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.
Need help with your book? I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and coaching!
For my best advice, check out my online classes (NEW!), my guide to writing a novel and my guide to publishing a book.
And if you like this post: subscribe to my newsletter!
Art: Hungry Lion by Henri Rousseau
Ellen T. McKnight says
Well put. Setting can provide dynamic context as well as physical reality. And how the point-of-view character interacts with it can tell us even more. The hot beach in The Stranger is very different from the hot beach in Eat, Pray, Love. Thanks for the insights, Nathan!
That's an interesting point about a setting continually changing, Nathan.
Everything that is alive changes whether human or animal or vegetable. And even man-made objects succumb to the ravages of time. (classic cliche) Often the landscape reflects and reinforces the dominant emotion and mood of our characters at that time, especially if that mood is being experienced to a great degree. Many of Poe's short stories were masterful at evoking mood through their setting.
As the character changes, they often notice different aspects of their surroundings, too. I've also read that the setting can be regarded as a character in the story which is changeable with moods and personality as much as the human characters. In real life if we visit a bushland, we can pick up facets of mood and personality and a certain vibe as we gaze around. Everything that has happened there still lingers to one degree or another, and also to a degree whatever has occured to one affects the other parts of the landscape, in a similar way to a community of people.
The same way the weather affects us daily will also affect literary characters, and they will even seem to affect the weather in that atmospheric conditions often seem to reflect a characters inner world of thoughts and emotions – as in real life. As a literary device, this can be used to heighten the mood to great effect. Remember the cliched beginning to mysteries and horror stories: ' It was a dark and stormy night.' With a beginning like this, we are alerted that something dark and stormy is about to happen – and not just via the weather. The weather helps to set up a powerful mood that brings a reader into the story world and helps that reader to suspend disbelief.
I love this. And it is something I haven't thought about before. Clearly–with each of your examples–change in setting made the story richer.
Well said about empty canvas. Changing setting allows to highlight contrast and create the context needed for the particular scene. Thanks, Nathan!