The role setting plays in a story is immense and yet I think it is also undervalued. No story can exist without setting and so it has been taken for granted in most cases. The place a story takes place gives it a unique flavor unlike quite any other story. The way the author describes that place can entirely alter the story. It might just be backdrop, but it alters the characters and what they can do in heir world. How a writer comes about creating the location stems from four types.
First, there is the alternate universe, the future, or a planet in a galaxy far far away. This is always a place that is unbeknown to us mere humans and so the author has entirely free reign. He or she can make the mountains, the rivers, and the laws of gravity without receiving any argument from the reader. Here is a world where the writer always knows best. It sounds like a writer’s dream. There is no research necessary to bring this world alive on the page. However, as with many things, this isn’t quite so perfect as it seems because there is a thin line that the author must walk between spending to much time describing the world and the polar opposite where the reader is lost in a world where they don’t understand any of the sparsely explained surroundings. I enjoy writing this type of setting, but it’s certainly taxing on the imagination, letting it run free only to realize how hard it is to rein back in!
Secondly, and I think this is an almost equally challenging imaginatively in some cases, there is the historical setting. If your characters are running around fifteenth century Great Britain, you need to know all the details of what their clothes and the architecture would look like to match the scene. Unfortunately, that’s a huge feat of imaginative power for both the writer and the reader because neither have been to that time period and thus need to see all the details laid out on the page. This setting takes first prize for requiring research. Authenticity is a must in setting, so a writer needs to spend a huge chunk of time learning about their character’s world before they can even begin to write the story.
Third, we have the comfort zone of all settings: placing characters in a location that the author has been to, the experienced setting. This is easy and natural. The writer simply dips into their memory,then puts fingers to keyboard and takes off at top speed. This can be a hometown or a city visited on a life-changing vacation, maybe even a town that the writer simply happened to be passing through. The characters won’t run into world-laws conflicts or accidentally find themselves in clothes that didn’t exist in their day. However, this might not be the most thrilling setting for the writer. if they know it too well, it’s not a place for them to enjoy discovering with their characters. It’s a tricky balancing act between comfort and boredom.
A happy medium might be found between the feeling of discovery and the problems of setting insecurity by placing characters in a real-world place that the author simply hasn’t visited; the real other. This requires some research naturally, but not an overwhelming amount. It also leaves room for imagination, though far from the wildly unpredictable level of imagination in the alternate universe. This story gives a subtle flavor of exciting foreign-ness while requiring careful attention to details and not wasting space on the page with describing clothes or technology that the reader already understands.
Really, with all four types available, it seems the author has the world at his or her fingertips… except that the setting has to fit the plot. So maybe the story itself really picks the setting and the writer is just swept along, hoping they can cope with whatever type of world they are being thrust into.
With the pick of all four, which world do you most like to read?