#49: When Settings Are Fun and Stories Are Hard

Dear Story Nurse,

I love developing settings, but once I have my stage set, I find I have no idea what to do with the characters. Unless I force myself with NaNoWriMo or a similar challenge—and even then, I don’t often like what I came up with—my inclination is to circle the worldbuilding stages forever. For example, my current project is geography-focused, because I’ve been having a lot of fun researching historical cartography. I have kind of a unifying myth for my island nation, and now I want to explore this space through the lives of the people living in it, but I can’t seem to make a story happen. How can I come up with ideas when that’s not the part of the process that interests me?


—Masamage (she/her)

Dear Masamage,

When I first read your letter, I thought I’d answered it before, or one very like it. I looked through my archives and realized I was thinking of these letters from writers who find world-building easy and character development hard. You’re in a similar position, but facing a different challenge (though my response to them may still be of some use to you).

I was also reminded of this writer who preferred revision to story creation. My response there began: “If you don’t enjoy writing, why do it? What are you getting out of this? If all you really want to do is edit, you can always edit someone else’s work.” I have the same question for you. If all you really want to do is build worlds, why not just build worlds? I’m not trying to push you away from writing stories, but there’s no point to doing it if you hate it. A beautifully crafted world isn’t wasted if you never write a story set there. Crafting the world is the whole point. You’re enjoying the research, so go on and do lots of fun research! You are totally permitted to just do the fun parts of this and skip the parts you dislike. Hobbies are for enjoying.

If you decide that writing is not for you but still want your worlds to see some use, you can send them to a friend who likes plots and character development but hates world-building, or use them as settings for RPGs, or share them with an artist friend who wants inspiration for mapmaking or fantasy art. You can even look into professional world-building for games and other franchises if that seems like a fun idea. You don’t have to do it all yourself. Writing is a team sport, and some people do their best work collaboratively.

If you decide that writing is for you, there are a great many plotting and story development tools in the world. I’m very fond of Plotto as both a source of plot ideas and a reminder that literally anything can be a plot. Books such as The Art of Plotting and The Plot Whisperer can help you understand how to construct a linear thriller-type plot, which many authors find fairly easy and many readers find satisfying. Feel free to steal a plot from elsewhere; you will not be the first or last person to rewrite Pride and Prejudice or Romeo and Juliet, or to go from watching Best in Show or Survivor to writing a story that’s all about winning a competition. If character development is also a challenge for you, you may want to start by writing vignettes or still-lifes, or look at character-focused plot arcs like the classic hero’s journey. My plot and characters tags will take you to posts with other ideas and suggestions.

Here are some ideas for stories that integrate and show off world-building and are more likely to catch and hold your interest.

Global and international stories

  • An unlikely contestant enters an international sports or performing arts competition.
  • A single adventurer who traveled far abroad now has to make their way home.
  • Two mighty empires get into a war on several different fronts.
  • Survivors of a natural disaster or refugees from a war contend with culture clash or outright prejudice in their new home.
  • Incredibly wealthy people travel abroad to see the sights and hobnob with other incredibly wealthy people.
  • A rookie journalist joins their news organization’s foreign bureau.
  • An elderly diplomat looking forward to retirement is called on to handle one last tricky negotiation.
  • Three generations of stories: immigrants, their somewhat assimilated children, and their grandchildren who want to reconnect with the old country.

Regional and national stories

  • Several adventurers, all from different regions and walks of life, go on a lengthy quest across the land.
  • An unsuccessful author turns to writing city guides for tourists.
  • A band of musicians goes on a farewell or reunion tour.
  • Revolutionaries fight for regime change.
  • Wild adolescents go on a road trip.
  • Someone kills a god.

Local stories

  • A time traveler from the future accidentally wreaks havoc while trying to fix history.
  • Next-door neighbors who come from different cultures fall in love.
  • Parents of grown children decide to spend their last years climbing the tallest mountains they can get to.
  • A child unwittingly keeps a demon as a pet.
  • A young adult leaves their backwater town for the big city, and returns ten years later.
  • A person is required to undertake a series of tasks in order to lift a curse or gain a great prize.
  • A member of the clergy suffers a crisis of faith.
  • A detective solves a series of crimes.

For these ideas, I drew on history, mythology, popular culture, and the lives of people I know—original work can have many sources. I hope a few of these concepts get your creative juices flowing! But if they don’t, remember: you are under no obligation to write stories if you don’t actually want to. Make world after world after world and enjoy them for themselves. You are allowed to just have fun without torturing yourself even a little bit.

Happy writing or not-writing!


Story Nurse

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