Setting can be so much more than simply a backdrop for action. A good setting can enhance the mood and emotion of a scene. A great setting can come alive and act like a character in a story. It’s the difference between a backdrop you’d find in a photographer’s studio and the 3-D version of Avatar. The planet, Pandora, was a living entity in the movie and the 3-D qualities made that believable. The world surrounded you and made you part of it.
Imagine Little Red Riding Hood without the woods. Where would the buildup of tension and foreboding come from? How about To Kill a Mockingbird without the small town southern location? Would it have become a classic if it had been set in New York, or Boston, or even in a small town in southern California? It needed the history of the south, the civil war, the race tensions that pervaded the very molecules of the atmosphere of that time to help make that story a classic.
So how do you make a setting into a character? To start, ask yourself do you want to set your story in a real place or in a made up one? If you hesitate to use a real place because of travel limitations (no cash to fly to Venice to check out the Grand Canal) is there someplace local that you could use to recreate the atmosphere? It can help a lot to go to a location and soak it up. It’s amazing the ideas you get from someplace real. All of your senses are involved and because of that, it’s easier to make describing it dimensional. If you can’t go to a location, are there any dvds about the place? A few years ago I set a story in Ecuador. I had my characters traveling through the Llanganates Mountains, a place where there aren’t even any maps. You get a map of the area and there are huge sections missing because no one has mapped them. The area is shrouded in legend and mystery, which was one of the reasons I picked it. Which is all well and good, but then proved difficult writing about it. I had to do a lot of research just to find basic descriptions of the area. First I looked for dvds but didn’t find any useful ones. All of the travel books, and history books were sketchy and often stopped short of where I wanted to go. I found a few accounts from people who had traveled in the area but they didn’t do a great job of describing the flora and fauna. And they had very few photos, usually just black and white ones. I needed a better understanding of the area in order to write about it with any authority. I tried contacting consulates with no result. I finally resorted to personal blogs from people traveling there and that helped give me a feel for the lifestyle and filled in a few details. I didn’t try contacting anyone, although I might have if I hadn’t finally found one dvd that partially covered the area I wanted. I was finally able to see the landscape and get a better feel for the difficulty in traveling through it. If the setting isn’t dimensional for you, then you can’t make it that way in your writing.
If your setting is completely made up (a fantasy world or on another planet) you must still rely on physical laws to govern your world. Try to find comparables in our world and research those. Even if it’s a made up world, it has to be real for you to make it real for your readers. It is exhausting, though, to create a world entirely from scratch, which is why I suggest looking for real world comparables. Even a made up world needs to be grounded in reality in order for readers to accept it.
I recently saw a movie trailer for Upside Down. I’ve posted some stills from the movie trailer.
As you can see from the photos, there are two worlds, one which is upside down to the other. A unique setting for a love story. It creates stunning visuals, but I need some science behind this concept to make it believable. There is nothing in the trailers that gives me any information on how this can exist. I’m willing to suspend my disbelief to see the movie. I find the concept intriguing. But I also need something solid I can hold onto that governs how these worlds work and interact that will come out in the movie. If it’s not there, then the story won’t work for me. Even fantasy worlds have physical laws that govern how things work. If those laws aren’t there or if the writer arbitrary violates them because they want the story to develop in a certain way, then they will lose the trust of the reader/viewer. In that case the setting actually works against the story because it has fractured the suspension of disbelief. If Upside Down has a believable explanation for how these worlds work and interact then I think this will be another case where setting becomes a character. I’m looking forward to seeing it, hopeful that that is the case.
What it boils down to is if you want your setting to become a character then it must be as real and dimensional as you would make a person in your story. In order to do that, you have to do your research so that you can write from authority. The upside is, if you’ve got the pocketbook for it, you can write off that trip to the Grand Canal in Venice.