The three key aspects of any story are setting, plot and characters.
Here are some questions that I ask myself when developing the setting. You won’t necessarily need to answer all of these questions for every story. (I will add to these as I think of them; can you think of any others I can add to the list?).
Where is the story set?
- Is it in a physical, real-life location, or a made-up fictional place? Is it in a spiritual realm or in a dream-like state?
- What are the key areas within this ‘world’ where events will take place? It is common for epic fantasies to visit multiple cities and space operas to visit multiple planets.
- What kind of environments are these – urban, rural, desert, frozen tundra…?
- What does the topography/geography look like? Is it flat, or mountainous terrain? Are there any main visible features?
- What kinds of flora (plants) are in the area? Are there many of them, or a few? Are they native or imported? Are there part-sentient yellow tulips with razor-sharp edges or head-high sugar cane?
- What kind of fauna (animals) are around? Are they native or imported? Are there chirping birds overhead or herding cows on the hillsides? Or are there ominously no animals?
- What time of year does the story occur in? What is the season/weather like? What is the temperature, humidity and precipitation like?
- What time is the sunrise and sunset?
- How has the environment shaped and been-shaped by the inhabitants? Do the people love or hate where they are? Has it made them strong, or are they weak because it is so luxurious?
- Is there one or more magic systems in play? If so, who gets to use it? What are the rules for its use? How do you learn it? Are there ‘costs’ or dangers involved in its use? How do the general populace feel about magic-wielders?
- Are the people insular or multicultural (or multi-species)?
- How are the groups (if they exist) in society different? How do they feel about each other? How much do they interact or keep themselves segregated? Do they serve specific and regimented roles within the society?
- Who are the people ‘in charge’, and why are they in charge? Is it because of a specific attribute (physical strength or ability, mental ability). Or is it because they belong to a certain family, profession or are special in some other way? Do they fight to hold onto their power, or are they appointed by the populace? e.g. political, religious, technocratic (Forms of government)
- What is the general mood of the people? Do the people like their rulers? Are they heavily taxed-until-death or pay no taxes? What kind of laws (legal and religious) exist? Are the people well-educated or considered expendable? How much self-determination do the people have? Are they in control of their own destiny or do others dictate it?
- What level of technology exists? Does it belong to everyone, or can only certain people operate it? If a subset, is it because of genetics, education or a religious taboo…?
- Do the people in this area all have a common occupation (e.g. farming) or is it diverse? Do they work hard or not work at all? Are the occupations ‘real world’ or fantastical? Are they content in their roles?
- Are there any buildings around? What is the architecture like? What are they constructed of? What kind of condition are they in? Does the infrastructure work, or is it dilapidated through misuse, neglect or harsh conditions?
- How populated are the locations? Are they densely or sparsely populated, or not populated at all?