The setting is often referred to as a novel’s canvas, but that’s not right at all.
A canvas is blank. It’s white. It’s unchanging.
If you think of your characters acting within a blank world, no matter how interesting they are it will feel like there’s something missing.
Instead, it’s crucial to think about what’s happening in the broader world of your novel, what is changing, and how these larger forces are impacting your characters. When you do, your novel will feel like more than just an interesting series of events, it will feel deeper, richer, and more meaningful.
One of the (many) elements that elevated Gone Girl above a regular suspense novel was the creeping ways the economic downturn affected the lives of the main characters, from having to move to the Midwest, to the abandoned mall, to Amy’s feeling that she couldn’t escape her parents’ shadow. The characters are acting within a world where they don’t have limitless control over their lives.
Or think about the way Sauron is ascendent in The Lord of the Rings, how racial turmoil is a backdrop for To Kill a Mockingbird, how even an apocalyptic setting like Station Eleven is made more interesting by a sense of progress.
The thing about all of this change is that it’s feels truer than a static world. We area all living in a world that keeps changing around us, that constrains our choices, that opens up new possibilities, and where new things are invented that alter everything around us.
Map out what’s changing in your world just as surely as you map out what your characters do and how they change. Think about your world’s government, its moral standards, its religion, its wars, its culture. Find a way to shake things up where it makes sense, and make sure it impacts your characters and plot.
Set that canvas in motion and your characters will feel more alive.
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Art: Hungry Lion by Henri Rousseau