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Setting in Stone 2: Contemporary Worlds

When you think of worldbuilding, you think of sci-fi, fantasy, and dystopia; what are known as ‘genre’ books. (though that definition is less useful in YA). Historical fiction also requires worldbuilding, but it’s usually reconstructed worldbuilding, compiled through research rather than invention (though there is some invention, obviously, and alternate history is another game altogether). But contemporary books also need worldbuilding. This is a very useful post by Jenn Marie Thorne, one of my FAVOURITE contemporary authors about how she does worldbuilding in contemporary books; and today’s Setting in Stone topic is my own take on that.

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Setting in Stone is a Virtually Read original series where we (okay, mostly Shanti) talks about setting.

Okay, so let’s quickly think through what you need for setting. (might be a whole post on this eventually)

  • culture
  • politics
  • economics
  • environment/climate
  • history
  • development
  • language
  • demographics (there’s gonna be a whole post on demographics at some point)

This is a pretty simplified list but these, to me, are the basic ingredients. Depending on the book, different elements of setting might have a larger influence. In contemporary, to some extent, these are established. But it takes a good author to draw out elements of setting and weave them into the story. There is an element of fictionalization, though. Many books are set in fictional small towns, though the general location (e.g. New England) will be part of the setting. Few books mention current political leaders by name, because that can date the book. Here are some examples of contemporary books I’ve read recently which do this well.

  • The Hate U Give’s plot is strongly influenced by culture (black ghetto culture) and politics (protests, systematic inequality)
  • A Million Junes atmosphere is affected by the natural environment of the fictional town of five fingers as a big part of it’s setting (this is magical realism but it counts)
  • Replica (again, sci-fi, but in real world so) has economics belying many of its characters motivations.
  • The Inexplicable Logic of My Life is underlined by gay and Mexican culture and politics and history of immigration.
  • What I Thought Was True has cultural elements (island life, poverty and relationships) and the natural environment of the sea as part of its character’s relationships, choices and worldview.

So with books set in ‘other worlds’—fantasy, dystopia, sci-fi, historical—the reader knows that they’ll have to learn the rules of a place they don’t understand as well as the characters do. With contemporary, however, it’s the opposite. As a reader, you go into a contemporary book expecting the world to work the same way yours does. The author has to ‘reverse worldbuild’, a term I just made up for carefully showing the reader how the place the characters live in is just a teensy bit different from the real world. This could be like Thorne suggest, by hinting at economic and political events of the past.

Another important thing is to show how a character’s life is different from yours. This could be by demonstrating their economic status (what do they have in their house? What do they wear?) or micro culture things (what are habits within their group of friends? What are in-jokes they have with their family?) or history (myths and legends, family stories. For example in The Names They Gave Us, there’s a fictional children’s story-within-a-story).

Because chances are that the readers of the story have not lived in the same place as the characters of a contemporary (unless you live in London, LA or New York, you probably don’t see your place very often in stories) part of a contemporary setting is introducing the place in subtle ways. In What I Thought was True, for instance, the characters eat a lot of seafood, because they live on an island; in Solitaire, Alice Oseman mentions that characters use trains and buses to get around as well as cars and feet, which helps show that the book is not set in the US. Small details can bring a setting to life, and this especially true of contemporary books. Contemporary authors don’t want to write something like this

‘Leah lived in a place quite a lot like this world except that there was a big recession, fewer traditional gender roles, lots of spicy food, more stray lions, and the slang word ‘dire’ which means what ‘cool’ means basically. No one was afraid of fossil fuels running out; climate change was not affecting the weather. Almost everyone lived suburban middle class lives and the developing world consumed no space whatsoever in the characters minds.’

Instead, you should be able to figure this out through what the author says and chooses not to say. (sorry for the passage above, by the way. It got a little cynical, but that’s why this blog series exists!) Basically, contemporary worldbuilding, by necessity is subtle. The effects of the setting are as significant as in any genre book, but the worldbuilding is harder to notice. But that’s what makes it interesting.

What do you think? What’s a contemporary book with really good worldbuilding? let me know in the comments!

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15 thoughts on “Setting in Stone 2: Contemporary Worlds

  1. I’ve never given word building in contemporary much thought, but you’re right it is important! And I don’t even notice it because it’s contemporary so it doesn’t seem like such a big deal because the worlds they’re building are “normal” even though the authors are still building them. I can’t think of a contemporary with amazing world building because I haven’t read a good contemporary in waaaayy too long!

    Great post, it really made me think.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I was trying to come up with a novel that got by without a ton of world-building. It’s been a long time since I read it, but one that came to mind could possibly be, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. The MC is so wrapped up in minutia of his immediate personal experience that the details of the larger world don’t factor in much, or when they do come in confusing, partial information. There could have been more larger worldbuilding that I remember though.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve honestly never thought about world-building in contemporary fiction before, but you’re completely right. A contemporary that I think has great world-building is Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley. Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta also hits this mark ❤ Awesome post!

    Liked by 1 person

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