Worldbuilding can be hard. If you're creating a story that isn't already set on Earth at some point in history, you'll have to come up with a lot of different things on your own. And not just the names of places and what transpired, or what kind of culture each different people has, but also the more subtle parts of a setting that include tone and visual aesthetics.
That's why a lot of fictional worlds tend to cling to a particular setting aesthetic, an amalgamation of different ideas that can loosely be thought of as "setting genres". These aesthetics aren't set in stone, as the edges of one aesthetic frequently blend into another. Writers do generally tend to stick (primarily) to one type of aesthetic, because all aesthetics are just amalgams of individual characteristics, and the popular ones tend to be the most coherent or compelling. Remember that when talking about genre, terms can be applied across all media: literature, movies, games, etc.
- High Fantasy - The default type of setting for most fantasy settings. Magic is commonplace, as is anything we normally associate with fairy tales and mythology. High Fantasy tends to be a bit more upbeat, as many civilizations tend to exist quite comfortably (apart from the odd dragon or zombie attack). Big focus on cosmological conflicts, namely Good vs. Evil.
- Low Fantasy - The dark and gritty counterpart to High Fantasy. Not necessarily Grimdark, although life does tend to be harsher. The biggest exemplar of Low Fantasy is Conan the Barbarian; magic is uncommon but very powerful, political strife is more commonplace, and violence is the norm.
- Heroic Fantasy - Intermediary point between High & Low Fantasy; High Fantasy backdrops and upbeat take on the world, but Low Fantasy-esque focus on Your Dudes. Grittier and more grimdark examples do exist - Warhammer Fantasy Battles and Roleplay are technically Heroic Fantasy.
- Sword & Sorcery - The pulp magazine version of Heroic Fantasy, traditionally leaning more towards the Low end of the scale and incorporating some level of Science Fantasy elements in it.
- Dungeonpunk - Heroic Fantasy with Punk stylings and magitek, usually of the "industrialized magic" variety.
- Gaslamp Fantasy - Victorian-themed (or at least painted) world with magic in it, the fantasy analogue to steampunk.
- Dark Fantasy - Grimdark or Horror take on your standard fantasy world.
Examples: Warhammer Fantasy
- Modern Fantasy - An alternate take on Urban Fantasy, where you have a fantasy world that's developed magic and/or technology until it's reached a semblance of the modern world. Or at least a historical/futuristic analogue to our world.
- Weird Western - Either a Western version of Urban Fantasy, or a fantasy world that has Western themes.
- Cyberpunk - The original "-punk" genre, and the creator of the concept of naming aesthetics by ending in "punk". If you've ever seen The Matrix, that's pretty much Cyberpunk in a nutshell, although Blade Runner is probably a more classic example. Dystopian urban environments and highly advanced technology is commonplace, as are dark and brooding heroes wearing black trench coats and sporting unconventional haircuts, and megacorporations which have more power than any government. High tech, low life.
- Some modern Cyberpunk is called "post-Cyberpunk" and is not quite as pessimistic, though still pretty grim compared to other settings. In post-Cyberpunk, augmentation and technology is seen as a powerful tool that can be used to control or liberate people, and is used globally in political and economical powerstruggl- Wait, where have I seen this before?
Examples: The Matrix, Cyberpunk 2020, Blade Runner, Shadowrun. Post-cyberpunk examples: Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, most modern shooters with robots and augmentations.
- Steampunk - One of the first derivatives of Cyberpunk, at least in name only. In actuality, the aesthetic draws quite a bit from the works of Jules Verne, which taking place in Victorian times and features more advanced versions of the steam-powered technology of the day. These kinds of settings can swing between noblebright and dystopian, since the Victorian Era was a time of wondrous progress, and huge inequality.
Examples: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Warmachine
- Clockpunk - Steampunk's older brother. Borrowing aesthetics from the Renaissance Era, the Baroque Era, the Ming Dynasty, or the Song Dynasty, Clockpunk focuses on complex mechanisms made from wood or traditional metals, and is generally powered by water wheels, wind mills, draft animals, or slowly falling weights. This aesthetic is typically found in genres that don't explicitly focus on it, such as Historical Fiction works. Expect plenty of overlap with historical themes of the time period.
- Dieselpunk - A typically grittier aesthetic associated with Steampunk, but typically grittier, inspired by the era between the World Wars. Tyranny and warfare is commonplace, as are machines capable of deadly efficiency. Expect Noir cities, petrochemical engines, stamped and riveted metal, and the aesthetic synthesis between traditional rural lifestyles and mechanization. Typically features nazis in one way or another, sometimes as the winning side of WW2.
Examples: Command and Conquer: Red Alert, Fullmetal Alchemist, Wolfenstein: The New Order, The Leviathan Series (partially)
- Decopunk - A noblebright version of dieselpunk. Art deco everywhere, hence the name. Not a particularly common aesthetic however.
Examples: Bioshock, especially before the fall of Rapture
- Atompunk - The name applied to anything inspired by the science fiction of the 1950s and early 1960s. Space exploration is the norm, and technology is mostly based on what was slowly beginning to emerge at the time that we would now take for granted (such as video chat, portable phones, robots capable of walking) or else has proven to be wildly impractical if not impossible (Jetpacks, flying cars, ray guns, robots capable of independent thought). Features a sub-genre named Raypunk or Raygun Gothic, which is similar in most ways but ditches references to nuclear power.
- Casette Futurism - An aesthetic based on the "futuristic" styles of the 70s and especially the 80s. This aesthetic also refers to the unique style of "futuristic-looking" devices made during that time. Expect CRT-screens, fake woodgrain, wedge-cars synthwave music, neon lights, hard-edged plastic shells on all technology, and of course VHS-tapes and cassettes.
Examples: Alien, Terminator, Stranger Things
- Biopunk - An aesthetic which revolves around use of biotechnology and DNA manipulation. Other than that core conceit, the actual look and feel of the aesthetic isn't set in stone. Some incarnations might look modern, some might look futuristic, some might look historical.
Examples: Bioshock, Resident Evil, The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Leviathan Series (partially)
- Nanopunk - An aesthetic focusing around the use of nanotechnology. This aesthetic is still evolving, but typically features organic-looking machines, synthetic meta-materials used create "impossible" things (vantablack clothing, mono-molecular edged blades, synthetic muscles), and transhumanist themes. Can often share many themes with Cyberpunk, but the use of nanotechnology is what sets it apart. While a Cyberpunk setting would have cyborgs with cybernetic implants, a Nanopunk setting would instead have people with nanomachines inside them. Sometimes portrayed as a next step from cyberpunk, where cybernetics are becoming obsolete due to advancements in nanotechnology.
- Space Opera - The grand-daddy of Sci-Fi, Space Opera features a multitude of worlds, races and technology that play loose and fast with the science part for the sake of a wide, bright adventure in SPAAAAACE! Space Operas are filled with larger-than-life characters, space-nations loosely based on different earth societies and great, galaxy-saving adventures, though it can easily be zoomed in to a planet- or even a party-focused story if needed. Can be split into three sub-settings: Hard sci-fi which tries to be as scientifically accurate as possible, soft sci-fi where technology works by it's own in-universe rules and science fantasy, which features stuff which is supernatural even by the rules of it's own universe.
- Solarpunk - The most noblebright punk of them all. An utopia for all environmentalists, this aesthetic features a world driven primarily through use of renewable energy and people live harmoniously with nature. Expect to see windmills, solar panels, individualized replacements for infrastructure (home-sized wastewater treatment, people sewing their own clothing, household battery walls, etc.), farming and large gardens, and lots of plants everywhere. Settings using this aesthetic are frequently post-apocalyptic.
- 20 Minutes into the Future - An aesthetic that is definitely in the future, but not by much. Things are not too different from how they are today. For someone living in the 80s, the 2000's would be this aesthetic. This is a very hard-to-define aesthetic, because it keeps moving as time goes on. Most media written with this aesthetic are architypical science fiction stories, speculating and warning about how present trends will extrapolate.
Want to make something in a real world setting? Here's some setting aesthetics from real world history. Are you making a fictional world? Sometimes worldbuilding doesn't have to go into fantasy or sci-fi. Instead, you could also simply make a world inspired by real history. Some might find this pointless, believing that if they are making a story in a medieval setting for example but with no fantasy or sci-fi elements, why not simply set the story in the real medieval period rather than a fictional world? Well the answer to this is simple: Making a story in the real middle ages needs to be historically accurate and making it so requires lots of research into the period. On top of this, making your own world also allows for you to come up with all the fluff yourself, something real world historical settings inherently do not allow for, even if you go for alternate history, you must still account for everything from before the point of divergence and are also limited to the geography of Earth. So if you just want to tell tales of knightly heroism or clashes of empires without fantasy or sci-fi elements but also without feeling constrained by having to make it fit in with real history, making a fictional world based on these settings might be the thing for you.
- Stone Age
- Bronze Age
- Classical Period
- Dark Age
- High Middle Ages
- Age of Enlightenment
- Industrial Revolution
- The World Wars
- The Cold War
- Post-Cold War
- Science Fantasy - Science Fiction and Fantasy gleefully mashed up, so you can wind up with elves with laser pistols, sword-wielding robots, and dragons flying between the stars.
- Lovecraftian: A type of horror setting that is either directly based on or inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft, especially the Cthulhu Mythos. The main concepts revolve around monsters and deities whose mere existence is so horrible that knowledge or direct perception of them drives people insane, and feature copious amounts of existential dread.
- Space Western - Western elements in a science fiction or Space Opera setting.
- Magitek - Magic has either replaced technology or been assimilated into it. Clarkes third law turned on it's head.
- Urban Fantasy - Our world, but with magic and/or science fiction added to it. Considered by many the "easiest" sort of setting to get into by casuals & normies. Can be further seasoned with many other aesthetics. Despite the name, it really just means that it takes place in our world and doesn't have to take place in a city.
- Weird Wars - Urban Fantasy meets war stories, when one of our world's wars gets magical and/or super-science added to it.
- Isekai - Your dudes come from the real world, but have been sent to a fantasy (or, more rarely, sci-fi) land.
Examples: Sword Art Online, GATE, way too many anime from the 2010s
- Post-Apocalyptic - The world ended, and now it's time for adventure! Expect rusted metal, moral ambiguity, relatively high-tech, mutants and lots, lots of sand. Can effectively be divided into three sub-settings: in post-apocalypse, the apocalypse happened fairly recently and as such people are mostly just concerned with simple survival. In post-post-apocalypse, a lot of time has passed since the apocalypse and people have started to rebuild civilization, though it is definitely still a work in progress. In post-post-post-apocalypse, the apocalypse is a distant memory and the world has largely recovered from it.
- Alternate History - One event in history went differently than in our timeline and this change caused the events past that point to be wildly different from our timeline. What if Rome didn't collapse and survived to the 21st century? What if Nobunagas ambition was realized and after conquering Japan, he went on to successfuly conquer Korea and China? Germany winning WW2 is a particularly popular one. Alternate history can effectively work with anything from real world history, fantasy settings to sci-fi settings but it's usually based on real world history. Alternate history based on real world history does have a tendency to feature sci-fi elements however.
Examples: Command & Conquer: Red Alert, The Man in the High Castle, Wolfenstein The New Order
- Retro-futuristic - Setting that tries to imitate how people in the past saw the future and things made in the past do retro-actively qualify for this too. Many of the punk-genres fall under this. Often features technology that would have been futuristic at the time but now are either commonplace or outright outdated. A good example of this is a mobile communication device, something quite futuristic in the time of wired phones and payphones, which often in these types of settings is portrayed as quite cumbersome or of limited functionality, paling in comparison to smart-phones or even mobile phones from the 90s since they allowed for sending of text message in addition to calls.
Examples: Fallout, Alien