I took a look tonight at the post titled What are the pros and cons of building the setting before the characters and story?

It answered questions that I had concerning setting being more important in a science fiction work than character and story.

I know that in the case of characters it can be helpful, in "regular fiction", to write character sketches to show characters' external and internal characteristics in order to develop plot.

In a book on science fiction that I briefly read, the author makes the distinction that in science fiction it is the idea that is most important. Sometimes situations are developed to handle certain characters, and sometimes characters are developed to handle situations. Needless to say, world building is very important. So, I am having a conflict between character and setting, at least in my own mind (sort of chicken or the egg problem). How would I hone my synopsis to make it mesh with characters? Would writing software help with organization?

Is there such a thing as a setting sketch for science fiction to help develop character AND plot?

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    Welcome to Writers. Asking what to write is off-topic on this site. Do you think you can edit this to avoid that? Jun 12, 2014 at 3:54
  • I'm not sure that question is saying that setting is more important in Sci-Fi than story. If anything story and character are at the heart of a good sci-fi; it's all about how people react to what happens to them and how their world works. That aside I have to agree that it's not super clear exactly what you're asking, or perhaps more that I feel like I'm missing something: there's such a thing as anything you want to make, after all.
    – CLockeWork
    Jun 12, 2014 at 8:49
  • Isn't this sort of what Tolkien did? He invented the Quenya language and had to write a bunch of novels to justify it and create somewhere to use it. Jun 12, 2014 at 10:23
  • I apologize if anything got lost in the translation when I wrote my post. I have a brief synopsis that could serve to clarify what I mean by "setting sketch", a term that I made up. Not sure about the rules - can I post a synopsis for sake of explanation or would that cause my post to get flagged?
    – user9885
    Jun 12, 2014 at 12:21
  • 1
    Edit your post with your synopsis and let's see if that makes it work better. Jun 12, 2014 at 14:23

4 Answers 4


It's worth considering the fact that characters are a product of their world, and their world is a product of key characters:

I work in IT,
working in IT defines a big part of who I am,
IT makes up a huge part of the world I live in,
IT is a product of people like Babbage and Turing.

In short I find World Building is best as a free form exercise and Character Building is as much a part of world building as world building is a part of character building.

I write in LaTeX and use a template with a folder containing a file for plot details, one for world details and one for characters: Write LaTeX Fiction Template

I find that it best to just start chucking down thoughts and as stuff develops I jump files and add things as needed. As an example:

Kingdom Reynolds – Born the last son of the High Vassal to the king of Hengholm, Kingdom had no hope of ever taking his father’s prestigious position. Instead he devoted his life to making as much disreputable use of his tenuous title as possible. A decision he may come to regret.

I just came up with it, it isn’t much (or very original) but all of a sudden I have a world name, a ruler, a social structure…

Character: The King – Once a man of grace and power, the King brought peace to the land and hammered the warring nations into the vassalages that now hold the land together in peace. He has not been seen in person for many years, and the High Vassals are often vague on their interactions; it isn't that they're lying, it's more like they can't remember all of their encounter with him.^

Location: Hengholm – the kingdom of Hengholm is a rigid and war-ridden place. Held together by fragile vassalages the kingdom must use force to hold its grip on its fractured people.

Politics: Vassalage – Each region of Hengholm is in fact an independent nation, tied to the kingdom via vassalage. The High Vassal is a role more important than that of any prince or other ruler of a region, even if they are merely puppets to the King.

^Look, some plot's beginning to develop!

Characters are a vital part of any story, and the world they are in is a major factor of who they are. Both should be dynamic and both should fit together, so the best way to "sketch out" your characters and plot is to do it as you sketch out your world.

let it all come together.


A setting sketch is as important, if not more important than a character sketch.

We also maintain sketches on structures, roads, livestock, pets, vehicles, etc. Especially when working with long time lines.

Another term that may help you find more information than you will ever need is to use "World Building" as your key search word. World building can contain hundreds of setting and scene sketches.

I also draw maps, lots of maps, sometimes only a year apart from the previous overarching map, at other times I may skip a whole decade. Then have smaller location specific maps for the setting and the scenes end up more in storyboard fashion.

Working in this way makes problematic areas stick out like a sore thumb, before their rear their ugly head in your writing.

It also helps to know where everything is to prevent making directional mistakes in your writing. I can't count the number of times a character went west, then later on in the next scene arrived back at their starting point by continuing west. Or they entered the event with a maroon shirt, and during the event their navy blue shirt was torn. Or since this is about setting sketches. The character is said to have walked uphill from his car to the event. Then later he was still going uphill to get back to his car.
Was editing a chapter for a friend in our critique group last month, where a delivery truck had trouble climbing the steep drive to the customers house. He turned the truck around to unload the heavy equipment into their garage. (This means the front of the truck was facing downhill). Later in the story, while they were in the garage uncrating and assembling the device, the truck jumped out of gear and rolled backwards down the hill, causing a huge street sign to end up inside the back of the truck. (Impossible scenario). It was fixed simply by removing 'backwards' and having the street sign come through the windshield instead. I've also read many Sci-Fi novels where the ship crossed the same range twice without a mention of it returning. In this case, the loop back trip was cut from the story, so it was there originally.

VTY Dutch

  • Maps are amazing. I wish I could show the entire collection of material I've got now from world and character development. Maps aren't critical in the early stages, but they certainly do help when you need to figure out where a certain thing should take place.
    – JMcAfreak
    Jun 12, 2014 at 20:51

I think the answer to the question of honing your synopsis to mesh with characters won't be what you expect. The synopsis is primarily there to briefly lay out the plot. Character sketches and world building are entirely separate from the synopsis, even though they'll contribute to the final outcome.

In a book I'm writing, I have about six main characters, excluding the few main antagonists there are. Each one has his/her own character sketch (some longer than others, one actually nonexistent). This allows me to define how they interact with the world around them and with each other.

World development and character development can be done concurrently, but I don't think there's a good way to mesh them together until both the world and the characters have been defined on a basic level. A basic level for characters would include things such as personality, background, motivations, any relationships/affiliations you may know of at the time. For the world, a basic level would include geography (to an extent), general culture (which can be refined later), environments, threats, and politics to some extent. From there, you're able to fine tune the two of them so that they fit together in order to create a full sketch that fills in the blanks that inevitably arise.

There will actually be places where you won't be able to develop a character enough without using the setting.. At the same time, there are parts of the setting that can't be defined or developed without certain characters. This is why it's at least necessary to have the basics so that you can easily fill in holes as you go along.

A decent example of the above (because I feel I wasn't very clear) is from my writing. I have a character for whom I couldn't even come up with a good personality until I had enough of an idea of what roles were still needed in the setting. At the same time, there were major parts of the setting/plot that I couldn't define until I knew what some of my characters were like.

In short, it's possible to make a setting sketch, but doing it from scratch (trying to define the world and characters at the same time in the same sketch) would be highly infeasible. The best route would be to start with the basics of each, then merge them. This is where I would start worrying about character vs. setting. At some point, it becomes necessary to develop both because one will often need the other to be clearly defined.


A short answer: yes. Consider the original Star Wars, but not in edited sequence. Imagine yourself as Luke who looks up with a telescope and sees some of the space battle flashes, but has to go to work before Leia's ship is captured. Interesting, but perhaps space battles occur over that planet quite frequently, who knows? We never know -- and it doesn't matter to the setting, characters, or plot. What matters first is "desert planet".

You've got the setting: Tatooine, for the first maybe third of the movie, above which a space battle took place. Add two Characters... dissatisfied twenty-something and nearby future mentor. Add conflict. Drop droids into dissatisfied twenty-something's problem bucket. Off you go.

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