The World of your story, also known as the milieu, is the reality in which the story takes place. If it’s set in a Seattle high school in 1942, that’s a different world than a Detroit High School in 2004. If you set your story on the island of Manhattan in 1600, that’s a different world than Manhattan today.
Your Milieu must be a place audiences can believe in. It can be as fantastic as you want it to be, but it must obey certain rules, contain certain truths, or your readers won’t buy into it and they’ll lose interest. In tourism terms, it can be as enjoyable as Maui or as unpleasant as Falluja. It’s all up to you.
Your world becomes attractive to the reader when you make it believable. You can set your story in Hell, and it can still real to us as long as it’s fully drawn. It has to feel right. It has to feel whole. The Milieu must live!
Your Milieu also establishes the limitations imposed on the characters. Limitations are good things to know because they’re the tools you’ll use to increase the pressure on your story’s protagonist. People respond to limitations and stress, because most of us have to live with them every day. You can’t make things too easy on your characters or it’ll get boring.
Every world has elements that impose restrictions on the character. For example, Maui is an island. You have to leave it by boat or plane. You can’t walk or drive away from there. And it’s expensive there, so if your character is short on money, they will have limits on what they can do. In 2005, Falluja is a war torn city with crushing poverty, crime and terrorism. Those are things that would make it hard on the average person, if they were thrown in that environment.
To make your world live and breath it’s a good idea to answer some, or all, of the following questions.
1. Time and place: Is your story set on a cruise ship in the Caribbean? Does it take place in a ghetto on the planet Zander? Is it happening among the social gatherings of the of the French Bourgeoisie in 1887 or does it happen in a Gay Disco in 1978? The place should be clear in your mind so you have a point of reference to draw from. It must be real to the reader so they’ll have a feel for the milieu. If you choose a place you are unfamiliar with, like say…Addis Ababa, make sure you do your research so you can write about it with authority. Otherwise, it will seem generic and unreal to the Audience. If you’re creating your own world, make a list of all the things unique and interesting about the place and try to incorporate them into your story. This will give the world the life it needs to make it believable.
One of the reasons J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth remains so popular is because he spent an incredible amount of time making sure he knew his Milieu inside and out. He wrote volumes of notes, compiled the histories of families and places, created languages and alphabets. Middle Earth feels like a real place to many people. So does the Vampire society of Anne Rice’s novels. She thought everything through and researched her history and locations well.
How many stories have you experienced that took place in a generic locale and you felt no connection to it? Making a believable Milieu goes a long way to making the story enjoyable. If you don’t connect to the Milieu, you don’t connect to the story.
2. Economics: What kind of financial realities do the characters have to deal with? Are they rich or poor? Are goods available for money, or is there rationing? What is the economic system the Milieu employs? Remember that economics affect your characters just like they affect you and me. If there’s anything that smacks of unreality, it’s characters who have no apparent job, yet always have money for every situation and live in an expensive looking place. People respond better to what they can relate to. In most people’s experience, cash flow is limited.
3. Politics: Naturally, the politics of your Milieu can have a major impact on the story. If you set it in a society under a tyrannical ruler or government, such as the Milieu we saw in 1984, Brazil, or Schindler’s List, its going to have an impact on your characters. Just as economics play a part in shaping how your characters survive in your world, so does the politics. If the politics are modern day America, you still need to examine whether this will affect your Hero. If your Hero is an illegal alien in South Texas, the politics of the Milieu are possibly going to affect him.
4. Power: This is somewhat related to the previous question but not necessarily. In the world of your story, certain people may have power over your character’s lives, but not necessarily politically. They could be doctor treating your hero, they could be the banker who decides whether they get that loan, they could be the hero’s boss, or their parents. The power structure of your world is important to the character’s life, especially if it is part of the plot in any. So examine how it affects them and the story.
5. Morals, Ethics, and Laws: What are the unique morals, ethics, and laws in your milieu? If your story is set in the Disco era of the late 70s, failure to pass around a joint could be construed as bad manners, whereas in the late 80s, smoking a joint would be considered bad morals. Ethics? In a strict Moslem Family it’s not unethical to kill a daughter who is promiscuous. Nor is it unlawful or immoral. But it is in the Western Milieu. So, you can have a conflict of Milieus within your story. There have been cases in the U.S. where this has happened and the parents were arrested. In the Milieu of their family, this was not wrong, but it was in the eyes of the society they chose to live in. Morals, Ethics and Laws will have an impact on your character in some way because it will either determine their choices, or affect the consequences of their actions. You can’t really ignore them or people won’t believe in your Milieu.
6. Values: What are the moral values in your Milieu? By what standards do people live, or are there any? Values gives the story and characters some grounding. That’s important for realism’s sake. People who have no values are hard to relate to or care about. Empathy is a very important factor in a story. If you can empathize for a character, anything bad that happens to them is almost meaningless. We decide we care about someone when we can relate to them on some level. So it’s important that they have values we might agree with, even if they’re not like us in other ways.
7. Rituals: How do people go about certain tasks in your world? When people meet, here in the west, they usually shake hands. In Japan, they bow to each other. These are rituals, but there are so many others. Giving a woman flowers on a date is a ritual. So is having turkey on Thanksgiving. In your Milieu there will be rituals of some kind and they can be used to establish the uniqueness of your world, as well as define the way characters interact. You can also use them to symbolize elements of your story. You can use them to give insights into the culture of the characters.
8. Backstory: When you’re dealing with other Milieus, dimensions, or history, it’s a good idea to know what the story behind these things are. This is called the backstory. It may be necessary to put the backstory in your plot somewhere, in a non-obtrusive way, so your reader can understand the history that shaped your world. It will usually have an effect on the story, regardless. If you wrote the tale of a black man in Mississippi circa 1952, the backstory of that place would have an effect on your plot. No doubt about it. The same goes for any story or situation. Why are your characters there? Why did they choose to do what they’re trying to accomplish? What background shaped their personality. It’s all important. A blank slate is boring. Give us something to ponder.
Research your Milieu
I cannot stress the importance of this more. Research is critical. If you’re writing about something you made up, like an alien world, it’s still a good idea to research how similar cultures, economies, religions work as a model for what you create. Depth is everything.
Besides, research provides you with ideas and insights that will help your creative process as you build your story. Many good characters, plot twists, and scenes can come from real life examples you can find by doing research. And research is one of the best the best cures for clichés there is. Clichés come from ignorance. Research is education.
If you were to write a story about a cop working in the Mission District of San Francisco, talking to cops in that district and hearing their stories would give you tons of material and ideas, in addition to getting the facts straight. Then, you’d have a fresh story, instead of something inspired by half-baked memories of old TV shows.
Ideas write themselves when you know your world. Research not only deters clichés, it’s also a good cure for writer’s block. Reading expands the mind, provides fresh insights. And talking to people with useful experience can give you a zillion story possibilities.
Your Milieu will live when it has depth. Depth comes from knowledge and experience. If you’re not an expert on the world you’re writing, make certain you are before you get too far into it. Your readers will thank you for it.
And finally, the rules of your world need to be internally consistent. Internal consistency means authenticity. Don’t establish rules then break them for no reason. You’ll destroy the credibility of your Milieu and all that work will be for nothing.
REMEMBER: Believable worlds make for interesting stories.