In its basic definition, setting is a story’s time and place. Setting can help illustrate an historical moment or create a story within a particular social context. Years after 9-11, writers began to integrate this horrific event into stories and use hints of the tragedy to reflect societal issues that erupted after the event, such as fear, safety of one’s self and his or her family, and love loss. Setting can also create mood. A story set in Maine in January has a different feel than a story set in Louisiana in August, or Paris in the spring. The first could help create a mood of entrapment as piles of snow fall upon the state, closing people in, perhaps giving them cabin fever. In the third scenario, a writer might find the perfect opportunity to illustrate a romantic story as Paris in spring gives off a romantic air.
In some way, characters have to interact with the story’s setting, and their interaction can reveal characters’ traits. Oftentimes, setting is developed within narrative description; however, writers can show setting through character’s thoughts, action, and/or dialogue. In my first roleplay sim excursion, I traveled to 1920s Berlin and the atmosphere of the place, the buildings, the characters (and they storylines), the history help to create a setting that helps stories flourish. Setting can do the same for your story, too.
Setting has, at its core, at least four components:
Baltimore, Paris, D.C., and Jamaica are all geographical locations. One of my favorite books, Sugar by Bernice McFadden is set in Bigelow, Arkansas. Berlin is a geographical location. Where we’re located in a story says a lot about how characters dress, how they talk, what they value, what they do, etc. This is important to be mindful of.
Time periods could be 1948, Great Depression, today, and the 1960s. Sugar is set in the 1950s. The “Berlin” I visited a few weeks ago is nestled in the 1920s.
Time period makes the geographical location specific. Berlin of the 40s is a different creature than the Berlin of the 20s. When adding a time period, and all stories are set within a time period, it is important to do a bit of research on the history of that time period to understand any political, social, technological, etc. contexts that would be relevant to the story you wish you tell.
I don’t believe in reinventing the wheel, so I will share with you a great post on VWI that contains awesome links that can help you here. CathyWyo1 Haystack wrote “Cultivating Your Craft in the Digital Age: Writing Fiction,” and she has wonderful links to start you on your “setting” research.
Socio-Economic Characteristics of the Location
This can include specific information, such as the earnings, employment, income, poverty, and wealth within a particular location. Sugar is set in a tiny Southern town, where the vast population consists of blacks who are neither rich nor terribly poor; however, they work hard, very hard to survive and create a slice of normal living for them and their families. 1920s Berlin, in some aspects, is a similar place, a quiet place, before the violence would arrive and destroy that quiet nature. At the sim, the owner and the “characters” that reside there, work hard to follow the RL time period, from laws, to dress, to atmosphere of the time.
A Specific Building, Room, ETC.
This can include the specific “places” within a geographical location where characters interact, such as a bus, a school, a military base, lawyer’s office. Sugar has several specific places, as most books do. One specifically that I recall is a church. Faith plays a big role in this story, but that’s not why it’s such a searing remembrance for me. In one scene, the main character Sugar is in the church, where she faces the gossipmongers, the adulterous men she’s slept with, Pearl (the woman who has become a good friend to Sugar), and Joe (Pearl’s husband and a man with an unknown connection to Sugar). The church itself is almost a character in this setting and definitely, I would argue, in the story overall, and this specific scene paints an extraordinarily poignant moment that brings the story, really, full circle.
In 1920s Berlin, there are several places that lend themselves to interaction amongst the characters that reside there. For instance, Der Keller is the local pub, and every day there is a happy hour for residents to congregate. Other places include the school, the movie theater, the theatre, and many shops.
In stories, characters typically don’t interact with just themselves, so there has to be places where these characters can come together, converse, increase tension and conflict, and develop your story.
What are some of the primary settings in your current work? Is setting its own character within your story? How does setting affect your characters?