Lazette Gifford
Publisher & Editor


The Basics of Setting

By Lazette Gifford
Lazette Gifford

Setting is just the tip of worldbuilding, but it's the first step in creating a believable world and one in which your character can interact.  It's the wide brush you use to give some structure to your world so that you have direction when you work out the details.  Creating a 'setting with character' requires that you be as aware of the setting as you are of the characters that walk through it.  It means that you're going to do more than just throw a few plants in the corners of a forest, or line up box buildings on a street.

However, even though this is the simple first step for worldbuilding, setting is not just the trappings of a world, painted on the background.  Setting includes the people and what they have created, the weather and how it affects work, and relationships with others outside the immediate location.  Each of these elements (as well as the others listed below) is only a ghost of what complete worldbuilding will create for your world, but it can help to start you along the right direction.

Creating a setting can be done for the whole novel at once, or it can be done a step at a time for each scene.  Much of it depends on the book in question.

Setting is just the tip of the iceberg, though.  Don't forget to dig deeper and find the reasons for each choice you make and how it fits into the larger picture.

You can adapt ideas for cities and villages to other locations.  Ships in a fleet might have the same sort of relationships as people in a small town.  Whole worlds or small portions of a city can be divided up into sections and the same questions applied to each.   Tribes or clans may have distinctive areas of their settlements, and subtle changes can help readers anticipate changes in customs or behavior without having to explain it all every time a character moves to a new area. 

Culture as Personality

Obviously the culture of the setting will have an effect on not only what the characters see, but how the people interact.  A culture in which women are equal to men is going to look far different from one in which women live secluded lives.  A culture in which bravery is praised above education will be different again.

A culture in which the people escaped from a war between star empires might have a strong aversion to building above ground, where their work might be seen.

Question 1: What basic overall influence has gone into creating your setting?  How is that influence reflected in the setting, in both physical appearance and general atmosphere?


No setting should be without some sign of previous trouble, because, unless it's a brand new settlement just out of the cradle ship, there will be no place with a perfect history.  Battles, weather-related disasters, and accidents will all leave their marks on your setting.  You can use those scars to bring certain problems to light, or to help give history to your characters' work without having to resort to info dumps.

Question 2:  What are the scars on your setting, and what caused them?  How do your people react to them?


Where does your setting fit into the larger universe?  For instance, a capital will have an ambience far different from that of a border town always on guard against incursions by the people on the other side of the river.  The people in the two settings will have different views on everything from foreigners to the people in charge.  Even fashion will be different, since those in a capital are apt to be influenced by those 'foreign' dignitaries that they mingle with.

Question 3: Is your setting the location of rich and powerful people, a quiet village with everyone working together, or an improvised town where everyone is scrambling to survive?


Of course the population of an area has a big effect on the setting.  Places with higher populations generally have the ability to designate larger groups to work on things that are not necessary to survival.  Large cities have pretty buildings and arts because they can afford to support some people working on such professions.

Having such things also makes them more apt to be attacked by others to steal their glory.  So a city with fancy buildings and museums must not only have the artists, but also the army to protect them... and the workers to feed and clothe them all.  Survival is always the first priority. 

Question 4: What is the general population of the setting for your story?  Consider this not just as a number function, but a relative function as well.  One hundred people on a small ship can be far more trouble to maintain than 1,000 people in a small village.


Just like a person, every setting should have a weakness or two.  It might be evident in the rundown buildings or in the marching patrols of the night guard who never ask why you are out on the street.  Weakness might be shown in the fallen walls of a city, or in the over-work of an engineering crew on a ship.

Weaknesses can appear in a number of areas, which can mirror each other.  The crumbling infrastructure of a city might be mirrored in the destitute state of the rulers, who dress in the moth-eaten finery of another time.

Question 5:  What are the weaknesses within your setting and how did they come about?  Are the people aware of the weaknesses, blind to them, or worried about them?


Like those within a family, your setting and others nearby will have relationships that have a big effect on the background.   Does your city have an adverse relationship with the capital of the country?  Does it harbor malcontents and rebels?

Is there a sister city with which it is particularly close, perhaps sharing some mutual history where they fought off an enemy together?  Or perhaps one is the colony of another.

Question 6:  What are the relationships within and outside the setting that help to define it?


Of course the weather has a big influence on a world; so much so that sometimes it's easy to forget it even exists.  We brush it off by including in our stories a hot day, or rain... but there are degrees between these extremes (no pun intended), and weather does not just change on a whim.

Weather is influenced by location (among other things), and buildings are influenced by weather.

Question 7: What is the general weather pattern for your setting?  What extremes might affect your story?


Think of the emotional impact of a setting as a combination of the outward facades of inanimate objects, the impact of the weather, and the moods of the people who live there.  In some ways it could almost be considered a psychic emanation -- the way in which a group of people in a given area seem to fall into the same mindset and moods.

Rage and despair can be evident in a war-torn city.  Suspicion and peace might be part of a small town setting and not be at odds with each other.  You can set the 'emotional' ambience to heighten the tension in scenes.

Question 8:  What is the emotional impact that the background has on your setting and scene?


If your character is going to travel from one place to another, he might take notice of differences not only in place, but in feel.  Adjusting to one or the other might even be a problem.  Conflict again. Always look for the places where you can add in conflict.

A setting can add mood to a story. Poe is a good example of a writer who used the setting to add mood.  One well known example of the setting conveying mood is the opening to The Fall of the House of Usher, where the narrator describes his first view of the 'melancholy House of Usher.'  By today's standards, the opening is over-written, filled with repetition and rambling... but it still conveys an atmosphere of gloom:

During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.  I know not how it was -- but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit.  I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible.  I looked upon the scene before me -- upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain -- upon the bleak walls -- upon the vacant eye-like windows -- upon a few rank sedges -- and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees -- with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveler upon opium -- the bitter lapse into everyday life -- the hideous dropping off of the veil.

It would be hard to find a published author today as heavy-handed in her approach as Poe was in this... and yet Poe did write something that has found its way into the classics category.  If nothing else, you cannot say that the setting of The Fall of the House of Usher is unnoticeable.

Something in a more modern vein is C.J. Cherryh's opening to her novel Pride of Chanur.  In this piece the setting is heavy on worldbuilding, less on atmosphere -- but it can still be felt in this opening:

There had been something loose about the station dock all morning, skulking in amongst the gantries and the lines and the canisters which were waiting to be moved, lurking wherever shadows fell among the rampway accesses of the many ships at dock at Meetpoint.

Characters work with the setting.  They either fit into it or they are alien to it, and which you choose will be important in how you shape your character.  Characters interact with the setting as much as they do with the plot and other characters.  You can, in fact, use your setting as another character, one that is implacable and without reason.

However you use it, setting is just the tip of worldbuilding.  This is just the little edge you need to decide if your characters work in the background that you imagine for them.  It's the outer image that we see, but in order for it to work, you will need to dig deeper, look at each of your choices, and ask why it works this way.