Worldbuilding on a Small Scale

Most of the time I write about how to build whole, sweeping settings and deeply nuanced cultures… but what if all you need for a story is a single town, a school, etc.? What do you prioritize when you’re worldbuilding on a small scale instead of an epic scale? That’s what we’re going to talk about today.

Core culture

First, as with larger cultures, you’ll need to determine the core of this town’s (or region’s, school’s, etc.) culture. What are the core values of this locale? Do they have any collective goals?

Are there any key sub-cultures to be aware of? (e.g. Hogwarts has an overall culture of learning and defense against evil, but each of the houses has their own unique sub-culture in addition.) What are each of their core values and goals?

And where are your primary characters supposed to fit into this culture and/or its sub-cultures?

Dissonance

With the core culture of the place determined, you can focus on what would clash with this culture. Where would conflict arise? This might be from some of these existing sub-groups (e.g. Slytherin causing problems at Hogwarts), a new group of outsiders with their own dissonant values (e.g. a town taken hostage by a group of bandits in a Western), or your main character themselves (e.g. the big city girl who returns to the small town in a Hallmark movie).

In any case, you want to stir up conflict. If your main character is the source of this dissonance, if they feel out-of-place in this culture, that can be an excellent source of internal conflict as well as external conflict (such as the city girl seeking individual success who is thrust back into a context of building up community, the academic pushed into a setting where they must put their knowledge to use in the real world, the character unfamiliar with social cliques who must find their place in a highly cliquish environment, etc.) But maybe your character is the hero preserving the culture’s main values from outsiders who want to destroy it, or they’re learning to balance the distinctions between sub-cultures as they sit on the fence between them (also good for internal conflict).

Details

Once you’ve established the foundational culture of the setting and at least one source of conflict, you can focus on the details to make your setting meaningful to the characters and vivid to readers.

Think about what your character would be doing in this setting. Do they have a job? Are they helping to plan an event or defend the setting? Is their goal to build relationships or learn something new? What do they do in their down time here? How does the setting shape their everyday life?

Consider the characters who would be around your main character. Who are their friends? Influences? Superiors? Do they have a love interest? How do these characters fit in with the culture you’ve established, and how do they challenge your character or reinforce the character’s existing ideas?

What are the most notable locations in this setting? Is there a gazebo in the center of town where the character likes to hang out? Is the school library a common location for strategy meetings or study sessions? Is town hall or the clan’s castle a recurring location? Where does your character live or sleep? Who do they associate with each key location?

And lastly, how does the setting feel? What is its overall aesthetic? Is it academic, astonishing, cozy, earthy, etc.? How can you shape the details of dress, food, architecture, etc.–as well as the behavior of the characters–to convey this feeling to the reader?


While you can build a small-scale setting with all the same depth as a grander-scale world (as almost a mini-version of a broader world), all you really need are the foundational values and the details that bring the setting to life.

Want to learn more about these foundational elements of worldbuilding, especially using details to convey depth without fleshing out everything underneath? Check out the Worldbuilding Toolbox!

2 thoughts on “Worldbuilding on a Small Scale

  1. I appreciate this post. I feel that I can aspire to small-scale worldbuilding. Trying to worldbuild on a grander scale seems to intimidate me into writer’s block.

    1. Understandable! It’s definitely easy to get overwhelmed when thinking large-scale. The nice thing about starting small is that you can build up from there and piece various smaller pieces together later!

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