Approaching a new piece of fiction is like entering a maze. There are many entrances to consider and whichever one we take has a bearing on how clearly we see other aspects of story.
If you began at the entrance with a board that read ‘setting,’ the perfect one(s) may have been obvious from the beginning. But for those who chose another, here’s my step-by-step guide to finding the centre and not get hopelessly lost. I’m going to be asking you some questions along the way, so make sure you have pen and paper at the ready! By the end of this article you will:
- Understand how to develop setting on both a small and large scale.
- Discover the relationship between character and setting.
In the Wider Sense of the World
We’re going to begin with ‘setting’ in its most general sense. It’s the geographical area that encompasses the entirety of your story; either real, fictional, or in most cases a mixture of both. It can be as large as a map of Middle Earth or smaller than an English county on a wet day. It can be a single place or abstractly, a combination of different places. Whatever kind of story you’re telling, it will enlarge to fill the space. Let’s jot down some ideas together.
- Where are the places you’ve never been to, but have a strong attraction to (with the means of travelling there in the future)?
- Out of these places, which one(s) would act as the perfect complimentary/ contrasting backdrop to your story, i.e. which one(s) could become characters in themselves?
- Note down some time periods/ historical events within these locations that intrigue you. For example, Egypt as a country attracts me, but would that be the period encompassing ‘Ancient Egypt,’ 16th century Ottoman rule or an event occurring within the modern Arab republic? You might find that certain ones suit your character arcs, motivations etc more than others.
- If you’re planning an ‘entirely’ fictional world, how can you apply these concepts to its creation? In other words, how are you going to give it a basis in reality?
How Low Can You Go?
Now that we’ve looked at the big picture, it’s time to consider setting within individual scenes. It could be a cupboard under the stairs (wait, that’s taken), the rooftops of Istanbul (that’s Taken 2) or whatever else that hasn’t been…taken.
Just like the previous point, setting on a small scale is an opportunity to create a particular effect. In other words, what do you want your setting to do? Let’s do this thing:
- Think back to the larger setting. What would be the natural consequences of its geography, climate and culture? For example a pub in the UK/ Ireland or the hot springs on the frosty, mythical island of Icesala.
- Going deeper, what is (or could be) a peculiarity of the local area? For example, there are many seaside resorts in England, but mine has a mysterious mist that washes over the land on hot days. We even have a name for it.
- Which settings would be a natural extension of your character(s): their profession, hobbies, obligations and personality?
- Once you have a few ideas, how can you make them even more unique? How could you turn a cliché on its head or compliment/ contrast them with other story elements? Could any dictate the plot itself?
How Your Characters Colour Their World
In many ways it doesn’t matter how we see setting but how our characters see it. Imagine a pretty suburban area with neat gardens and families who seem happy all the time. Objectively this seems a paradise, but what if your protagonist feels uncomfortable and constantly unnerved by its perfection? This will colour the setting slightly differently for the reader, who’ll in turn see a darker side of suburbia. Ask yourself:
- How does your protagonist feel about his/ her story world?
- How might this alter the way you convey setting to the reader (particularly through the 5 senses)?
No Obvious Setting
This being an article on setting, it would’ve been weird for me not to talk about how to bring it to life explicitly. There are however, situations where no obvious setting is a better fit for a story.
This may be to do with form, genre or once again to create an effect. This doesn’t mean that place and time don’t exist, just that the author chooses to infer it without spelling it out in black and white. It’s not always the easiest trick to pull off but done well, the ‘no setting’ has to be my favourite of all.
If you’re wondering whether or not this would be appropriate for your fiction, ask yourself:
- What kind of story are you writing (short story? Novel) and for whom are you writing (adults? Children?) these factors sometimes have a bearing on sustaining the ‘no setting.’
- Do you want to create a sense of mystery or isolation? If so, this might be a good option for you!
Gathering Your Thoughts
By this point you’re hopefully clearer about how to choose setting for your fiction, even if still confused. That’s totally fine, these decisions take time and often change after first or further drafts anyway. My advice would be to experiment. If one kind of setting doesn’t feel right, try another until you find one that suits.
If you’re in a rut you can come back to the notes you made here and write down some more ideas or create a Pinterest mood board. You could think about your favourite stories whose settings captured your imagination. Ask yourself why this might be. It often reveals your natural preferences for setting.
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Of course, my way is one of many. The most important thing is how you discover setting. Do you have any tips or resources to share that would be beneficial for me and other readers? Make sure to jot them down in the comments section below!
Until next time,