The Power and Importance of Setting
While it is usually of a secondary consideration to a lot of authors, particularly authors who are led by strong characterisation or the plot elements and beats of a story, I want to discuss the importance of setting in a novel. By setting, I don’t mean the expansive world or universe in which your particular brand of speculative fiction is going to be set in - complete with ancient histories and lore, politics, magic, and systems of government - but rather the smaller, more individual settings in which your scenes will take place. Often, the thematic importance of these settings are overlooked in favour of their practical merit.
Here’s an example: you are writing a fantasy book and you have a scene in which an upcoming battle is being discussed. It makes sense to set this scene in some kind of war council room, probably. Many authors will do this because it serves the plot well and gives the readers an understanding of what is going on. But what does it add? Not much. We already know we’re planning for a war, because that’s what’s being discussed.
So what can you do? Start to think about the subtler thematic associations that you want your reader to consider in a scene and think about whether the setting can reflect those. For example, do you want to get across a clandestine and secretive atmosphere? Why not have the scene set in a secret backroom or underground corridor somewhere? Don’t necessarily draw too much attention to it in the dialogue, but let the setting do the work.
Perhaps one of the running themes of your novel is the brutality that comes with war? Why not set your discussion while your characters are watching an execution? That would be far more interesting than a boring old council war room.
The point is this: make your settings do some work. Don’t just opt for the setting that seems most obvious to the scene, because what that means is that it isn’t adding anything particular. Try to look for ways for the setting to complement the scene, not just be somewhere for it to take place.
To explore this concept in a bit more detail, here are some good examples from literature:
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck - Setting as Concept
This novella is a classic and read by most high school students in the world. There’s a reason for that - the vivid characterisation, the precise prose and heartbreaking emotional beats resonate across space and time. The book is, in many ways, timeless. Teachers often tell students that this is a story that could happen anywhere. So, if that’s the case, why does it happen where it does?
Of Mice and Men has two distinct settings: the ranch, where the people work and try to earn a living, and the ‘brush’, a natural place by the river, devoid of people and populated only by fish and birds.
The book is framed by the brush - the first chapter begins here and the last chapter ends here. In it, we see our protagonists, George and Lennie, at peace. The setting is described as peaceful, sure, but more importantly it is where they are most open and honest with one another. It is where they can discuss their plans and dreams of the future without having to lie or hide their motivations. It is, importantly, a setting with no people in it.
Where the branch is representative of nature, with its long natural descriptive passages, the ranch therefore becomes quickly representative of human society. It is a place that exists purely so humans can work there. It is where we encounter relationships, marriages, human hierarchies (bosses and employees), and petty human jealousy and conflict. It is no mistake, then, that this is the place where everything goes wrong.
Neither of these ideas are explicitly stated, but through the judicious use of setting, the thematic message is undeniably clear. When they cross from one setting to another, that is when things fall apart. It is humans that bring other humans down, not the world around us. It is our human failings - anger, jealousy, hatred, dishonesty - that ultimately destroys George and Lennie.
When they return to the brush in the last chapter, the entire ranch follows them, and we see the way in which human society penetrates the peaceful places where we might hope to escape from it.
The use of setting here is simple, but thoughtful.
What can we learn from this?
Settings can be used to highlight the main themes of your novel. Think about what those themes are and where you want them to be present in the developing plot of your story. Can you set scenes in such a way that they accompany or heighten these ideas?
Using recurring settings that we return to but where something has changed or is different, like Steinbeck does, is a clever way of exploring how themes and concepts in your novel contain nuance and undergo change.
Planetfall by Emma Newman - Setting as Antagonist
If you haven’t read Newman’s fantastic Planetfall by now, you should have. It’s a masterpiece of modern sci fi and speculative fiction. Ostensibly about a colony of settlers arriving on a distant planet because they have been led on a search for God, it is a much deeper exploration of guilt, regret and the impact that hiding things has on the human psyche.
Without giving too much away, our protagonist and narrator is a lady who has had to hide some pretty dark secrets for a very long time and it has slowly eaten away at her sanity. The importance of the setting is two-fold in this narrative:
The first is plot and genre based. This is a sci fi story and it is about discovering a new world - many of the speculative thrills and intrigue come from discovering where the hell they are are what is going on. As such, the setting being a mysterious world that they don’t know much about helps drive this plot.
The second is thematic. This is often the impact that budding authors overlook. Due to the nature of their colony, it is isolated from contact from anywhere else in the world. As such, it has become insular. Only a small number of people live together and there is quite literally nowhere to go. What happens is exactly what would happen anywhere else: everyone knows everybody’s business. Everybody makes it their business to know everybody’s business. People are always glancing over the fences at their neighbours - at their choices, their houses, their decor. Making judgments.
The claustrophobia of the colony and the insular, self-obsessed nature of the community, while not an integral part of the plot or the speculative idea behind the novel, do so much to highlight the insecurities and psychological issues of our protagonist. They take all the issues and heighten them until they are extremely uncomfortable. Without this use of setting, the book would be a mere shell of itself.
What can we learn from this?
Settings can be used to highlight the flaws and concerns of your protagonist. Need to up the conflict and the stakes of your novel, try turning the setting itself into a form of antagonist, just like Newman does.
Identify where your protagonists insecurities lie - their overconfidence? Their close-mindedness? Their inability to trust? Construct a setting where the very landscape they have to go through challenges that. This doesn’t need to be an integral part of the plot itself - just another way to heighten the reader’s experience.
Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey - Setting as reflective of both inner conflict.
Even if you haven’t read Leviathan Wakes, the first in the brilliant Expanse series by James S.A. Corey, you may well have seen the show - The Expanse - which offers an excellent adaptation.
The books and the show both use the settings as reflections of the inner conflicts of the main characters. The two main POV characters - Miller and Holden - both have a range of issues that they have to deal with, but one of the main recurring themes is isolation and loneliness. Holden has to deal with being suddenly made captain of a crew where half of them have died and the rest are a ragtag group that didn’t want to come together. This causes him to face the loneliness of leadership, of lost friends and of finding what to fight for in life. Detective Holden is even more isolated, his precinct abandoning him and ending up entirely alone. He becomes obsessive in his hunt for a missing girl, but it sends him down an extremely isolated path.
All of these is beautifully reflected by the complete isolation and loneliness of the blackness of space. This isn’t a Star Wars type space opera where ships can just jump to warp speed and be anywhere in moments - characters become stranded in space for weeks and months. Space is described as rightly huge as it is and utterly empty. This emptiness comes to represent the emptiness in the characters. Their struggle for meaning in the universe matches their personal struggles for meaning within themselves.
What can we learn from this?
Determine what your character’s inner conflicts and turmoils are. Can you represent this same idea in the setting of your novel? If so, it offers a lovely counterpoint for readers to understand where the characters are coming from. As ever, it isn’t about telling your readers this or calling attention to it on the page, but rather allowing the atmosphere of the setting envelop and act upon the characters and the reader, building into a larger and more cohesive whole.
Setting is an important and often overlooked part of literature. It can be used to reflect, heighten or counterpoint themes, characters and it can even act as a sort of character in its own right, challenging the protagonists as the journey through your story. These ideas are worthy of conscious thought and time.
As always, I would push you actually read some of these texts and see how they work for yourself. Certainly, Steinbeck should be required reading for writers of any genre, and his novellas tend to make quick, easy and very impactful reading.
Stay tuned for another post in a couple of weeks, where I'll be talking about how to make death in literature meaningful.
Hi everyone! It's been a long time, but I'm back. I had been swamped by work for a while and going through the process of finalising by own novel, which is being published next month, but I'm back and looking forward to blogging again.
Let’s talk about tropes in genre fiction. For those unfamiliar with the word, I’m referring to repeated or recurring motifs that appear across a particular genre. These could apply to all aspects of literature - characters, plot points, settings, symbolism, narrative arcs, and everything else. They are what makes a book fall into a certain genre. They are, in many ways, the foundation of the genre.
These include things like dragons, monarchs and magic in fantasy fiction, space battles, warp drives and galactic societies in space operas, or moody, lonely detectives, femme fatales and missing children in crime novels.
In recent years, there has been a push to show that genres have not become stale. Authors are celebrated for subverting tropes, for turning the expectations of the genre on its head and making things fresh and exciting again. This is a great thing for fiction - it encourages innovation and genre blending. It encourages fresh voices.
However, the tropes are still the foundations of the literature, and by throwing them all out the window with no consideration of where they came from, you are doing the genre a disservice. More importantly, if you are subverting tropes purely for the sake of subverting tropes, it is unlikely to end well.
This post will be a case study of how subverting expectations and tropes can be done well by doing a deep dive into George R.R. Martin’s seminal A Game Of Thrones, the first book in the series. I will also be comparing this to the last season of the TV adaptation, where the writers attempts to do the same thing (subvert expectations) fell completely flat and ended up causing a lot of upset.
So what did Martin do that the TV show writers didn’t?
There were so many issues with the choices at the end of the TV show, but I’m going to focus on the big complaint: the character’s wouldn’t do that. Dany would not burn down King’s Landing. Jaime wouldn’t go back to Cersei. Bran would not be made King.
“But the books did a lot of that too!” I hear an invented critic arguing. "Jaime pushed a kid out a window! Ned was killed!"
So why did one work and not the other?
I’m going to use his first book specifically, A Game of Thrones, as a case study for how in order to subvert tropes, you need to understand them first.
A Game of Thrones is unashamedly in the genre of epic fantasy. This is an important note to establish. It’s an old genre, which can be traced back to the seminal epics of Gilgamesh, Beowulf, Odysseus and King Arther, characterised by heroic knights and warriors in their quest to uphold righteousness and bring about peace. Regardless of all the tropes it subverts, there can be no doubt that the genre is epic fantasy. This is because Martin actually uses most of the tropes to his benefit:
So why is his work so celebrated for being different?
I would argue it is because Martin understands his genre so well that he is able to subvert the expectations. He purposely sets up and reinforces these fantasy archetypes before turning them on their head and it is this explicit recognition and appreciation of his genre that makes the books (and the early seasons of the show) so special.
This can be seen in three main ways: character, narrative and symbols.
The “Knight in Shining Armour” is a character archetype whose roots within the world of fantasy trace all the way back to Chivalric Romance, a genre from 12th century Europe which recorded the adventures of legendary kings and knights. Arguably the most renowned works from this genre are the Arthurian romances, and present within its tales is a character who frequently exemplified the archetype: Sir Lancelot. Gentle, chivalrous, and brave, Lancelot often ventured on grand adventures for the kingdom of Camelot, going to extreme lengths to save damsels in distress or to complete perilous tasks.
In A Game of Thrones, the “Knight in Shining Armour” is the first, and perhaps the most prominent character archetype deconstructed by Martin, with much of its deconstruction explored through the character of Sir Jaime Lannister - the knighted brother of Queen Cersei.
In fact, much of how he is characterised initially would have pointed him strongly towards this archetype, even drawing heavy parallels with Sir Lancelot himself. For instance, not dissimilar to how Lancelot was a member of King Arthur’s legendary round table, Jaime himself was introduced as one of the seven Kingsguards: the ancient order sworn to protect, obey, and fight for the King. This is a very conscious set up - a recognition that his work is paying homage to the works that it is based on.
More importantly, the visual imagery used to introduce him is effective in tying Jaime to the archetype. He is first made known to readers from the perspective of Jon Snow, who - notably - “found it hard to look away from him” upon seeing him for the first time.
The tone of awe and admiration is reinforced here. Combined with his subsequent description of Jamie as “tall and golden, with flashing green eyes”, it serves to immediately establish him as gallant, handsome, and upright - vital attributes that typified the classical Knight in Shining Armour. Moreover, the use of adjectives such as “golden” or “flashing” associate Jaime to the archetype by denoting a literal Knight in Shining Armour, an idea which is further reinforced by the illustration of his attire, of how: “on the breast of his tunic the lion of his house was embroidered in gold thread, roaring its defiance”. Here, the “gold thread” once again calls to the idea of a Knight in Shining Armour, while the description and personification of his attire, “roaring its defiance”, further depicts Jamie as a regal, even majestic figure, one who certainly fit the look and demeanour that one would come to expect from a character of this archetype.
And yet, despite Jaime’s initial adherence to the classic archetype, it is subverted by the 85th page as, in a shocking turn of events, he is found by the young Bran Stark to have been partaking in an incestuous relationship with his sister. Understanding that Jaime’s sister was the Queen, this relationship was an act of high treason which would have not only resulted in the executions of both himself and his sister, but also render their children: Princes Joffrey, Tommen, and the Princess Myrcella, as illegitimate heirs.
Determined to keep the affair in secret, Jaime thus chose to send the young boy to a seemingly certain death by pushing him off a ledge; an act of self-preservation that is depicted in all of its entirety by “he gave Bran a shove”. A short, and painfully concise sentence, one devoid of description and emotion; it acts as an instance of brevity to reflect Jaime’s indifferent, and hence unchivalrous nature by highlighting his lack of hesitation in sending a child to an early grave.
As well as this, the entire encounter also serves to deconstruct two other essential characteristics of the Knight in Shining Armor. For one, any notion that Jamie could be loyal would have been quickly discarded when he was revealed to be in an affair with the Queen - the wife of the very King he had sworn to serve. Moreover, the added fact that the affair was incestuous in nature only further underscores Jaime’s moral ambiguity, as well as his lack of guiding principles.
As a whole, the encounter between Bran, Cersei, and Jaime is one meant to elicit shock among readers, and not solely due to the perverse nature of its outcome. Having constructed Jaime as a clear, even immaculate example of a Knight in Shining Armour, audiences would have likely been shocked when the facade was abruptly dropped to reveal an indifferent, treacherous, and dishonourable character, in stark contrast to the flawless figure that he was clearly built up to be. Even the last thing Jaime tells Bran, that being: “The things I do for love”, functions as an ironic, and even mocking allusion to the chivalric knights of old, cruelly twisting the conventional stereotype for such gallant and honourable knights to go to extreme lengths in the name of “love”.
What’s the point?
The way in which Martin subverts our expectations is to play to them first. He consciously acknowledges his readers understanding of the form - the character is set up as something that we implicitly accept. This is then reinforced. By the time the expectation is subverted, the entire world that we expected to be in is turned on its head.
Why doesn’t this work for Dany in the show?
You might argue that Danaerys Targaryen turning ‘evil’ and burning down King’s Landing is a similar subversion of expectations, but it really isn’t.
This is mainly because Jaime’s character was only exposed to us in A Game of Thrones through the eyes of other perspectives. When we are offered his POV, we are exposed to exactly what type of person he really is.
After several seasons of character development for Dany, where her driving motivation has been (albeit in warped, twisted ways) to ‘break the wheel’ and ‘free the common folk’, for her to suddenly choose to murder all those innocent people isn’t a twist. It’s absurd. It makes absolutely no sense.
The difference is that the writers of the Game of Thrones TV gave their audience a character who did something completely against all expectations for her character, whereas in A Game of Thrones, the novel, the readers got a writer who did something completely against all expectations for him as a writer. This is a very important difference.
Let’s consider it in another area:
Another prominent archetype explored, and later subverted within A Game of Thrones is the idea of the Hero. Generally a figure of honor, bravery, and tenacity, the Hero typically acts as a pillar of good virtue amidst a world of evil, fighting against it in the name of righteousness and all other “good” qualities. It is also by sheer circumstance of these “good” qualities that the Hero is expected to prevail over these forces of evil by the end of a story.
Joseph Campbell wrote heavily on this archetype when he presented the idea of the Hero’s Journey, something that should be required reading for any author. Essentially, its a collection of narrative tropes that make up a character’s arc.
A Game of Thrones starts off like any other hero’s journey, with its protagonist - Ned Stark - following a sequence of events that draws remarkable parallels to that of the Departure: the first of three acts that make up Campbell’s Hero’s Journey.
The story begins in an environment that he is already familiar with, before he is dragged off to adventure. His life in this world is even disrupted by what Campbell calls the ‘“herald”, a plot device that calls the protagonist to adventure. Ned Stark’s summons took primarily in the form of a royal visit from King Robert himself, requesting that Ned should take up the recently-vacated position as Hand of the King.
Ned even goes through the ‘Refusal of the Call’, and, with John Arryn’s letter, the ‘Crossing of the Final Threshold’. In following the Departure’s general underlying structure, we can see how the beginnings of Ned’s journey were constructed in such a way that was meant to bear immense resemblance to the Hero’s Journey. Martin’s purpose in doing so was to coax readers into recognising, and registering the beginning of what was seemingly a classic heroic storyline, who then in turn would have easily identified Ned as the “Hero” throughout the rest of the story, in spite of the numerous narratives concurrently taking place over the novel.
As the story continued to build up towards what readers could only have assumed to be his triumph over evil, Ned’s character still continued to follow in the footsteps of a traditional hero. In fact, his victory seemed all but confirmed as the story approached Campbell’s “Apotheosis”, or the story’s climax. With the help of Littlefinger - who had become a seemingly trustworthy ally in what was certainly a deceitful city - Ned had gathered both his personal guard and a hundred men of the city watch, confronting Joffrey with the true nature of his lineage and proclaiming Stannis Baratheon as the true heir to the throne.
Once again, Martin doesn’t just subvert, but demonstrates his complex understanding of the tropes of the genre. Then - instead of heeding his commands - Littlefinger and the city watch turned on Ned, slaughtering his personal guards and allying themselves with Joffrey instead.
Additionally, what Littlefinger jeers at Ned for here - that “I did warn you not to trust me, you know” - functions not only to mock Ned but also to undermine the fundamental qualities of an archetypal hero. Where typical heroes often find themselves victorious by reason of their virtuous qualities, it was made explicitly clear here that the key factor in Ned’s ultimate demise was, in fact, his inherent heroism and his tendency to place trust into others. This is further reinforced by Varrys, who told Ned that “it was not wine that killed the king. It was your mercy”, essentially attributing the victory of evil, or this case - the onset of Lannister rule - to Ned’s deep-rooted morality.
Here, Martin isn’t just subverting expectations, but toying with them, and by extension, us, as a reader.
Let’s look at this again in one final way:
The idea that there is an inherent power behind royal blood is one that is often explored within the world of fantasy. As its name would suggest, it endows upon those who possess it the right to succeed the throne, and typically acts as a cornerstone of what some refer to as the “Rightful Ruler” trope. This is where a character undergoes a path to reclaim a throne that is - by bloodright - his, oftentimes in the event that it is occupied by an inadequate or ill-suited leader. In certain cases, the “royal blood” in question may even develop to become a source of mystical powers that manifest throughout a story.
This was very much the case in a Lord of the Rings, where Aragorn - in his journey to reinstate the line of kings - took the reforged shards of Narsil and exercised his right as Isildur’s heir to summon the army of the dead; and again, in Arthurian Lore, where only a “rightwise king” could pull Excalibur from stone. It can even be found to some extent within Greek mythology, where demigods - individuals of both godly and humanly descent - would inherit extraordinary powers due to the nature of their conception, as was the case with legendary mythological figures such as Theseus.
Within A Game of Thrones, the symbol of Royal Blood, as well as the accompanying archetype of the “Rightful Ruler”, is explored primarily through the character of Viserys Targaryen. From his claims of how “theirs was the kingsblood, the golden blood of old Valyria, and the blood of the dragon”, to asserting that “I am the last dragon”, it was clear that he held a great deal of perceived importance towards his bloodline. To him, the symbol of royal blood was not only representative of his rightful claim to the throne, but also his destiny to reclaim it one day.
To further tie him to the archetype, Viserys even seemed to imply as though “the blood of the dragon” granted the Targaryens with mystic properties. He claimed that “the fire is in our blood”, and that as such “it was never too hot for a Targaryen” - something that is seemingly evidenced by Daenerys’ act of bathing in scalding water. Furthermore, the warnings that he gives to Daenerys, reminding her not to “wake the dragon”, seem to imply as though there was a dormant power lying within him, a “dragon” of sorts that could manifest at any given moment in time.
However, as the story progressed, audiences would have begun to view Viserys for who he truly was: a rash, abusive, and arrogant young man; someone who certainly did not possess the wisdom nor the temperament to be a good king, in spite of what “the blood of the dragon” may have otherwise suggested.
This shift in how audiences would have viewed Viserys is also reflected by the shift in how Daenerys herself saw him, from regarding him with respect, and even fear as her kingly brother to eventually realizing that “he had always been a pitiful thing”. At one point, she even conceded that “my brother will never take back the Seven Kingdoms”, a concession that eventually proved to be true when - in a crazed attempt to force Khal Drogo to win the crown for him - he ended up with molten gold poured all over him, ending his campaign, and his life, for good. It was here where his pursuit of the crown became the very death of him, a direct subversion to what his royal blood was meant to foreshadow: that he would one day reclaim his rightful place on the iron throne.
Furthermore, the notion that Viserys’ blood granted him mystical attributes is one that is gradually deconstructed throughout the novel. Firstly, it was slowly revealed that the “waking of the dragon” so often cautioned by Viserys was - in reality - nothing more than an exaggerated, ego-feeding analogy for his frequent tantrums and abusive tendencies, which was first evidenced when Daenerys recalled of how Viserys “hurt her sometimes, when she woke the dragon”. Secondly, the claims that “it was never too hot for a Targaryen” and that “the fire is in our blood” were promptly - and brutally - debunked when Viserys was scorched to death by molten gold, where Daenerys notably commented that “He was no dragon. Fire cannot kill a dragon”. The deconstruction of these mystical attributes was effective in further undermining the significance of “Royal Blood” by illustrating Viserys as an abusive, weak-willed, and - above everything - ordinary person, in spite of all the grace and power that the “blood of the dragon” was supposed to grant him.
Why doesn’t this work for Dany in the show?
Once again, we have a character who differs from expectations. However, the key difference here is that we were never really presented anything other than a jealous and mean Viserys. The only aspect that made us expect more of him was Martin’s use of tropes in order to create the ‘Rightful Ruler’.
What was subverted was not his foundational character, but rather the place of such a character in the genre.
At no point does Martin, the author, go against what the character would authentically do. He merely goes against what the genre dictates the character should do. This is where the show got it wrong.
Some Key Differences
Everyone became obsessed with the way Martin set up expectations and subverted them, and the examples given here are just a snapshot of the many other ways he deconstructed the genre. However, because this concept of subversion became so popular, the TV writers felt they had to live up to it.
This is unfortunate, because while Martin had decades and centuries of genre tropes to deconstruct, the writers only really had their own show.
The writers subverted their own work. They spent 7 seasons establishing exactly who Dany was and what she would do, and made her to something different in the name of subversion. They convinced us that Jaime was reformed, moved on from Cersei, then forced him back. They spent a whole show setting up how the politics of Westeros was complex, driven by personal vendettas and drives rather than by ideals, and yet they all agree to put Bran on the throne out of some bizarre ideal expressed by Tyrion. It was truly awful.
I think, ultimately, this is the key:
The book set up narrative promises based on the genre that it later turned on its head in surprising and shocking ways. The TV show set up narrative promises based on its own narrative that it attempted to turn on its head - this led to us feeling betrayed as readers. Why did you promise that if you are just going to break it?
Martin didn’t make promises about these characters in A Game of Thrones, he let your expectations for the genre and the tropes make the promises for you. When he threw a centuries’ worth of narrative expectation out the window, it was revolutionary.
When the TV show writers threw seven seasons of their own character and plot development out of the window, it didn’t feel revolutionary. It felt cheap.
What can we learn?
Subverting genre expectations can be fantastic, but you need to know and understand what they are. You need to let your audience rely on their expectations for the genre, so that when you subvert them there is true surprise and shock.
However, subverting your own characters’ development and personality to try and achieve the same aim is false. It will alienate your audience and it will annoy them. Characters still need to make choices that are authentic to their beliefs and their approaches to life.
If you want to change this, it takes MUCH more than a quick realisation. Look at Jaime's arc over the course of "A Clash Of Kings" through to "A Feast For Crows" for another perfect example of this. Martin successfully changes his belief and outlook on the world and redeems him in our eyes, but to do this in an authentic way took three quite lengthy books. It can't just be a snap decision.
I am a writer, a reader and a teacher. I write about writing. Sometimes I write about other things too.