Writers across the board know that great fiction is character driven. But something most writers don’t know is that amazing fiction treats setting like a character. Your world building is just as important as your character development because it literally sets the scene for everything that transpires in your story. For some of your stories, the setting will be a factual place or a place that could be factual. For others, the setting is going to be wholly made up and fictional, with it’s own “rules” and feel.
They key to doing this is to be clear about how much your readers can intuit, and making everything else vivid enough to place them there. Here’s how you do that.
This will likely be the overarching and least specific part of your novel’s setting. If you think of your novel as scenes revolving in different rooms of a house, the house itself is your macro-location. So if your story is about a suburban kid, your macro-location would be the country he’s living in (and gives your reader a general sense of the culture in which he resides, as France has differences from the USA which has differences from the Phillipines). If your novel takes place on a different planet or completely fictional world, that’s your macro. Factual places have predetermined and universal cultural nuances, but for fictional places, you as the writer should spend time thinking about what those nuances are and how to incorporate them into the story without telling the readers outright what they are.
In the story-as-a-house analogy, your micro-locations would be the rooms. These are more vividly drawn and specific. A micro might be your character’s house. Your reader should be able to imagine it by the way you describe it; what color are the curtains? Does it feel like just a house, or like a home? Does it smell like fresh baked cookies or like mildew and neglect? Readers should be able to glean a lot from how your character feels about and reacts to your micro-locations, and a great deal can be foreshadowed by the state of them if you, as a writer, do your job utilizing them in contrasting and comparative ways.
It’s insightful for readers to have a backboard for where your tale takes place. Is it all human? Is there a racial majority, and how does your character fit into that (or not)? Are there aliens or other sentient species? What sort of tension exists between the different demographical sectors and how does it relate back to your characters? Everything from the predominant financial state to education level will be relevant and can be introduced subtly through descriptors like the general look and upkeep of the neighborhood or how your characters and the supporting cast speaks.
We touched on this in the macro-location section, but the cultural norms in your setting paint a colorful picture of not just how your character fits into their world, but also the world itself around them. Stories that feature magic or non-factual elements will spend a lot of time on this and should take into account how these elements work (readers typically like to know there is some rhyme or reason for why and how things work the way they do and what rules they adhere to). But the culture itself in any story is important. Is it culturally acceptable in your setting for people to dispose of trash in the street, or to recycle? To watch TV all day or spend most of their time at work? To value children or their careers? Create a vivid landscape and activities and landmarks that your characters would easily recognize to anchor the story in that location.
Contrasts in Locations
Because stories should move your character along a path to change, your locations should provide ample contrast to move him or her throughout the story. Not every micro-location should be safe and cozy. Let your world move throughout a range of locations and settings to provide danger or unease. It aids in character progression as they encounter very different locales that push their comfort and incites their fear/pain reactions.
Having contrast allows you to reveal your characters’, well, characters. Are they the type to run from danger? Are they the type to pull together closer with a loved one in an unknown location for safety or protection, or push away from each other in the comfort of the familiar?
Experiment with differing locations. Counter a nature setting with a cityscape. A dark, sinister place with a comforting, playful one. Give your story dimension and space for your characters to move in and explore.
Just as you can’t have all of your characters act the same way or have the exact same personalities, don’t let your settings all evoke the same emotions.
The Details, Large and Small
A common misstep made my new writers is to create a detailed world in which only the overarching details are evident. Dystopian writers may focus heavily on the disparity of their world and reveal the catastrophic government influences it wreaks upon the poor citizens it rules, but your reader won’t be able to connect with that. Give them finer details, too. In the climate of that dystopian world, what are the personally experiencing? Their clothing, their food, their neighborhood in that dystopian state or country. The things your characters personally feel and see and hear and touch provides a personal entry into that world and gives meaning to the overall details you create. Make sure you have both large scale details about the world and small scale details that expand on them throughout your story.
Your setting is an integral but often overlooked part of your novel that deserves attention to really make the story pop.
What part of setting development do you find makes the most impact in your favorite novels? Let us know in the comments!
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