Setting Your Setting

[box]There’s an old saying: You can take the cowboy out of Texas, but you can’t take the Texas out of the cowboy. This is equally as true in fiction as it is in life. No matter where your characters come from, they’re inextricably tied to their setting, to where they grew up and where they currently live. This week, Steve and I take a look at this dynamic and ask the question: How do you establish a solid setting, and how does that affect your characters? You can listen below, or download the .mp3 here. Don’t forget to subscribe on iTunes, like our Facebook page and give us a “thumbs up” over on Stitcher.


hdr_landscape_by_xxzibitzx-d3l4atbEvery story needs a setting. A love story in New York is not a love story in Los Angeles is not a love story in Paris. The time and place surrounding our characters always affect them. Consider how quickly life moves in a city versus the slower pace of country living. Ask yourself: where did your character spend their formative years? Do some research on the particular city, the state, the time. Or, if you’re doing a fantasy, be sure to take your time world-building so you can create an environment that will help shape your characters.

Consider the Shire. I love the line from Lord of the Rings where Mary (or Pippen, sadly can’t remember which), says, “What about second breakfasts? And thirdsies?” I think that was the line. Pardon my Nerd Ignorance. What makes the line so humorous is the dead-pan delivery. The hobbits can’t conceive of a world without six meals a day. This small detail helps us to better understand, not only the characters, but also the setting.

Of course, the question remains: how much detail do you include when describing setting? Our earlier podcast on the Mysterious Case of Show v. Tell maintains that the balance we look for is best achieved by finding one or two details that best exemplify the setting. We don’t need seventeen pages of description. Rather, show us in the attitudes of those who live in the town (city, country, planet, village, etc.). What buildings are here? Is there commerce? Churches? Industry? Franchised fast-food? What does this tell us about the values of the people living in this town?

For a time, I lived in a small town in Southern California where there were very few major franchises (either eateries or shopping centers) within the town. Virtually all the commerce stemmed from family-owned businesses. In fact, they built roads around trees rather than digging them up and moving them. They valued nature, and eschewed travel by car. Whenever possible, people walked or rode bikes.

This town, for me, became the Shire. If my life took the shape of “The Hero’s Journey,” I would compare details of other settings to this town. By doing so, I develop two settings and character. In just a few details, I can effectively contrast two environments, create tension and longing, and reveal inner monologue.

Consider also, the way people speak. Avoid writing it dialect. Instead, try to find the common sayings. Robert Jordan, in his Wheel of Time series, creates several cultures, all easily identifiable by their colloquialisms. Those who lived in fishing towns compared things to fishing, to boats, to the sea. The Aiel, a desert dwelling people, refer to people beyond “the dragon wall” as “wetlanders.” They wish each other well by saying, “May you always find shade.” This attention to detail helps to establish an entire culture and tell us about their values.

If you’re creating your own setting, or you’re researching a real city, be sure to seek out proper nouns. Proper nouns are always better common nouns. Consider the “Brandywine River” versus “the river.” “Bob’s Hardware” vs. “the hardware store.” “Pizza Palace” vs. “a pizza place.” To get the most bang for your book, try creating a map.

Doing a map accomplishes several things. Most notably, it serves as a reference to keep your geography straight. It also forces you to think in a level of detail you may not otherwise think in. Even if you have no artistic talent, making a map is worthwhile if only to keep track of where your characters are and how they get from one place to another. On that note–consider transportation. Do people walk? Ride bikes? Horses? The bus? The train? When is rush hour? Do people take cabs? Ferries? Planes?

Another rule of thumb is this: setting should be experienced with at least three of the five senses. Our natural instinct as writers is to include details about sight and sound. We’ll describe what a city looks like and sounds like. But we often forget the other three: taste, smell, touch. Consider New York pizza, a taste that is uniquely tied to a setting. The same can be said for Philly Cheese steak sandwiches. What odors fill the air? The acrid smoke of industry? The smell of rain on pavement? The sweet scent of oranges blossoming on the trees? What is the weather like? Is the city constructed with steel–cold, gray lines–or wood–smoothed, and oaken in smell? Is it hot? Cold? Windy? Sunny? Wet? Dry? How does the weather affect the physiology of your characters? Are they consistently depressed because they only see the sun seven days each year? Do they revere rain because it comes so infrequently?

 And, as much as I hate to say it, we should also consider politics. What does the power structure look like in your characters’ town, city, village, world? How are political leaders put in power? Election? A caste system? Blood?

How does the economy work? Who makes money, and how? Who has the money? Remember, the law of supply and demand is fairly universal. We pay people to do things we either cannot do, or don’t want to do. What “dirty work” drives the economy? How does technology interact with the economy? What jobs do the people have? What trades are practiced? Remember–money is a motivator, always. This will have an impact on your character. Even if they’re not rich, they will have an opinion on the rich, and vice versa.

What about festivals and holidays? Who are the heroes of the town? What monuments are built? What days are sacred? Why? Is it tied to a particular religion, or a political shift?

What cultures are mixed together in this city? What kind of tensions exist between the rich and the poor? Between cultures? Nearby towns/villages/cities/countries?

It’s a lot to consider, sure, but well worth your time. You’ll find, as you better develop your setting, the more fleshed-out your characters will become.

Any other important questions we left out? Let us know. We’d love to hear from you. Be sure to tweet us or leave a comment on our Facebook page.

Until next week, good writing.

8 thoughts on “Setting Your Setting”

  • I really don’t know as much of the hobbits or the lord of the rings but i get what’s being said here. I get that you should research before you start writing. It makes the book seem more real and lets people imagine what the places look like or letting the readers smell the flowers too.

  • Typically i don’t create my own towns, but I do research on the town that I’m using for my story, and I get a mental picture of where everything is, so I understand what I’m writing about better.

  • I typically create towns just because I find it easier to create them because then u really can’t get anything wrong. I’ve used a couple real towns but they’re usually in Europe. I’ve used some towns in Ireland also

  • I think that when you make a map it really helps you visualize the setting in a more realistic picture. You are actually able to see when you see in your head and it can also help you memorize certain places in your setting that can later play a huge part in your story. i think this is one of my favorite methods

  • It makes it easier to draw out your setting, so that then that way you can really visualize it when writing your story. If your setting is in a real place then it’s also good to do research so you know how that place looks like in real life.

  • It makes it easier to draw out your setting, so that then that way you can really visualize it when writing your story. If your setting is in a real place then it’s also good to do research so you know how that place looks like in real life. You shouldn’t want to make your setting near the beach in California and have a random forrest.

  • Having a real place used for a setting could be good because its a real relatable place. A fictional place can be good because of the creativity option. You really make your own.
    Experiencing setting with at least 3 of the 5 senses always makes the setting more concrete.

  • I agree with Morgan I don’t know much of the hobbit at all. The Lord of the Rings never caught my interest but I still understand what is being said here. I think research is good but I don’t think it is as good as experiencing it in real life.

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