The Basics of Setting
By 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.