Plants everywhere will die, and the animals that depend on them will starve, and the animals that eat those will starve.
Winter will come early, and hard, and it will last a long, long time. It will end, of course, like every winter does, and then the world will return to its old self. Eventually.
The people of the Stillness live in a perpetual state of disaster preparedness. They’ve built walls and dug wells and put away food, and they can easily last five, ten, even twenty-five years in a world without sun.
Eventually, meaning in this case in a few thousand years. Look, the ash clouds are spreading already.
This is from the prologue of The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin, which won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2016. In this universe, the planet undergoes apocalyptic seasons every few centuries and the sky is dotted with mysterious obelisks, “massive crystalline shards that hover amid the clouds, rotating slowly and drifting along incomprehensible flight paths.”
Orogenes, people with the power to move the earth, are persecuted in this world. You can see how all the elements of the story connect back to one key feature: setting. We have the backdrop: a world that faces constant earthquakes.
From that springs the plot, of a society trying to survive environmental catastrophe. Then we have main characters that face discrimination because of their unique ability to control
A well-chosen setting adds to the story in some way. Let’s explore how various authors, in both genre and realistic fiction, have enhanced their work by emphasizing the characters’ larger surroundings.
We’ll examine setting in terms of survival stories, time period, different cultures, common tropes, and characterization. Like in The Fifth Season, many survival stories feature settings integral to the plot, with the natural environment serving as an antagonist.
In The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder, harsh blizzards in Dakota Territory cut off a town from food and supplies, and the characters must save their family from starvation. Writing survival stories like this can be exciting because epidemics and natural disasters immediately put the characters in danger.
The setting throws people out of their comfort zones and strips humanity down to its core qualities. This type of narrative conflict is often referred to as “Man vs. Nature,” but there’s always an undercurrent of “Man vs. Self” in this type of story, given that the characters must rely on their inner strength to survive.
For example, in Robinson Crusoe, the main character is a castaway who spends twenty-eight years on a remote tropical desert island. During that time, he contemplates his relationship with God and creates his own miniature civilization.
His isolation on the island is what allows for this heightened level of introspection. In horror stories and mysteries that have a “survival” element, an isolated setting can also be a way to add tension.
Agatha Christie is fond of using isolated settings in her murder mystery novels, such as the house on an island in And Then There Were None and a train stuck in a snowdrift in Murder on the Orient Express.
The characters are trapped, and they know that the killer must be among them. If you want to increase the stakes of your narrative, think of how you might narrow down the location so that the characters are backed into a corner, with nowhere to run and nowhere nowhere to hide.
Conflict in post-apocalyptic fiction is also heavily dependent on setting, with the characters fighting for resources and shelter. This type of setting often poses questions about human nature: What morals would you sacrifice to survive?
How does society regain order after its destruction? These quandaries are what make survival stories worthwhile. Readers don’t just want to hear about the characters’ mundane efforts to obtain food and water; rather, it’s the frictions between PEOPLE that arise from these settings that are most interesting.
If you’re writing a survival tale, think about how your setting could amplify the protagonist’s inner turmoil and explore larger themes. Of course, setting entails not only place, but also time. The milieu, or social environment, of a story changes depending on the era you choose.
That might include differences in women’s rights, racial discrimination, or the role of religion. You could pick a specific historical event that shapes the story, as other authors have done—just look at the shelves abound with World War II novels.
It could even be a very specific, lesser-known incident in history. Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Perez is set during the deadliest school disaster in American history, the explosion in New London, Texas in 1937 that claimed nearly three hundred lives.
The main characters are a young Mexican girl and an African-American boy. At its heart, this is a story about star-crossed lovers, one we’ve all heard before, but the setting adds layers of conflict—we have racial discrimination, religious hypocrisy, and an inevitable tragedy.
So what’s the appeal of writing a story set in the past? In the case of books like Out of Darkness, the historical background inevitably spells death for key characters, and that creates anticipation about who will live and who will die.
There’s also a powerful dramatic irony in historical fiction because the audience most likely knows how the story will end, but the characters don’t: war, a maritime disaster, a terrorist attack. You might even decide to imagine an alternate history, wherein the outcome of an important historical event has sent the world in a different direction.
These settings allow writers to explore some of the darkest moments in human history, to examine the past for hope and meaning that could enlighten the present.
You can also use time period to change the atmosphere. Rainbow Rowell’s 2013 Young Adult hit, Eleanor & Park, is set in 1980s Omaha, which changes the feel of the romance.
The main couple connects through comic books and mix tapes of music from that era, blending first love with the nostalgia of the 80s. If this story were set in modern-day suburbia, it would be hard to avoid the intrusion of social media and cellphones in their relationship.
In addition, since the author herself was born in 1973 and lives in Nebraska, it could be assumed that the book draws from her own life experiences, and this lends the story more authenticity.
Then we have stories set in the future, usually classified as sci-fi or speculative fiction. Dystopias usually involve an oppressive government and present warnings about what we should not allow our society to become.
Science fiction in general is often interested in exploring the consequences of new technology or different political structures. With futuristic settings, you can take “what if?” questions about modern life and put them in a new landscape.
What if society could predict its own downfall? What if the human race became infertile? If your plot feels too familiar, try choosing a distinctive historical or futuristic backdrop and see how the story changes as a result.
No matter the time period, culture also has a significant impact on the political and social climate of the story. For example, A Thousand Splendid Suns by Afghan-American author Khaled Hosseini is set in Kabul and spans several decades, from the 1960s to the 2000s.
The female characters face arranged marriages to unloving husbands and the surrounding war brings violence at every turn. The conflict within the story is a direct result of the cultural setting.
Most authors set their stories within their own culture, using their personal experience to provide insider knowledge. The old adage “Write what you know” is absolutely true; it’s easier to write about places you’re familiar with.
Complete historical and cultural accuracy is incredibly difficult to achieve, and many books have received criticism for this reason. Even so, don’t let the limitations of your perspective discourage you from writing outside your experience.
Do your research, visit in person if you can, and talk to locals and experts. As author Aminatta Forna states, “Don’t write what you know, write what you want to understand.
I write from a place of deep curiosity about the world.”
The literal climate and geography of the setting shapes the culture as well—and those elements change the atmosphere of a story. Take The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi, a biopunk sci-fi novel that won both a Nebula and a Hugo.
It’s written by an American-born author, but set in a futuristic version of Thailand. This setting generates a very different kind of atmosphere than if the story had been set in a future New York City or Moscow.
Book reviewer Thomas M. Wagner describes the atmosphere well:
Bacigalupi unfolds his story in late-22nd century Bangkok, a setting that allows him the right flavor of tropical exoticism to make the environment a metaphor for the human condition. It’s stifling, oppressive, way too hot, and everything feels like it’s either about to melt down or blow away.
Whether you’re portraying an existing culture or inventing a new one, you can consider how
the geography of the land impacts the details of everyday life. Science writer Carolyn Csanyi says, “Natural barriers such as mountain ranges, oceans and large deserts limit human travel and isolate populations, thus restricting cultural exchanges.”
So how do these barriers impact culture? For one, they can influence the level of linguistic diversity within an area, such as in the case of New Guinea, which features over eight hundred distinct languages.
Researchers have proposed that this wide variety of languages is a result of the island’s mountainous topography, making it difficult for interactions between groups, thus preventing the blending of local cultures.
In addition, geography can cause differences in religion. As a history professor on eNotes commented, “The Mesopotamian religion believed that its gods were much less kind than the Egyptian gods. Scholars believe that this was due to the fact that the rivers of Mesopotamia flooded in unpredictable ways while the Nile’s flood was rather consistent and predictable.”
When researching or building a culture, think of how the surrounding landscape relates to the religion, government, food, clothing, and industries the characters encounter. What other cultures are in close proximity, and how do they interact with one another?
Studying the fields of human geography and cultural anthropology can provide great insight into these questions. Say that you already have a time period and culture in mind, one that’s a common trope in a certain genre.
These settings are immediately familiar to the reader, making it easy to jump into the world: medieval fantasy, noir, steampunk, westerns. There’s less of a learning curve, and the audience has specific expectations in terms of tone and plot—a medieval fantasy novel will typically have sword and sorcery, dragons, and a prophecy.
Noir novels often feature hard-boiled detectives and gruesome murders. However, these types of stock settings can also lead to clichés and bore readers with their lack of originality. For example, a medieval-esque fantasy setting is expected for fairytales like Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood.
Many writers, though, have put a spin on these stories by dramatically changing the backdrop and time period, such as in Marissa Meyer’s YA sci-fi series The Lunar Chronicles, which are loosely based on a number of classic fairytales.
The first book, Cinder, is set in futuristic New Beijing, where the moon has been colonized and the story’s “Cinderella” is a cyborg mechanic. Meyer took a familiar story and put in a new time and place.
So, if you’re using a tried-and-true setting, think of how you can differentiate it from what’s expected and surprise the reader. Setting is often considered to be a character, metaphor, or symbol in its own right.
In an article from Writer’s Digest entitled “How To Make Your Setting a Character,” it is said, “In great fiction, the setting lives from the very first pages. Such places not only feel extremely real, they are dynamic. They change. They affect the characters in the story. They become metaphors, possibly even actors in the drama.”
This change might arrive in the form of seasons, the process of decay or renewal, or cultural shifts, like a small town becoming a point of national interest with the discovery of a local serial killer, or a new law legalizing something previously forbidden.
The characters’ perception of the setting could change over time, too. They might recognize the hidden beauty or hidden ugliness of a place they once called home. As the famous travel quote goes, “You can visit the same place over and over again and see it differently each time.”
In Willa Cather’s My Antonia, the Nebraskan prairie seems to become more and more precious to the book’s narrator over time. You can see his adulation from his first impression:
“There seemed to be nothing to see; no fences, no creeks or trees, no hills or fields. If there was a road, I could not make it out in the faint starlight. There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made. . .I had the feeling that the world was left behind, that we had got over the edge of it, and were outside man’s jurisdiction.”
As Writer’s Digest states,
… it is the combination of setting details and the emotions
attached to them that, together, make a place a living thing. Setting comes alive partly in its details and partly in the way that the story’s characters experience it.
You can also use setting to metaphorically convey a character’s mindset. Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman, winner of the National Book Award, is a great example of this. The book alternates between the real world and a fantasy one, wherein a pirate ship is headed for Challenger Deep, the deepest point of the Mariana Trench.
The reader quickly understands that the fantasy world parallels the protagonist’s mental illness, and his own distortion of reality is depicted through this setting. Recognize how your characters’ outlook affects your descriptions and how that setting in turn impacts the characters’ worldview.
We are all byproducts of our environments. When choosing a setting for your story, keep three things in mind: atmosphere, conflict, and character. An abandoned mineshaft creates an atmosphere of mystery and suspense, and promises conflict related to getting lost or suffocating.
That mineshaft might exist in a small Pennsylvania town, where the main character is struggling to decide if he should drop out of school and resign himself to becoming a full-time coal miner, just like his father, a man he hates.
To add a historical background, maybe this story happened in 1962 in Centralia, Pennsylvania, right before an underground fire ruined the coal deposits the town relied on for its prosperity.
The fire forced residents to evacuate as their land was scorched and eaten by fuming sinkholes. As writer Eudora Welty once said, “Every story would be another story, and unrecognizable if it took up its characters and plot and happened somewhere else. . . .Fiction depends for its life on place.”
As a writing exercise, make a list of five specific genres. For realistic fiction that might include satire, family drama, or bildungsroman. A genre fiction list might feature epic fantasy, hard sci-fi, or paranormal romance.
Then, list five time periods (past, present, or future), followed by five big settings (such as countries, climates, or outer space), and then five small settings (like a library, hotel, or a cave behind a waterfall).
Choose one thing from each category and create a combination that interests you. You might end up with something like “Epic fantasy, 23rd century China, garden,” or “Horror, 19th century Ireland, chocolate shop.”
Then, write a fake book blurb—a one-paragraph summary of a story that conveys each of those elements. Think of the climate, technology, and social norms that would exist in this setting. The character names and plot should spring from the genre, time period, and culture you chose.
Play around, have fun, and see what surprises you can create. What’s the most interesting setting you’ve encountered in a story? I’d love to hear your fake book blurbs in the comments. Whatever you do, keep writing.