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Worldbuilding vs Setting

A friend in one of my writer's groups brought up a question I found interesting: What's the difference between setting and worldbuilding?

It's not something I've thought much about, more a fact I absorbed through reading and writing osmosis. But while the answer might seem simple to some, novice writers might not quite understand. Both terms have overlap.

When she asked, I broke it down short and sweet, which I'd like to do in a little more detail here.


Where does your story take place? What are the physical elements of your story?

Setting can be a city or a town. It can be a room or a planet. Wide plains, a kingdom, space, buildings, streets. The road signs, the restaurants, the architecture. Your setting is where your physical descriptors of your world come in. The side road your character cuts through to make it to work on time. The spaceship they live on while making interplanetary visits. The house of horror they can't escape.

When you write about your setting, you should be evoking the physical senses of sight, smell, touch, sound, and arguably taste. The overwrought metal gates of the old mansion, the stench of dead bodies littering the basement, the freezing interview room, the melodic harp coming from the queen's chambers every morning, and the dirt between the MC's teeth after they take a hard fall in the graveyard.

But these can overlap with...


Setting is the what, but worldbuilding is the why and how. Why elements work the way they do, how this world came to be. Worldbuilding encompasses everything from the style of the culture (a product of how), the clothing (how), the unrest in the society (why), the food (a little of both). It's the details that enrich your story and firmly ground the reader in more than the sightseeing.

What history created a world where Katniss has to fight for her life in the Hunger Games tournament? Why do Tolkien's elves live so long? How does her identity as a bone witch separate Tea from the other asha? Even modern fiction needs elements of worldbuilding pulled from our very real histories. The Dresden Files pulls us into Chicago by detailing the city as though the reader's never been there (which many haven't!). Nonfiction does this too, like the true crime story of In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, wherein Capote details the history of this small town deeply damaged by gruesome murders.

Worldbuilding utilizes setting - hence the overlap - but it should also enrich it. Worldbuilding gives the reason this place exists, this world, these characters, their culture. The Handmaid's Tale would be little to nothing without the intense worldbuilding which explains how the Republic of Gilead came to be, why women are so deeply suppressed despite the dystopian future setting, what causes them to dress as they do and behave as they must to survive.

Both are vital elements to your story.

You can get away with minimal setting description, but you still need it to ground the reader. What you can't get away with is minimal worldbuilding, because the characters need reasons to act how they do.

Real people respond to their environments - not their settings, but the way they were raised, how other behaviors influence them, the history that brought them to where they are. Characters are fictional people with breaths of real life, and you simply don't get that without worldbuilding.

Of course, there's more to each of these topics, but this should at least give a good idea of what separates the two terms.

Is there anything I forgot? Anything you'd like to add? Feel free to comment and let me know!

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