Updated: Apr 17, 2020
Your main character, Maggie, is running along the beach. Her bare feet dance away from the waves that crawl up the slight slopes, content to simply soak up the mid-morning sunshine alone.
Your main character, Douglas, is striding down a city street toward the skyscraper where his tech-firm office is. The clouds above seem to spell snow, but it shouldn’t start until the evening according to the daily forecast. Until then, all he needs to worry about is not blowing away in the chilly wind.
Your main character, Annette Hope, is flitting from one leafy branch to the next in order to see the clearing where the humans have decided to camp out. The forest is deep and dark, lit up only by the full moon above, a few thousand stars, and the roaring fire 10 children and their three guides are roasting marshmallows around.
Each of those possibilities mention protagonists, but they center around setting. They tell where the story or story segment is situated, giving readers a “visual” of what they’re “interacting” with.
That "visual" is the very most basic interpretation of setting. After you acknowledge and accept that part, there's so much more to describe.
Setting is meant to be a background detail in many ways, something we’ll explore further on Friday. But that doesn’t make it unimportant.
Where a story is situated can actually determine a plot in many instances. Here’s why…
This isn’t as simple a subject as you may think. Setting is actually very, very involved once you start exploring it the way it’s meant to be explored. Most people tend to understand it as the “where” of a story, and they’re right in that. Is it in a country, a state, a city or a town? In the woods or a mountain range or a desert? Is it inside or outside... an empty classroom or a crowded theater?
That’s valid, but so are less permanent observations such as how hot or cold it is, and less obvious details such as a place’s political climate or aura. It all factors in.
In the case of a particular political setting, a protagonist might be chafing under a certain set of rules. And those certain set of rules might prompt him to set out on his own epic journey.
In the case of someone living in a particular state, the tax situation and high cost of living – both of which are setting details – could push a character to try out life elsewhere. And from there, she gets caught up in a romance or a mystery or an elongated alien encounter.
One just never knows.
Setting can also include how your characters feel walking into a room, whether it’s welcome or ignored or uninspired. That’s because it’s not just what your characters can see, but also what they can hear, smell, taste, touch and otherwise sense.
Setting actually involves all the senses, so feel free to play with them all!
If a character lives on a farm, then the feel of a fuzzy chick in her hands is going to be a setting detail. Or if she’s visiting her cousin who’s studying abroad in Dubai, it includes the sound of Muslims being called to evening prayer.
The same thing goes for if he’s a vampire fighter who feels a shiver of dread go down his spine at the realization that his prey is right behind him. Or when he’s past that danger, at the end of the saga, sitting back with his fae friend as they both enjoy salty, greasy slices of pepperoni pizza…
That’s setting as well.
Essentially, setting is the physical, emotional, psychological and/or spiritual world a character interacts with: the established or unfolding backdrop they operate on.
That's a wide, wide range to be dealing with. So you're best off learning some tricks of the trade before you tackle it on your own.
Editor’s Note: Read the next post on story setting here.