The best books have settings that fix the book’s course. That is, the setting isn’t just beautiful or interesting. It has a personality – it could practically take a Meyers-Briggs personality questionnaire, and because it has a personality, it interacts with the characters and the storyline.
Whether it’s an enchanted forest, a Renaissance palace or modern Tokyo, if your setting is well drawn, it will have a character of its own. So, that’s your first question to ask yourself. What is the personality of your setting?
Perhaps it’s moody, like the castle perched on the craggy Scottish coastline in Winter Sea. And a little demanding, for the lashing waves draw the character into the story like a magnet.
Maybe, it’s bustling and friendly like Maeve Binchy’s collections set in modern-day Dublin or serene and restoring like an Amish novel.
The next question to ask yourself is: does your setting match the tone of your story? A moody and demanding setting is great if you’re writing Gothic or a complex historical, but not if you’re aiming for a sweet romance.
If your setting is a quiet New England village, and you’re aiming for the tension of a thriller, what can you add to mix in sinister characteristics? A ramshackle cottage, a deserted, winding road in front, a dense wood behind, perhaps. Some nervous citizens and a long, long drive to the next town, where help might be found. There are always details you can add to get the tone and personality you’re aiming for.
Third, what does your setting demand of the characters? If it has a temper of its own, a setting will demand something of the main characters. The arena in The Hunger Games or the uninhabitable planet in The Martian demand courage and genius since the stakes are life and death and the odds are long. In other stories, the demands will be more subtle. Brooklyn simply requires Eilis Lacey to learn the self-confidence necessary to thrive in her new home and to love New York as she once loved Ireland.
How does the setting twine itself around the character’s soul, and thus your reader’s? Often, the writer accomplishes this by tying setting to love. Claire, in Outlander, learns to love the 18th century Scottish highlands, despite its superstitions and the loss of everything modern, for one reason: she loves Jamie who belongs firmly in the 18th century highlands. And once she leaves, she mourns until she can return.
In The Lake House a country estate in Cornwall becomes the centerpiece of Alice’s life long after she leaves it, not only because of its beauty, but because it represents innocence and family. Those memories are made more poignant by loss as the novel progresses. That’s a key, isn’t it? There is something about loss (of setting, of love) that seals a setting’s importance.
Of course, none of these would work without the last question: What are the details of your setting? How will you paint the setting so the reader feels like he/she is there? Which details? Which senses? Preferably all five. The details matter, since it is in the details that you capture the setting’s personality and your reader.
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