On setting

November 27, 2012 Jessie

No matter the genre, setting is a critical component of any novel. I would argue that setting is as important as characters, plot, and dialogue. Indeed, in many great works of fiction, setting IS a character on its own. Consider The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien. Middle-earth is sometimes a friend to Bilbo Baggins, as in the salubrious Last Homely House in Rivendell where the adventurers are rejuvenated. Middle-earth is also a foe to Bilbo, as in Mirkwood, the fearsome dark forest that harbors man-eating spiders, enchanted rivers that cause forgetfulness, and nary a good thing to eat or drink for weeks on end. Bilbo’s tale is all the richer for the dangerous lands he passes, the terrible weather he overcomes, and the nostalgic serenity of the good places that bolster his courage and his waistline. How much better the story is, for example, that a terrible mountain “thunder battle” between two mighty thunderstorms drives the party to be captured by goblins, instead of mere bad luck or coincidence.

Can you tell I’m re-reading The Hobbit right now?

A book’s setting doesn’t have to be a completely fictional world (like mine is in my own novel) to stand out and propel the story. Suppose you want to write a tale of forbidden love. Suppose, even, that you decide to set it in New York City. How different would the story be depending on the part of New York that is revealed? It might take place under bridges in cardboard boxes, or in retail stores on 5th Avenue, or in a high-rise condo, or in Central Park… and on and on and on. Each setting calls forward a different love story, with different travails, different conflicts, and even different characters. Though each story’s bones may rooted in one theme (forbidden love), the various settings will, portrayed well anyway, demand different tellings.

Choose your setting with care, and let it live and breathe and walk like a character on its own feet, and watch your story come alive.

What novels come to your mind when you consider setting as a character?