Have you ever read a great book that could’ve taken place anywhere? When you think back to the characters, were they roaming around Anytown, USA?
The answer to those two questions is most likely no.
The reason: Great stories happen in specific places. Characters who won’t stop poking your brain are painted by their world, impacted by where they live and the setting all around them. Without one, you almost never have the other.
Whenever I start a new story, setting is one of the first things I think about. I might have a seedling for a character, or a general plot idea to kick the conflict into gear, but without a place for these things to happen, I quickly feel adrift, as if I don’t have a full picture of my character or their human experience. Setting is all around us, constantly impacting our day and influencing our lives. It tells us about whom we are and what we might be like. For characters, it’s no different.
Setting is the location where your story takes place, such as New York City or small village in Alaska, but it’s also the year and season or climate. For example, if your character’s car breaks down, do they have a cell phone, or is it 1979 and they have to walk to a payphone or flag down another motorist instead? Is it August in southern Georgia, so they might be in danger of heat exhaustion, or February in upstate New York, so there is a fear of hypothermia? How does the setting impact their clothing? Their mood? The number of people they might encounter? All of these elements—time, place, and climate—are continually pushing on your character, making their life better or more complicated (and because this is fiction, hopefully it’s making life more complicated).
Now that your characters have a time, place, and year to call home, the next layer of setting comes into play. What they smell, how it feels, and what they hear are all experiences that humans encounter every second of the day. A dusty desert is going to feel and smell different than being in the deep woods. Dry air makes your skin crack, while the cool, sun-shielded forest might cause goose bumps. The sounds may be of coyotes versus birds. The colors on the horizon are very specific. People don’t live in a bubble, so these experiences that tap into the five senses are a huge part of defining your setting—and your characters, as they are brought to life while interacting with their world. I’ve found that this is a simultaneous discovery. As you delve deeper into your setting, you’ll also begin to see more of your characters, such as what they wear and how they get around their world, if they are around a lot of strangers (city) or feel isolated (small town). Just as much as the conflict, these decisions impact your characters and anchor them into the story.
So, you’re ready to pound the keyboard and develop a rich, layered world, right? I know, I know, it’s not that easy. And for that reason, I’ve provided three methods to help you build your setting from the vision in your head to a specific, describable place:
1. Make friends with a magazine rack. My method is to look at home/garden or travel magazines until I find a place that speaks to me. If you already know that your character lives on the coast, pick up Coastal Living. The south? Then try Southern Living. These are just examples, but the idea is to get a feel for the place, the flora and fauna, the types of architecture, the dwelling your character might live in. What bodies of water are nearby, what quirky historical locations might your character visit? The beauty of this method is that there is a magazine for almost everything. When you find something that you like, buy the magazine and rip out the images to tack it to a story board. See if an accompanying article can provide further inspiration. Or, if you’re more into the virtual side of life, set up a free Pinterest account and pin pictures and images from online sources. Either way, your fictional world will begin to take shape and provide you with details to weave into your story. This is a great resource to go back to over and over again.
2. Find a map of an existing place or draw your own. If you need a larger scale setting, perhaps where you focus on a city or the entire neighborhood, an aerial map will be most helpful. It will add some depth to when your characters are going from point A to point B. Do they take the Interstate? Is it an unpaved country road? How far is it for little Sam to pedal on his bike to his friend’s house? How long will it take for Anna to walk from her apartment to the bus stop? Your setting doesn’t have to be a real place, but it should be believable. If you say that Anna walked to the bus stop one block away, but whisked into the coffee shop for a latte and bought a new tube of mascara and dropped off her mother’s dry cleaning, you’d better be sure she’s in a bustling location instead of a small town with one country store. If your space pirate is on the planet Xenon and has to jet to another planet to fuel up his spaceship, you might want an idea of how long that’s going to take.
3. Take notes when you travel. In one story, I set my characters in Miami because I was there while en route to Key West. Those few hours made such an impression that I couldn’t help but use it as a setting. I took notes on the houses (some had corrugated metal for a roof, some had large plantation shutters on the windows), and what kind of trees I saw (banyans and palms), the color of the horizon, the type of landscape. Once I came home, I had a basis to do some research to go along with my first hand experience. Getting a flavor for a place by visiting is an interactive and fun way of discovering your setting. Your imagination and additional research will fill in the blank spaces.
Setting is a driving force in your fiction. It gives characters a place and time, influences their actions, and provides mood and atmosphere. The goal is to immerse the reader into the life of your characters, and this includes where they live. The next time you write, ask yourself if your setting is something that you can touch, taste, and feel. If not, use the methods above as basis to begin describing the world of your story.
What books do you love because of their descriptive setting? How has it helped you develop setting in your own writing?