Last month, I wrote about the importance of character development and writing about characters that are relatable, in some small way, to the audience. I used ‘people’ loosely; your character could be a sentient fish for all it matters, as long as they have some train of thought or flow to their consciousness. I said that ultimately, it’s people that are important to a story since people are the driving force behind everything we do: it’s what makes a story interesting.
However, people can’t exist in a vacuum, and the place and setting of the story are often equally important. Unless you’re writing literally an inner monologue, your story presumably takes place somewhere, and at some time, and these things will ultimately influence the way your characters think, feel and behave. The things your characters might do in 1860s London are going to be significantly different to what they might do in 1970s New York, and this extends beyond obvious anachronisms—we all know they didn’t have fax machines in the Victorian era, but even the language and behavior towards fellow characters are going to be different.
In many cases, writers might even think of a setting before they think of a main character; such was the case when I started writing The Redemption of Erâth. I actually had the idea of a fictitious fantasy world long before I came up with the concept of a main character mired by darkness and despair, and to this end, my world-building was the primary focus during the early years of writing this series.
It stands to reason, then, that at least as much thought ought to be given to where our characters do what they do as is given to what they do and why they do it.
As a (primarily) fantasy writer, often the first choice I have to make when approaching a new project is whether to set the story in the real world, a fantasy world or somewhere in-between. There are, of course, numerous notable examples of both in the fantasy genre: The Lord of the Rings clearly set the gold standard for ‘high fantasy’ (set entirely in a fictitious world), while the Harry Potter series remains a remarkable example of a story set partway between the real world and an imagined one.
Other genres don’t have this liberty; while fantasy and sci-fi have the advantage (and burden) of creating entirely new worlds, many other stories, including crime fiction, romances, and contemporary fiction have to make do with a world our readers are already familiar with. (Historical fiction sits in an interesting in-between, where the setting is often real, but the action is fictitious—sometimes to the point of altering history.) In this regard, sometimes the setting becomes less important than the characters and their plights; while Stephen King likes to set many of his stories in rural Maine, I don’t know if this setting is necessarily mandatory for his plots—tales such as IT or The Tommyknockers realistically could be set anywhere that such towns could exist.
In this regard, a writer is often faced with a choice: knowing (to an extent) their audience, they can choose to fictionalize somewhere their readers will know well, or set it somewhere that, whilst still real, most people would know very little about. When I first read Bridge to Terabithia as a child, I was easily able to imagine the woods and streams that Jesse and Leslie frequented, for I had grown up in a similar type of environment. The same was true of To Kill a Mockingbird, for although I didn’t grow up in 1930s Alabama, I was able to envision the setting through Harper Lee’s detailed descriptions of the town, and experiences in similar small-town settings.
When I first read Dracula, on the other hand, I was at the mercy of Bram Stoker’s descriptions of the count’s castle and the gothic Carfax Abbey, for I had little knowledge of these kinds of places. To this extent, I was relying on believable fiction—it didn’t matter to me if Transylvania really had such castles or not, as long as I could believe they did, and could envision them in my mind.
These settings are important because they often set the tone and mood of the story as much as the character’s thoughts and actions do. Inasmuch as writing a story is about convincing the reader to feel something, we as humans are often moved by our surroundings as much as we are by what happens to us.
But how do you go about creating a setting without being ham-fisted about it? How do you let your audience know just when and where your story takes place? In film, this is (relatively) easy: the audience is likely to see the setting long before they are introduced to the characters (think long, panning shots of landscapes, overhead views of cities, etc.). Novels sometimes have a harder job, especially if the book blurb doesn’t set the scene itself because we’re often launched into action with little preliminary background.
If you’re writing a screenplay, of course, you can simply say, 1920s Chicago, and the set designers have their work cut out for them. You wouldn’t typically start out a novel with quite so blatant a setting. Creating a convincing setting from the outset requires a mastery of subtlety, a way of introducing the reader to the place and time without outright stating it. An opening line goes a long way toward this; take for example the opening to The Hobbit:
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”
What is a hobbit, I wonder? It lives in a hole, apparently, in the ground. This clearly isn’t a regular human, nor does this story deal with regular human topics. Within a few words, I have an inkling of setting. By contrast, here is the opening line(s) to my secondary work-in-progress (not The Redemption of Erâth):
“It is a dark city on such a late summer evening. The sun is blood over the rooftops, and the girl in the park is sitting in the last rays passing between the old brick buildings.”
From this (I hope), we gather that we are in fact dealing with regular human topics, in a regular human city, and in (perhaps) a relatively modern era.
Of course, setting isn’t something that takes place uniquely at the beginning of the story. In many tales, the setting will change over the course of the telling, whether it be by characters traveling, or changing over time. Throughout the rest of The Hobbit, we are treated to farms and horses and swords and bows, and we become firmly rooted in fantasy. As my own novel (above) progresses, we follow the characters into pubs and clubs and become firmly rooted in present-day reality.
That being said, it’s nonetheless important to give a firm grasp of setting near the beginning. One of my favorite stories is actually one told through a video game, Max Payne (released in 2001). It tells the story of a New York City detective whose family is murdered by junkies, at which point he goes undercover to try and discover the source of the mystery drug that took away his loved ones. The gameplay is interspersed with graphic novel cutscenes, and the overall telling of the story is actually quite well done. However, the opening scene of the game takes place in an abandoned subway station, with set design harking back to the 1920s. Because of this opening environment, I immediately associated the setting with similar-era hard-boiled detective stories, à la Raymond Chandler. When we left the subway and emerged into modern-day New York City, I remember feeling just a touch disoriented, as though I had jumped ahead in time 80 years.
A very different story I once read, in which setting was done exquisitely, is His Majesty’s Dragon, by Naomi Novik. In her (ongoing) series about the Napoleonic wars, we are thrust into the action as a British warship engages a French frigate, the characters discovering aboard it a ready-to-hatch dragon egg. With brief descriptions of swords, cannons, and sails, we know immediately that this is historical, fiction, and fantasy. The story rapidly veers away from reality as we are introduced to the concept that dragons are used as an aerial force on both sides of the war, and the story develops remarkably entertainingly from there. I (disappointingly) have yet to read the rest of the books in her series, but I remember being enveloped in the clearly-defined setting from the outset.
Some stories, of course, change settings dramatically throughout, and this is much harder to do, as readers expect a consistency of sorts throughout the story. In H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, we are introduced to a variety of settings that are all remarkably different from each other, primarily because the characters are literally traveling thousands of years in time. This provides an excuse to explore numerous fantastical places in a single short story and works well.
This is something I’m struggling with myself in my current series, The Redemption of Erâth. In the third book, which I’m currently in the process of editing, one of the characters finds themselves far in the past, in a place where magic is every-day reality, and people can travel the breadth of the world in a matter of weeks. This is far-distanced from the world of horses and swords that I have hitherto been describing, and I’m actually finding it difficult to reconcile the two worlds in a believable manner.
Ultimately, of course, I think the setting is secondary to the characters’ journey, but it’s also related, in an inextricable sort of way: the journey would not be what it is, if not for the setting in which the character journeys through.
What are some of your favorite settings for novels, films or games? What makes them so wonderful? And could the story have worked in a different setting? Let me know in the comments!
Raised between the soaring peaks of the Swiss Alps and the dark industrialism of northern England, beauty and darkness have been twin influences on Chris' creativity since his youth. Throughout his life he has expressed this through music, art, and literature, delving deep into the darkest parts of human nature, and finding the elegance therein. These themes are central to his current literary project, The Redemption of Erâth. A dark epic fantasy, it is a tale of the bitter struggle against darkness and despair, and an acknowledgment that there are some things the mind cannot overcome. Written from a depth of personal experience, Chris' words are touching and powerful, the hallmark of someone who has walked alone through the night, and welcomes the final darkness of the soul. However, for now, he lives in New Jersey with his wife and eleven-year-old son. You can also find him at http://satiswrites.com.
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