and fun? Decisions about your setting should be with your romance at its core, to the point that you would lose something integral by altering the backdrop.
You may not have complete free choice though. Some of your setting choices will be dictated by plot, particularly the role of secondary characters. If interactions with family, business colleagues and friends play a huge role in your hero and heroine’s relationship, you can’t set your story on a reclusive desert island. Whereas if your romance is claustrophobically focused on the hero and heroine, it would be preferential to cut off the outside world as much as possible.
2) What atmosphere are you trying to create?
Your sub-genre may play a key role in this. First and foremost, know the atmosphere you want to create between your hero and heroine. Do you want to create an immediate, explosive sense of intense and sensual intimacy? Or do you want to create a gradual, suspenseful build up over several scenes or chapters? If your characterisation is solid, it should be immediately apparent how the romance will evolve (see part one). And once this is clear in your mind, you can build external atmosphere around your hero and heroine to intensify their relationship.
3) How can the physical environment enhance atmosphere?
The weather, lighting, temperature, background noise or lack of it, the time of day, crowds, cleanliness, green space, high-rise blocks, glitz and glamour etc all have an impact on the atmosphere you are trying to create. Decide on the relevance of these features and how to best use them. Do you want a sense of intimacy? Maybe loneliness? Awe? What about a sense of urgency? Is it a casual and relaxed environment or are there threats looming on every corner?
We all know to utilise the five senses, but selective use can powerfully draw attention to key aspects of a scene. The reader doesn’t need to know the smell, feel or sound of everything. In a scene of building tension with an argument about to erupt, is the texture and taste of breakfast relevant? Would the heroine even notice or care? Or should the focus be on the constant, penetrating scrape of steel against ceramic as the hero scoffs his meal oblivious to her escalating tears. Include total silence, maybe a stuffy room, and the atmosphere is already building.
4) Do your characters’ reactions and interactions support the atmosphere?
A huge amount can be determined about a setting and the world you have created from your characters’ perceptions of and reactions to that place (and I touched on this last time). Is the environment welcoming or hostile? Is there an air of suspicion and resentment? Is there a sense of excitement? Is it relaxed and jovial? How do others respond to your character? Is there a sense of wariness? Competitiveness? Hostility? Do you want to create a sense of unity in this world you’ve created or do you want fragmentation? At the core is how your character responds to all the above. Are they scared? Vulnerable? Empowered? Frustrated?
However well selected, creative or fantastical your backdrop is, your characters are core to maximising your world. Wherever possible, unravel it through your characters eyes. Readers get the greatest sense of your world not through ingenious description but through character responses, dialogue, actions and interactions. Let them react and hopefully your reader will react with them.
5) Constructs and mythologies.
If you’re a romance writer under the broad umbrella term of speculative fiction, you’ll have the greatest fun in exploring many more core elements of worldbuilding. There’s potentially aspects such as inter-species dynamics to consider, social constructs, unique mythologies, laws and regulations, languages, science and technology... the scope is huge. Great chunks of your creation may never make it onto the page (based on all the reasons above), but it’s still essential that you know your world inside out. The more real it is in your head, the more real it will become on the page. Get it right and even the most extreme worlds will become touchable for your reader just as the most familiar of worlds, if not well executed, can become disappointingly unreal.
- Weave setting into your story so it becomes interdependent with the storyline.
- Keep emotional response at the forefront in describing setting. Strong feelings about the setting will make it feel more real.
- Stronger internal worldbuilding creates stronger external worldbuilding.
- It’s your characters’ perceptions, reactions and interactions to and within your world that gives your reader a real sense of where they are and what is at stake.
- Don’t over-saturate with unnecessary detail. Overkill kills pace. Let readers use their imagination too.
- Even if the world you’ve created is beyond your reader’s experiences, universal emotions are not. Use them to their full potential.