Setting refers to when and where a story takes place, and the circumstances that affect the characters.
By thinking about your setting the same way you think about your characters, you can use setting to fulfill the critical functions of advancing the plot and giving insight into personalities (the most important functions of any aspect of your work). Doing so adds depth and realism to your work and frees up your real characters to take on other roles.
Here are five ways to craft your setting as you would a character:
Give it personality. The Shire in The Lord of the Rings is thought to be based on the pastoral English countryside: compact and green, with pockets of forests. It is gentle, but substantial, providing sustenance and stability to the hobbits who live there. The book’s hobbit protagonist, Frodo, demonstrates similar qualities of maturity and substance that constantly remind the reader of the beloved home he left behind—a good trait in a quest story.
Make it unique. Only one thing claims Scarlett O’Hara’s heart in Gone With the Wind. Husbands come and go, the latest fashions from Paris become irrelevant, and the family members closest to her—her father and young daughter—are taken away from her. But her homestead of Tara endures as a tangible representation of both a lost way of Southern life and the only hope she sees for her future. It is as uniquely hers as her own reflection in the mirror.
Give it secrets. A setting does not have to be big or bold to have profound dramatic impact. Consider the “secret annex” where young Anne Frank hides with her family during the Nazi occupation of Holland (Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl). These cramped quarters underscore every aspect of life for Anne and the others: boredom, a lack of food and other basic necessities, and the constant threat of being discovered. The space is both protector and antagonist, and thus serves as a kind of character.
Give it contradictions—both good and bad qualities. The ocean in The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea provides a way for fishermen to make their living—as well as to meet their demise. Like most people, it is not one dimensional, and thus adds depth and texture to the plot.
Make it change. Weather is part of setting, and can quickly turn as deadly as any other literary antagonist. Into Thin Air, the story of a disastrous expedition up Mt. Everest, and Isaac’s Storm, the story of America’s deadliest hurricane to date, are beautifully crafted examples of how weather can drive the actions and thoughts of characters
—Ann Kellett, Ph.D.
Ann Kellett Editing