Novelty is one of the four critical elements that make stories popular, and in speculative fiction, settings are a great place to harvest a novelty crop. I’ve got nothing against castles, forests, and space battleships, but mixing things up creates opportunities for new kinds of stories.
To that end, there are a number of settings with a lot of potential that just don’t show up that often, which means they’re ripe for you to use. I’ve written on this topic before, but I just keep seeing cool worlds that few storytellers are employing. So consider this a personal plea from me: these settings are great, and I would love to read or watch more stories with them.
1. Land of the Dead
Anna couldn’t remember why she’d come to the City, only that it had happened after the car crash. Whenever she tried to leave, she found herself back at the apartment somehow, an apartment she never paid rent on. She had lots of friends in the City, and they’d all moved in recently too. One arrived after a battle with cancer, another after their home was destroyed in an earthquake.
Strange as this was, Anna had other, more immediate problems on her mind. There was something loose in the City, something that hid behind strangers’ eyes, something that struck from the shadows and left victims as empty husks. She had to find it and kill it, if anything could be killed in this place.
What happens to our consciousness after we die? Trick question – no one knows for sure, and that’s what makes the land of the dead such a useful setting. It can literally be anything your devious mind can come up with. Do you want it to be an endless desert that people struggle in vain to cross, the sands always stretching on a little farther? You can do that. Maybe you’d prefer it to be a cosmopolitan metropolis where all the traditional urban fantasy tropes play out, but where you don’t have to reconcile those tropes with the real world? You can do that too.
The sky really is the limit when it comes to imagining a world of the dead. Of course, that also means more work for you since you’ll need to create a lot of the setting from scratch, but it offers an unparalleled level of flexibility that’s exactly what some storytellers need.
What’s more, a land of the dead offers lots of room for theming and symbolism without the pesky laws of reality to get in the way. You can craft a story where someone’s misdeeds literally weigh them down until each one is atoned for or a story where the only way to move on is for a person to make peace with the things they did while alive. Or you could veer in a more action-oriented direction, requiring your characters to fight set piece battles with the literal ghosts of their pasts. There are so many options!
That said, a land of the dead does require some caution. For one thing, how the characters died is likely to come up and that should be handled with care. Deaths by suicide or through bigoted violence in particular have the potential to invoke real trauma in your audience, so it’s often best to avoid those. It’s also best to avoid using the religious beliefs of less privileged groups to create your afterlife. That can get appropriative fast, and in most cases, religious afterlives aren’t set up for good storytelling anyway.
2. Under the Ground
The air recyclers shuddered, coughing up more dark smoke into Shaun’s face. The mask protected him from the worst of it, but his throat still burned from the acrid contaminants. The problem was getting worse, but Shaun couldn’t fix it from this level. He’d checked and double-checked the filtration system – no problems there.
That only left something physically lodged in the intake vents, which were 10 levels up. No time to find the elevator – half of block C would suffocate by then, so he’d have to climb. Shaun took hold of the ladder. He could manage 10 levels, easy. He’d done it before. Granted, that was 20 years ago now, but it didn’t matter. If he couldn’t make the climb, the whole habitat was lost.
Fantasy is certainly no stranger to underground locations, but they’re rarely the main setting. We know the dwarves live in vast subterranean strongholds, but we don’t spend any time there. Dark, dank dungeons make for a great place to adventure, but only because they’re specifically alien and unknown. Some D&D stories take place in the Underdark, of course, but that place is full of cartoonishly evil Drow. We can do better.
Underground settings require a shift in perspective that’s great for putting a new twist on your story. Instead of the relatively flat world we inhabit, a subterranean setting is inherently three dimensional, with tunnels crisscrossing above and below each level. Not only does this mean you can create a lot of usable space in a fairly small volume, but it also forces characters to think in terms of up and down, not just side to side.
In scifi stories, underground settings are likely to be used in situations where humans can’t survive on the surface. This might mean a colony on an alien world, or it might mean the last remnants of humanity struggling to survive on a post-apocalyptic Earth. Either way, you can create a ton of delicious drama over keeping the life-support systems functioning, to say nothing of tunneling out new chambers to make more room.
In fantasy, an underground setting could be the previously mentioned dwarven mine, but you can also get far stranger with it. You might have a society of geomancers who’ve abandoned the surface entirely to be closer to the source of their power or a nonhuman species that tunnels through the ground in search of delicious minerals to feed on.
3. World in Miniature
Redspot crouched low to the damp loam, pressing their body beneath a few long blades of grass. Their tail curled up around them, and their ears flicked back and forth for any sound. The cat could be deathly silent when it desired, but any creature that large was bound to rustle the grass or disturb a twig as it stalked.
At least, that was Redspot’s hope. They needed to cross this field and warn the colony about the failing beaver dam upstream. When that went, any creature in the lowlands would be swept away. As Redspot tensed to spring from cover and make for the bramble bushes, they took some comfort that at least the cat would be swept up too.
Full disclosure, I’m cheating a little on this one because I’m not adjusting the setting so much as the characters. A world in miniature is usually pretty similar to the world we already know, but the characters who inhabit it are very small. They might be anthropomorphic mice, minuscule fairies, or even tiny robots. What’s important is that they’re much smaller than normal humans.
This change in perspective allows you to put an alien twist on a familiar landscape, which is an efficient way to upgrade a story’s novelty. Audiences already know what items and terrain features are, but when you describe them from a mouse’s point of view, they take on a whole new meaning. A pile of laundry is now a vast mountain to be scaled. A sugar cube is now valuable treasure. A needle makes a vicious sword, which is good because raccoons are now towering monsters.
If your setting has normal-sized humans in it as well, then you can have a lot of fun with tiny characters trying to avoid being stepped on. However, it also works to create a world completely free of the big folk. Perhaps it’s a post-apocalyptic world and no humans have survived, which strongly lends itself to uncanny description as your tiny heroes pick their way through the ruins. Or your setting might never have had any humans to begin with, which lends itself well to stories set deep in the undisturbed wilderness.
There’s also the question of how realistic you want to be with miniaturized objects and creatures. It’s best to be consistent about size, since that’s the entire point of using a world in miniature, even if that makes it hard for your mice and badger characters to eat at the same table. But you have some more freedom in other areas. Realistically, a match will only burn for a few minutes, but audiences will usually forgive your tiny protagonist for using one as a torch. Similarly, a mouse-sized bow would probably be pretty useless even against other mice, but rodent archers are still a go.
4: Floating Islands
A frigid gust sent Samia’s biplane tumbling hard to the left, and she only managed to level out by putting all her weight against the rudder stick. Freezing air seeped in around her collar, even through the two wool scarves she had tied around her neck. Samia swore, the adrenaline leaving her hands restless on the controls. She hated flying under Ice Pearl Island, but patrols were so tight these days it was the only way to get a shipment through.
Above her, the island’s underside was a forest of pointed stalactites and low-hanging rock spires. The turbulent air had a reputation for smashing planes and airships alike up into the stony teeth, which is why it was the only patch of sky around Ice Pearl that wasn’t patrolled. Samia just hoped her skills were enough to get through.
You know something we see in just about every spec fic story ever written? The ground. It’s always there, covered in dirt and such. But what if there was no ground? What if the world was just endless depths of abyssal air, and humans made their homes on floating sky-islands? Well, you’d have a pretty unusual setting, that’s what.
It’s easiest to imagine floating islands in the context of fantasy, with massive chunks of soil and rock held aloft by powerful magics. But you can also use this concept in science fiction, even hard science fiction. It turns out that NASA is working on concepts for a Venus colony that would float above the dense atmosphere on giant bags of lifting gas. Granted, those concepts are a long way from reality, but they should provide all the inspiration you need.
A world of floating islands means your setting probably has a lot of flight, unless you want the setting constrained to just one island. It’s possible the characters themselves might be able to fly, or they might have flying mounts,* with domesticated herds of flying bison roaming the horizon. This type of setting is also a natural fit for airships, if you want to get your steampunk on. With such limited real estate, people might even construct airships so big they’re more like artificial islands in their own right.
Beyond flight, a setting of floating islands naturally lends itself to strange environments and creatures. What might the heroes see if they descend into the airy depths? Great sky fish and leviathans on the hunt, no doubt. The islands themselves can also be a great venue for exploration, as each far-flung island is bound to have its own residents and ecosystems.
5. Fantasy Zombie Apocalypse
Sir Miko Bluecloak flicked her visor down and lowered her lance into position for a charge. On either side of her, the last heavy cavalry squadron of Queen Isanza’s army did the same, their horses snorting and pawing the ground. Their armor bore the dents and gouges of months in the field, but they would still charge at Miko’s command.
Below them on the plain, a teeming wave of undead began its climb up the hill to reach the knights’ position. Miko whistled and urged her horse forward. She and her riders had one chance to break a path through the horde so the civilians could escape; otherwise, the last subjects of Isanza’s realm would die here.
The zombie apocalypse is a much beloved trope, and yet it has serious believability problems. Namely, it’s very difficult to explain how zombies can possibly defeat a modern military. Machine guns, tanks, and airplanes are all notoriously difficult to beat through biting. If you somehow do make the zombies strong enough to defeat the military, then your group of ragtag survivors has no chance. But there’s no rule saying zombies have to show up in a modern setting. In fact, they often work better in fantasy.
To be fair, it’s not that zombies are uncommon in fantasy. You can find them as a monster all over the place. But the specifics of a zombie apocalypse, where the undead overrun a good percentage of human civilization, is largely absent. Fantasy zombies are usually restricted to minions for a necromancer or guards for a dungeon.
Fortunately, genre conventions aren’t the boss of us. The main advantage of putting a zombie apocalypse in your fantasy setting is that it’s simply much more credible, barring the existence of overpowered holy magic. While a wave of zombies has no chance against modern firepower, they’ll do pretty well against swords and arrows. Armor is still a good defense against biting, but enough undead can overwhelm even a platemail-clad knight. Or you can give the zombies some armor-piercing teeth without making life impossible for your medieval survivors.
Zombies are also more likely to spread in a premodern setting, just like how in real life plagues were historically much more common and deadly than they are now. In modern settings, people understand how diseases spread, whether that disease is a zombie virus or Yersinia pestis. In a fantasy setting, medical knowledge can be a lot less common, and it will take time for authorities to understand the importance of quarantines or checking for bite marks.
There’s nothing wrong with the more commonly used settings in speculative fiction. They’re known quantities, which can make it easier to construct a story. But for the same reason, they won’t seem as new and shiny to veteran audiences. Employing a less common setting can spice up your story and provide new opportunities for conflict – just what you need to lure audiences in.
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