How to Create a Setting for Young Adult Fiction

Abi Wurdeman
July 26, 2023

Tension-filled high school hallways or dystopian landscapes? Captivating fantasy worlds or historic battlefields?

The fun of writing young adult fiction is that you’ve got options. You get all the fun of exploring a character’s coming-of-age without having to steer clear of worrisome settings the way you would with middle grade fiction

Your characters are almost adults. Your readers are, too. That means they’re ready for almost anything, from the wildly imaginative to the challengingly real. 

But that doesn’t mean writing young adult (YA) fiction is exactly the same as writing adult fiction. The age of your audience still deserves consideration, even as you create the setting of your story.

You’re about to learn:

  • What readers want from YA novels
  • Worldbuilding techniques to simplify the story planning process
  • What elements should be included in YA worldbuilding
  • How to describe a setting
  • Examples of YA novels that really nail worldbuilding
  • Final tips to help you create an unforgettable setting

Let’s start with the topic that matters most.

Understanding Young Adult Readers

A teenager sits on a stool in an art studio between two paint easels.

You probably already know that understanding your readers is essential if you hope to find a literary agent and/or sell a ton of books. But this is an especially tricky feat when it comes to writing YA novels. 

Connecting with teenage readers requires more than keeping track of their favorite tropes and paying attention to genre trends. You also have to meet them where they are developmentally.

Sounds important for character development, conflict, and themes, right? But what does it have to do with setting?

Well, the settings of YA books actually contribute to their theme, characterization, and plot. And it’s not just the setting itself that matters—it’s the aspects of that place that you choose to share with the reader.

Huh? I know. Let me explain using Harry Potter.

When Harry first arrives at Hogwarts, he’s a middle grade character in a middle grade novel. Hogwarts is a place full of magic, secrets, new friends, and suspicious characters. These elements give Harry a chance to explore what it means to belong, learn how to be a good friend, and be brave in unfamiliar situations. Very middle grade stuff.

When Harry and the gang mature into teenhood, their surroundings take on a very different vibe. The magic of their world isn’t just mountain trolls and broomsticks. It’s mind manipulation and horses you can only see if you’ve witnessed death.

Instead of navigating the creepy and unfamiliar, Harry’s finding his way through spaces that are sinister and evil. He and his friends face larger questions about prejudice, trauma, identity, and sacrifice. And that’s very YA.

Same place, different details. That’s why we need to take a minute to get acquainted with the inner lives of YA readers.

The Importance of Knowing Your Audience: Who Are Young Adult Readers?

Two teenagers sit in a room in front of vintage computer screens with 1980s video games on them.

It’s true: all ages read young adult novels. Nevertheless, everyone who comes to this genre does so to read about the inner lives of teenagers. Plus, teen readers are your primary audience, so we’re just going to worry about their psyches right now.

The age range of a YA protagonist is 13-19, though most of them fall in the 15-18 range. Your readers will be in the same range, plus a little younger. Kids often gravitate towards protagonists who are a little older than them, so YA readers can be as young as 12 or so.

If you want to really dig into the hearts and minds of teenagers, we have a whole article on YA character development. But here’s the short version of what this demographic is looking for in a novel:

Characteristics of YA Fiction—What Young Adults Want to Read

A teenager sits on a couch reading a novel on a tablet.

Books that resonate with teenage readers tend to:

Explore challenging topics - Successful YA novels don’t shy away from subjects like death, social injustice, mental illness, drugs, and other heavy topics. In this phase of life, teenagers are becoming aware of these issues for the first time ever. They crave honest depictions of the challenges they and their friends face.

Experiment with adulthood - Give your teenage protagonist opportunities to test their adult-ability. Whether it’s that they get a car, start a job, or take their friend to the emergency room in the middle of the night, let your characters operate with some autonomy and responsibility. 

Also create spaces where they exist without supervision (even if they’re not supposed to).

Take teenage issues seriously - One day, Lara Jean Song Covey might look back and realize that she didn’t actually love all those boys before. But at sixteen, love is the best word she has for the very real feelings she feels. It’s also a word that makes sense to a YA audience.

So Jenny Han embraces and honors Lara Jean’s interpretation of events when telling the story. As a YA author, you never want to minimize the issues that loom large for your readers. 

Creating a World Young Adults Want to Explore

Two teenagers talk under a ferris wheel.

So what does that mean for the setting of your YA novel? What do you readers want to see?

A bigger world than the one they know - If you write fantasy YA, this could mean an entirely new universe. But even if you write grounded contemporary YA, you can give your readers access to new experiences and perspectives. Let your characters explore a different part of their city, take on a unique hobby, or have close relationships with people of other cultures.

Familiarity and novelty - Find the balance between a world that’s relatable and one that invites your teenage readers to imagine an entirely different life. Even fantasy and sci-fi writers can pull this off just by applying human tendency to an extraordinary reality. What does ghosting look like when everyone communicates by hologram? 

More reality - While you want to be mindful of the fact that teenagers still have impressionable, developing brains, you don’t have to be as delicate with them as you might be with younger readers. You can show them a messy world, from dark alleyways to corrupt political systems.

Glimmer of hope - All YA fiction ends with at least a note of optimism. So even if you write dystopian YA, put something in that world—an underground rebellion, a reformed villain—that gives readers a reason to hope for a better tomorrow.

Worldbuilding Techniques for Young Adult Fiction

A small globe levitates over a person's open palm. A mountain and lake are in the background.

Time to get down to the nitty-gritty. How do you go about creating the setting for your YA novel?

How to Plan Your Worldbuilding Process

Step one is to accept that worldbuilding is going to get messy. This goes quadruple if you’re writing sci-fi, fantasy, or historical YA fiction.

Then, as you prepare to create your YA novel’s setting, gather all the information you currently have about the story you intend to tell. Who are the characters? How will they grow? What themes do you plan to explore? What conflicts will arise?

It’s fine if you don’t have all the answers yet. Writing YA—or any other genre—is a process of exploration. But if you begin worldbuilding with a solid grasp of whatever answers you have, you can design your setting to serve your story.

Creating a Unique World

Teenagers skateboard beside a vintage camper.

So how can you make sure the world of your YA novel is one your reader will be excited to explore? How do you make it feel one-of-a-kind?

The strategy depends on what kind of world you’re creating. Is this a full-blown fantasy world? A dystopian version of your own hometown? A neighborhood that either really exists or is a fictionalized version of a real place? Are you working with a real historical setting?

If your world exists in our reality, zero in on the aspects of the setting that drew you to it as a setting for your novel. Whatever intrigues you will likely intrigue your reader, too, especially if those details serve a purpose in the story.

The same thing applies if you’re building this world from scratch or adding fantasy/sci-fi elements to an existing setting. What elements would most contribute to the conflict or themes of your YA story? Make them the focus.

If you’re not sure what I mean by “elements,” hang in there. We’re about to talk about that. First, I want to cover a larger concept:

Establishing the Rules of the World

Scrabble pieces spelling out "RULES" stand on a tabletop.

Every environment comes with rules, both spoken and unspoken. 

If you write fantasy, sci-fi, or paranormal YA, you have to think about the physical rules of your world. What is possible under the influence of magic or advanced technology? Who has special powers and who doesn’t? Under what conditions can one wield the magic or tech available to them?

If you write contemporary or historical YA, you don’t have to worry much about the physical rules. If you drop a glass, it breaks. Try to walk through a wall and you get a concussion. Everybody knows the rules here.

But no matter which YA genre you write, you must consider the cultural rules of your universe. How are people expected to behave? What’s considered shocking? What’s considered sacred? Do the rules change for the teenage protagonist as they move between home and school, between school and the larger community?

Rules matter to YA readers because young adults are constantly questioning the boundaries of their own lives. So as you build the societal structures and values of your fictional YA world, consider the boundaries that come with the package. How do they affect your characters’ lives?

Worldbuilding Elements for Young Adult Fiction

A teenager in a long, white dress sits beside a pond in the forest.

Okay, it’s finally time to dig into the details of worldbuilding. We’ve got an extensive guide on this subject right here. For now, here’s the quick list of everything you want to consider when you create your YA setting. 

Geography and Climate

Weather and landscape can serve as symbols highlighting a theme, create conflict, or even just make the world feel more real to your reader.

If you’re writing reality-based YA fiction, consider what aspects of geography and climate might be relevant to your storytelling. If you’re creating an entirely new world, ask yourself how you can shape these elements to serve your novel.

Architecture and Technology

What are the human-built aspects of your setting? How do the innovations of this world influence the way your characters physically navigate their world and connect with one another?

If this seems like a small detail, just think about the role smartphones, social media, and internet access play in modern YA books. Whether you’re working with innovations that exist or ones you dreamed up, consider what those conveniences (or inconveniences) mean for your characters.

Social and Political Systems

This is a huge consideration in dystopian YA books, but you’ll want to give it some thought even if dystopias aren’t your jam.

Who holds the power in the world of your YA novel? What does it mean to hold power—politically, socially, or both? What cultures coexist in this setting and how do they interact? Do the systems that define this setting work in your protagonist’s favor or against them? Or both? 

Also consider things like cultural values, religious demographics, any relevant history, and more. 

Magic and Supernatural Elements

Our resident fantasy expert has written an excellent guide on creating magic systems. So check that out when you’re ready to work out the details of your abracadabras. 

For now, just know that your readers need to know what’s impossible as well as possible. What are the limitations of magic? When can your characters use magic? When can’t they? 

And what does it cost your characters to use their powers? What does it mean to be powerless? 

Writing the Setting for YA Fiction

A writer sits at an outdoor cafe table, writing in a notebook.

You’ve got the details of your YA world nailed down. Now let’s bring the setting to life for your readers.

Description and Sensory Details

When you’re writing YA fiction, you can get away with a little more scene description than you could if you were writing middle grade. But you still don’t want to be all lit-fic about it. Skip the page-long descriptions about the rolling hills at dusk.

Instead, choose a small handful of details that either create an atmosphere or support the story.

Also remember to use all the senses when you set the scene for your readers. Draw them into the moment with sounds, smells, textures, and tastes in addition to good ol’ fashion sights. For tips on establishing a setting, check out this article.

Using the Setting to Develop Character and Plot

How do your characters relate to the setting of your YA novel? Does it force them to grow in any way? Is any aspect of the conflict made worse by the setting? Could the conflict exist only in this world?

Consider everything from physical obstacles—like the muttations in The Hunger Games—to psychological obstacles—like the obligation to kill in order to survive the Hunger Games.

Creating Atmosphere Through the Setting

Think about how you want your reader to feel when they read a specific scene. Are they supposed to be anxious? Angry? Charmed? Chilled?

Highlight the details that will spark those feelings. Take them to the abandoned fairgrounds and let them hear the sun-bleached ferris wheel seat creaking in the wind. Or let the heroine swear she can smell funnel cake when her crush pulls her into the broken-down tilt-a-whirl for a pretend ride.

Bottom line: there’s more than one way to experience an abandoned carnival. 

Examples of Effective Settings in YA Fiction

A beach at sunset.

Okay, I’ve shoved a lot of concepts into your writer brain. Time to solidify these ideas with some actual examples from successful YA books.

Popular Young Adult Novels and Their Settings

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas - This is a great example of the relationship between character and setting. 

The teenage protagonist, Starr, lives in a primarily Black inner-city neighborhood of Garden Heights but attends a primarily white private school. Between these two environments, she’s constantly code-switching, confronting questions of identity, and ultimately forced to make a decision between speaking out or blending in.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins - You can read this dystopian YA novel (and series) for a solid example of turning a familiar world into a devastatingly unfamiliar one. 

Collins provides background on how Panem came to be without boring the reader with excessive backstory. And it’s clear how political and social structures affect Katniss on a personal level, even before she sets foot in the arena.

Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman - If you want to see an example of historical fiction written to connect with modern teens, this is it. 

Set in 13th century England, this story is hundreds of years removed from the world YA readers know. But by focusing on both the mundane and remarkable aspects of Catherine’s setting, Cushman manages to make a character today’s young adults can relate to.

Comparison of Different Settings and Their Effect on the Story

Teenagers wear 3D glasses as they watch a movie in a dark theater.

Still struggling with the question of how you can make the setting feel like it plays an essential role in your story?

Honestly, the best way to discover your setting’s purpose is to just start brainstorming. You can even start writing. As you go, you’ll uncover elements of your world that enhance your plot or reveal deeper levels of character.

But just in case it helps, here’s how specific types of settings tend to play out in YA novels:

Dystopian - Horrifying dystopian landscapes typically come about because someone (or something or a group of someones/somethings) has too much control. This is a great setting for exploring themes of injustice, environmental issues, and the power of the common person.

Sci-fi - This genre asks big “what if” questions. The world of a sci-fi novel can easily be set up to discuss questions of power, irresponsible innovation, justice, and equity.

Fantasy - Almost everything about a fantasy setting is extraordinary, making this a great YA genre for leaping headlong into themes of heroism, courage, personal responsibility, and power (there it is again).

Historical - This setting is based on something that YA readers know is real while also being very removed from their own experience. That makes it ripe for exploring questions of progress and where we fit into the greater timeline while also acknowledging the timeless experiences of friendship, struggle, and belonging. 

Contemporary - Contemporary YA novels ground their readers in a world that’s fairly familiar. This setting is perfect for more intimate coming-of-age themes like identity, love, friendship, community, and purpose.

Tips for Creating a Memorable Setting

Three teenagers sit on a green couch floating in a lake.

Now for some final tips and tricks to give your YA novel a setting that really stands out.

Avoiding Common Worldbuilding Pitfalls

Worldbuilder’s Disease - You’re most susceptible to this affliction if you write sci-fi, fantasy, or historical fiction. Worldbuilder’s Disease happens when you get so wrapped up in designing your setting that you never get around to actually writing your book. It’s often caused by a fear of getting started

If you find yourself listing all the different species of spiders in your story’s universe—and spiders are irrelevant to the narrative—stop. You’re done. Start writing.

Forcing the story to fit the world - Writing YA fiction that’s inspired by a setting is perfectly fine. The trouble happens when you focus so much on coming up with an “interesting” setting that you sacrifice the story to make it work. Let the place serve the plot.

Every place can be interesting. It’s all in how you write it. 

Neglecting novelty - This is more of a contemporary YA problem. Realistic settings are fantastic for connecting readers to the story and inviting them to see themselves in your characters. But everybody loves the occasional departure from the ordinary.

Whether it’s an impossibly hip hang-out spot or a class trip to a bustling city, toss a little novelty in there.

Making the World a Character in Your Story

My husband and I just started reading Frankly in Love together. Early in this YA book, the teenage narrator describes driving through his part of Southern California—how he’s not just passing through neighborhoods, but through cultures. Mexican-Americans, Chinese-Americans, Korean-Americans, Black Americans, white Americans—one right after the other.

The multicultural nature of Frank’s world seems to sit in every room with him. The question of what it means to connect across races tags along in his relationships with friends, crushes, and even family like an uninvited third wheel.

What makes the setting feel so alive is the fact that we as readers understand immediately how Frank is affected by it. He describes driving through the neighborhoods as he’s listening to his parents discuss other cultures and reflecting on his own relationships. There’s a clear connection between where he lives and the challenges that surround him.

And that’s my final tip on creating worlds for YA novels. Let the setting matter to your protagonist. Show the reader how this world is part of the protagonist’s identity or a threat to their sense of belonging. A challenge to overcome or an opportunity to seize.

Make it more than a place.

Oh Wait! One More Tip!

Use Dabble to create your worldbuilding bible and draft your YA novel! That’s my real final tip.

Seriously, the Story Notes feature of Dabble makes it so easy to keep track of all the people and places that make up your fictional world. Even better: all those handy notes are just one click away as you draft and revise your masterpiece. 

A screenshot showing a worldbuilding bible in Dabble.

Not a Dabbler yet? No problem! You can try it for free for 14 days with zero commitment. You don’t even have to enter a credit card. Just click this li’l link and start building some worlds.

Abi Wurdeman

Abi Wurdeman is the author of Cross-Section of a Human Heart: A Memoir of Early Adulthood, as well as the novella, Holiday Gifts for Insufferable People. She also writes for film and television with her brother and writing partner, Phil Wurdeman. On occasion, Abi pretends to be a poet. One of her poems is (legally) stamped into a sidewalk in Santa Clarita, California. When she’s not writing, Abi is most likely hiking, reading, or texting her mother pictures of her houseplants to ask why they look like that.