The Reading Rainbow theme song really had it right.
One of the best parts of reading is the way in which it opens up a new world to us, whether it’s set in in an unpronounceable ancient kingdom, the far reaches of outer space, ancient history, the distant future, or even the real world but maybe somewhere we’ve never been. It’s an incredible experience to be immersed in an unfamiliar setting.
Still, I’m not sure that all aspiring authors give quite enough thought to setting. The best worlds are more than just the trees that dot the hillsides or the stars in outer space. There’s more to a good setting than simply a place where the novel is set.
There are three important elements to a good setting:
The best settings are not static, unchanging places that have no impact on the characters’ lives. Instead in the best worlds there is a plot inherent to the setting itself: a place in turmoil (Lord of the Rings), or a place that is resisting change but there are tensions roiling the calm (To Kill a Mockingbird), or the sense of an era passing in favor of a new generation (The Sound and the Fury).
Basically: something is happening in the bigger world that affects the characters’ lives. Great settings are dynamic.
Personality and Values
There is more still to a great setting than the leaves on the trees and even the change that is happening within that world: a great setting has its own value system. Certain traits are ascendant, whether it’s valor and honor (Lord of the Rings), justice and order (Hondo), every man for himself (The Road) or it could even be a place where normal values and perspectives have become skewed or inverted (Catch-22).
There’s a personality outlook that throws us off kilter and makes us imagine how we’d react if we were placed in that world. And it makes us wonder whether we have the makeup to thrive within it.
Most importantly, a great setting shows us something we’ve never seen before. Either it’s a place that most readers might be unfamiliar with and have never traveled to (The Kite Runner), or it shows us a place that we are all-too-familiar with, but with a new, fresh perspective that makes us look again (And Then We Came to the End).
When all of these elements combine and when characters become swept up in the broader changes sweeping the world of the novel it elevates the plot by giving it a deeper and larger canvass. Even if the characters aren’t saving the world or confronting the changes head-on, the best plots intersect with their settings (and vice versa) to give us a sense of a character in a world, partially able to control their surroundings, but partially subject to the whims of forces outside their control. The setting is as much a living thing as the characters themselves.
What do you think makes for a good setting? And what are some of your favorites?
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Art: The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh