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.
I am a writer, a reader and a teacher. I write about writing. Sometimes I write about other things too.