Has a story’s setting ever intrigued you even more than the plot? Think of the gloomy weather on the moors that reflects the characters’ turbulent emotions in Wuthering Heights, or the unforgiving sand drifts wrought with murderous sandworms that excrete the galaxy’s most coveted resource and serve as a crucible for the cast of Dune. Why do each of these places feel so mystical?
Before you discount your potential and begin doubting that you could ever achieve the finesse of Brontë or Herbert, try experimenting with three simple but powerful techniques they both followed. Afterwards you might realize you don’t need to bring your world to life—because it’s already thriving.
1. Shape the Setting Like a Character
When you’re developing a character, you compile his or her distinct attributes into a profile that you refer to (and adjust) as you’re writing your draft. Characters from popular books and movies can be identified by their personalities and appearance, for example. Hagrid is a sensitive, somewhat bumbling animal lover, Indiana Jones is a quick-witted problem solver who wears an iconic hat, and Jane Eyre is plain to look at but passionate and principled in her independence.
If you want your setting to be equally memorable, apply the same strategy, focusing on details that reinforce your goals for the story. In Jane Eyre, secrets from the past haunt Thornfield Hall, where the heroine falls in love with its languishing master. The old manor perpetuates the chronic gnawing for answers, and its eventual destruction leads to freedom for both of the characters.
Although this is a common device in gothic literature, it can be implemented in any genre. Michael Crichton marries an amusement park with monsters to examine human hubris and nature’s resilience in his sci-fi thriller Jurassic Park. When paleontologist Alan Grant and paleobotanist Ellie Sattler first tour the island, the sight of once-extinct dinosaurs roaming through the forests leaves them awestruck. Readers share their reaction—until the wonder of scientific discovery warps into the terror of ravenous carnivores hunting children in a rainstorm.
The more you can revolve your setting around a unique feature, the more it will stand out. You don’t have to build a vast, complex universe, but the aspects you dwell on need to be meaningful, like the eeriness of Thornfield Hall and the broken, empty cages of Jurassic Park. A perfunctory Google search will pull up character questionnaires and worksheets you can repurpose to brainstorm your setting’s motivations, backstory, strengths and weaknesses, and more. You can also find helpful downloads in Story Embers’ resource library. Some of the information you record will be solely for your benefit, but you may be surprised at what becomes relevant.
2. Make the Setting Impact the Characters
No matter how much time you spend fleshing out every molecule or researching every fact, your setting will only be a backdrop if it never interacts with the characters. Treating your setting like an animate entity, whether friend or foe, can turn it into a stimulant for forward motion.
Paul Atreides, the protagonist of Dune, is accustomed to the protection from the sand and heat that Arrakeen provides. When he and his mother flee the city, he must adapt to the climate and ecology of the harsh planet. His survival methods include a water-reclaiming suit that saves him from dehydration, receiving training from the desert inhabitants on how to ride the sandworms so he won’t get eaten, and ingestion of the spice melange to heighten his prescience and intellect. Each problem the world hurls at him engages readers because he’s forced to respond with a solution.
Jumping over to the realm of historical fiction, Kate Morton’s The Distant Hours opens with Edie Burchill receiving a long-lost letter that suggests her mother has a connection to the decaying Milderhurst Castle. The mysterious sadness hovering over the three spinsters who still live there magnifies her curiosity. The cracked stone walls beckon her to unearth the source of the heartache, and the mementos she collects push her to interrogate the sisters further. Each time a new question arises, the setting rewards readers with madness, isolation, and finally, explanations.
Evaluate your manuscript for instances where your setting naturally intersects with your character’s arc. Can you tie the weather, customs, or technology to a plot point? Position different elements as obstacles or catalysts, and when readers visualize those moments, they’ll remember the atmosphere surrounding your character’s decisions.
3. Use the Setting as a Mirror
In Wuthering Heights, the setting influences both the characters and the overall tone. The title itself nods to the tempests that batter manors in that region, as well as symbolizes the tumultuous romances that form over the course of the novel. When a setting is pervasive, readers undergo complete immersion.
Many of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories correlate mood and setting. In “The Fall of the House of Usher,” the narrator describes the mansion of the same name as insufferably melancholy. Its master, Roderick, is as unstable as the storms raging outside and the fracture threatening to topple the house, which he believes is sentient. The harrowing, unforgettable ending reveals that his suspicions about his fate are correct.
Whenever possible, your setting should dovetail the characters’ experiences to show their internal state, pose questions, compel them to act, or occasionally all of the above. Figurative language and foreshadowing infused into the setting can convey a wide range of emotions and ideas.
Dig Deeper to Maximize Your Setting
Crafting a strong setting—an island crawling with vicious reptiles or a moor thundering with torment—can imbue your story with originality. What fictional setting did this article bring to mind? Grab that book and scour the pages for evocative descriptions and scenes where the protagonist must contend with his environment. Jot notes, reread a few times, and consider how you can trigger echoes in readers’ memories. And don’t be intimidated. I’m sure that neither Brontë nor Herbert finalized their settings after one or two drafts. Make a few deliberate choices and plunge ahead!
Rachel Gilson has been writing stories since she found a dusty old typewriter buried in her parent’s basement at the age of nine. What started as a love for writing whodunit shorts (that she never finished before starting new ones) developed into a love for writing fantasy and science fiction.
Currently she’s working on an epic fantasy novel exploring sibling dynamics, free will, and hordes of flying, burrowing, and galloping creatures ready to kill or be killed. With her stories she hopes to glorify her Creator, who definitely holds first place for being the most impressive world builder ever.
When she’s not writing with her golden retriever Nova nestled at her feet, you can find her tabletop gaming with her awesome husband, out in the garden picking berries, or reading fables to her daughter in the hammock. She loves traveling to explore medieval castles and talking all things writing craft.