Writing Setting as Character

Setting as CharacterInspired by Sanderson’s World Building class, we bring you writing Setting as Character. There are certain books where the setting is so key to the story, so rich and well defined, it becomes a character in itself.

Let’s start with the granddaddy of them all. Readers love Tolkien’s Middle Earth, it is so vast and detailed and diverse. The setting is as much part of Tolkien’s legacy as his mythic fantasy story telling. Middle Earth isn’t just one character, its several; from the Shire, to Rivendell, the Ridermark, Moria, Gondor, and Mordoor. You move from one wondrous place to another, each distinct and well-drawn.

Compare this to certain other fantasy doorstops we could mention; you have forty countries but no idea how people dress. Seventeen systems of government but no idea how anyone makes a living. Do underpants and toothbrushes even exist? Who builds all of those thousands of miles of roads that armies travel along at record-breaking speed?

This is why some readers complain about ‘Generic’ Medieval Fantasy Settings. We could be anywhere. Now I’m in favour of outlining with a light brush stroke and leaving the reader to fill in the rest for themselves. But at least give them a clue.

But no, frequently you get a vast map that looks suspiciously like someone put the classic Middle Earth map through Chat-PG-Tips and voila; instant Generic Fantasy World. Often there’s some place over on the right of the map that’s vaguely like China. But that’s it. It’s less Legends and Lattes and more Starbucks and Burger King. The setting has no character.

Vast and Wide (but shallow) versus narrow and deep

Our ‘world’ is complex. The perception of our world is unique to every one of us. But no one creates seven billion versions of a fictional world. So where do we start? Writers assume we can imagine everyday tasks like eating breakfast and wearing pants. But after that?

This is the challenge of world building for ANY fictional genre (remembering Fantasy is No Different). Do you go vast and wide, but shallow as a puddle? Lots of countries but no discernible cultures or beliefs? Or do you go narrow and deep, mining a single rich seam and putting all you find under a microscope?

We asked how big a world do you need? Now let’s ask how big a world do you want?

Some authors like Tolkien find joy in creating detailed settings and sharing them. They appeal to readers who like to explore, to be transported. Writing setting as character will do that. It adds to the richness of the story, making the fantastical believable. It pulls us in until we think we’re living the experience alongside the characters.

Up to a point. That point for me is the Dead Marshes. Endless weeks crossing peat bogs and gravel. In real time.

How much is too much?

You can go into too much detail. Especially when it’s not particularly interesting. Detailed but dull. We’re back to relevance; what makes this rich setting relevant? What does it contribute to the story? How does the setting affect the characters? Economics, politics, religion, geology, magic; all of these need to inform the way the characters move through the story, what they believe, how they think.

This is why enclosed settings often work better than sprawling travelogues. You can examine one location in more detail than a whole world; a village, a county, a city; a boat, a forest, a space station. In The Martian, Andy Wier’s depiction of the hostile red planet achieves setting as character in the same way as Robinson Crusoe’s island.

A Tightly Drawn Net

The ‘world’ of Pride and Prejudice (yes, collect a sticker) is a very thin slice of Regency England. Austen focuses on social structures and domestic dramas. The Napoleonic wars aren’t acknowledged despite the presence of the military. The economy isn’t discussed beyond the looming disaster Mr Bennett dies before his daughters find husbands. Austen’s world consists of houses, estates and social events. She reduces the world to the singular tunnel of mostly middle-class society with the occasional intrusion of billionaire aristocrats descending like aliens from outer space.

Defining features

Often it’s the defining features of a fictional world that make it memorable. In Narnia it’s talking animals. In His Dark Materials, it’s dust and daemons. For the Mortal Engines it’s cities on wheels. On Dune‘s Arrakis it’s sand, sand and more sand. A hostile desert environment, the presence of the spice and sandworms affects everything.

The Ripple Effect

In which case, the defining features of a world should have a ripple effect on the characters and the story. What does magic do to government education, religion, economics? What happens when magic is rare versus when magic is common? Usually a magical elite takes over the reins of power. Because it can.

This is where a lot of fictional worlds pull back from the truly imaginative leap. In the Harry Potter series, there’s magic a-plenty, but it’s hidden from the muggles in the everyday world. Which is bizarre since humans are so bad at keeping secrets. Rowling shies away from lifting the veil, even though the vast Magical World leaks into the real world so frequently. Instead she gives us the contained environs of Hogwarts, a kind of Tom Brown’s Schooldays with Wands and Quidditch. Hogwarts is definitely setting as character. In this case, highly evocative, huge fun; but mostly irrelevant to the actual plot.

In Pratchett’s absurdist fantasy Discworld, magic is a barely understood force for chaos, with characters battling to contain it before the world unravels. The tendrils of Pratchett’s magic ‘system’ constantly threaten the hum-drum existence of most of the inhabitants.

In His Dark Materials, Lyra’s world is entirely dominated by Dust, Daemons and the truly warped ideology of the Magisterium. The discovery of portals between worlds doesn’t just ripple, it creates tidal waves that threaten to destroy everything. There’s an entire Orpheus in the Underworld sequence in the third volume where Pulman challenges and rewrites death itself.

So what’s your favourite setting as character? Middle Earth, Narnia, Dune, Hogwarts? The Cosmere? St. Trinians? or maybe Coronation Street? The Office? All detailed worlds that feel real in themselves, writ large or small.

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