Setting (Are We There Yet?)

For a lot of people, I think that the setting can be the most important part of a story. It’s what draws them in–maybe it’s because they enjoy imagining themselves in that place, or maybe they enjoy peeling back the layers of the new world, or maybe they simply enjoy the Scenery Porn (and yes, despite the name, that link is safe for work). I…am not one of those people. Yeah, settings are cool and all, and a good one can really enhance a work for me, but for me it has always played a distant third fiddle in importance to character and story. For me, there’s no such thing as the Science Fiction Ghetto; a show in any setting (or medium) can be great, no matter if it involves high-school girls battling demons, or if it deals with battles between humanity and aliens, or if it’s a cartoon with kids as protagonists, or if it’s a stick figure comic based on the geekiest of games, or if it takes place on a disc on the shoulders of four elephants standing on top of a gigantic space turtle. As long as the characters were engaging, or the story well-thought-out and the writing good, it often doesn’t matter to me where those characters are or where that story takes place.

That leaves me in a bit of a dilemma, however, because of the aforementioned people who really enjoy reading about a story’s setting. Even if I don’t care about it that much, a sizable portion of the people who might want to read something I wrote would…and besides, I can’t even say that I don’t recognize the importance of a setting in a story. Even in the examples/shameless plugs for stories I like linked above, the settings, while sometimes weird and different from the real world, are well-developed and thought out, and I can’t say that that wasn’t a part (maybe even a big part) of why I came to like those works. Done right, a work’s setting can really come to life in your mind/before your eyes, and it becomes easy to imagine what life must be like living there…and since much of what happens in novels is left to the imagination, that’s kind of a big deal. Not to mention the fact that it’s kinda hard to have good characters when you don’t actually have anywhere to put them. I often find myself with ideas for characters, scenes, even dialogue in my head, but I wind up lacking any real context for them.

So, despite my occasional disdain for the importance of setting, it’s a huge subject and not one to brush aside lightly. Too huge, in fact, for a single blog post, so (assuming I don’t procrastinate enough between posts to allow the internet spiders to take this place over) there will probably be more than one post on this general subject. Mostly, what I wanted to look at in this post was the general options for any story’s setting. And by general, I mean extremely general, like two very basic options.

1. Create Your Own Setting

This is the route that most (or maybe all; I haven’t run across one yet that didn’t) fantasy and science fiction stories take, and it can be an appealing one for sure. It affords you a lot of freedom with the way your world works, and you can mold it to fit the needs of your character and story. That’s not to say it’s without its difficulties, however.

1a. Worldbuilding

As it turns out, creating an entire world from scratch isn’t exactly easy (even God rested after doing so), as there are just so many things to think about. Take Geography, for starters: it might seem nice and easy to draw a map and place everything where you think it should be placed, but if you wind up with tundra bordering the desert and the rivers all going the wrong way, there are going to be problems. On top of that, you have cultures, religions, politics and government, and probably other things that I haven’t even thought of at the moment; sure, most of this isn’t strictly essential, but it’s the details that can really help to immerse someone in the story.

1b. Realism and originality

Unless, like me, you know everything, dealing with all of those details is going to require research. Yes, there’s a certain amount of freedom involved in creating your own world, but if it doesn’t abide by certain rules, it’s going to break people’s suspension of disbelief. In most cases, getting around that involves following similar rules for the real world (or explaining the differences clearly when you deviate). It becomes a question of how ‘alien’ you want to make your world, and what ideas you have to make your world stand out.

2. Choose a real-life setting

Maybe the idea of doing more than just patching a few rivers and mountains together without much thought is a little bit too daunting (it’s not exactly the easiest task, after all). In that case, you could always choose an already established location (could be present-day or historical). This trades a bit of artistic freedom for the advantage of having a solid foundation where you can base your story. It’s not exactly without difficulties, though, otherwise everyone would do it.

2a. Worldbuilding

Surprise! Just because you choose a location that already exist(-ed) doesn’t mean that there’s no work to do. Even if it’s a place with which you’re intimately familiar, you have to set up the geography, culture, etc. for the sake of your readers…and if it’s not a place you’re familiar with, you’re back to the research again, and this time it’s much harder to handwave the things you get wrong (and more likely that you’ll be called out on it). Is it possible to truly capture the feel of a real-world place you’ve rarely (or never) visited? I’m not sure, but if it’s not, a lot of us are not qualified to write about a wide variety of places.

2b. Tweaks

Okay, so there’s a little leeway to be had with a real-world place. Obviously, it’s got to be a little recognizable (otherwise there’s little point in choosing a real-world place to begin with), but that doesn’t mean that it has to be identical. The events of your story are almost certainly going to have an effect on your setting, and if you want to avoid libel or copyright issues you’re almost certainly going to have to change names and places. If you want a little more freedom while still maintaining some grounding, creating fictional places in real-world areas (such as a nonexistent city in California) can open up new possibilities. Finally, if you want a real-life setting but a story that’s a little bit more fantastical, you can always add something to a location in order to give it a little more pizzazz. I recommend zombies. Or ninjas. Although, I suppose there’s no way to tell that ninjas aren’t there already…

Oy. Setting is a complicated beast, and I still don’t feel as if I’m anywhere close to grasping how to capture a good one. This is probably my biggest hangup as a wannabe author, and it’s a little hard to proceed with a story with your characters standing in a vacuum (mostly because they’d all suffocate). I’ll probably have to tackle this subject again from a different angle, but until then…

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