John Ostrander: World Making 101 for Writers

by John Ostrander

As a writer in fantastic fiction, I sometimes have to create a setting, an environment in which the action takes place – a world. GrimJack, for example, is mainly set in Cynosure, a pandimensional city where the multiverse meets. Cross the street and you may be in a different dimension. Guns work here, magic works there, a sword and a bad attitude works most everywhere. I didn’t create Cynosure; Peter B. Gillis did that in the first WARP special at First Comics. I did, however, use it extensively and defined it.

World making can be fun, frustrating, tedious, exhausting, and a host of other adjectives. Mostly fun. The setting winds up being a character itself in the story; Gotham City is an important supporting character in Batman stories. The Dark Knight really works best against it as a backdrop. When Anton Furst designed the set and look of Gotham for the first Michael Keaton-Tim Burton Batman movie, I remember one thing that was said about the design is that Furst created a Gotham against which a man dressed as a bat looked like he belonged. You can’t stick the Batman in Peoria and make it look right.

Even if it’s the so-called “real world”, you need to develop a version of it. Raymond Chandler’s seedy L.A. helped define not only his detective, Philip Marlowe, but a lot of the genre. Sherlock Holmes works best in the fog shrouded streets of London in the late 1800s. (Yes, I’ve seen the versions of Holmes set in modern day; clever but not the same IMO.) Star Wars is not set in one city but a whole galaxy and it has a certain look and feel. The places, the ships, the uniforms all have to look as if they belonged there. The Black Panther movie won as Oscar for the design and look of Wakanda.

That requires some thought and usually some research. One of my maxims is that the best fantasy is one that has one foot firmly set in reality. You want it to feel real to the reader/viewer. It requires thinking a concept through, looking at the details, thinking of the ramifications of a detail.

Let’s play with this a bit. For instance, as a premise let’s assume that climate change is real. I’m not saying that you have to accept that it is, in fact, real. Just as a premise for our fictional setting. For example, what has caused the world of Mad Max is never really specified but climate change could easily be the cause, IMO.

So let’s jump 10, 20, 100 years and try to imagine that future as a backdrop for whatever story it is that we want to tell.

For example, the ice caps are melting and the sea levels are rising. What are the ramifications of that? Certainly coastal flooding. How much? Depends on who you ask but it seems reasonable to assume that parts of Manhattan are gone. Lots of Florida –Disneyworld, for example. I wonder if Mickey floats. Or over at Universal theme parks – the Wizarding World of Harry Potter might get less magical under a few feet of seawater.

In the Mid Atlantic states – Washington D.C. would get real wet. It’s built on a swamp after all. (Some might argue that drowning Washington is not necessarily a bad idea). Norfolk VA is, at the moment, a major base for the U.S. fleet. If Norfolk goes under water, you lose not only the base but the housing for all the sailors and their dependents.

This rise in the levels of the ocean doesn’t happen all at once; it grows incrementally. It gives time for people to adapt. In theory. But there are other effects. We’ve seen how hurricanes have gotten stronger. We saw what happened to New York City, especially Manhattan, with Hurricane Sandy. The resultant storm surge flooded the area, drowning subways and tunnels. What if that wasn’t a one time event? What if it was every time a hurricane hit? Remember, this is all speculation, a possible premise for a setting against which to tell a story.

Salt water can invade aquifers, contaminating freshwater that humans, animals, and crops depend on. That’s gotta hurt. We have a lot of toxic dumps and garbage dumps and sewage plants; what happens when/if they are flooded?

Large groups of people from the East Coast become refugees to other parts of the country. Do the other states take them in? How many can they take in? What effect does that have the local economy? What effect does it have on the national economy?  There are three major airports in the NYC area; can they still operate? Are they abandoned? What effect does that have on the airline industry? Down in Texas, Houston is flooded. What effect does that have on oil production in the Gulf? Can the United States stay united or does it collapse and break into sectional countries, each with its own laws and customs?

This is just a sample of the sort of questions I wind up asking myself as a writer as I explore a concept and the consequences and ramifications of any given premise. There are many ways you can interpret the premise as well; there’s the Mad Max model we talked about before or you could be more hopeful; your story might be how mankind comes together and finds a way to delay and/or reverse the process, the start of terraforming. It could be the setting of a Walking Dead type scenario, where a group of survivors journey on, trying to find a haven. All these stories could come from the same basic background concept; it can be adapted to fit the story that you might want to tell. There’s no one right way to approach the premise.

What your story would need to be is consistent with itself and believable even if it seems outlandish. Most of all, you should have fun. If you don’t enjoy the process, the reader won’t enjoy the result.

So go on – make up a world. Your world.


John Ostrander is one of LB’s favorite writers in any medium. It’s been awhile since he’s been here, but now John’s back with a new column at a new blog, PopCultureSquad, where this piece first appeared (before Christmas even, but we’ve been on a break so you get to relive the holiday now). You can learn more about John and his many masterworks HERE