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Setting: Social Environment

Social environment is an important aspect of setting and should be considered when developing characters who will inhabit that setting.

The social environment a person exists in affects his her thoughts, actions, and decisions. Consider the following aspects and how they will affect characters and story.

Education

While an individual character’s education level is important in developing her dialect and way of speaking, it’s also important to think about the general level of education that exists within the setting. Areas with lower education levels may rely more on superstition, experience, or generational knowledge. Areas with higher education levels will turn toward academic knowledge, research, and expert opinions. Education level can effect choices, options, and modes of problem solving.

Social Structures

Social structures in place within a setting can effect resources available to a character or the community. Settings that lack strong social structures such as access to healthcare or education can be a source of struggle or limit options. When effective and easy to access structures are in place, the setting may provide support and help.

Societal Institutions

Similar to social structures, the presence of absence of social institutions can help or hinder character options and choices. The five basic social institutions are family, economic, religion, education, and state. Consider how the presence of absence of each of these effects how a character exists or moves through a setting.

Social Status/Class

A character’s social status or class will play a part in their worldview and many other aspects. It’s also important to think about how the general social status or class of a setting impacts the overall story. A setting that it predominantly high, low, or middle class will operate by different rules than a setting that is more mixed. If there is a large divide between classes, there is potential for strife between classes and movement between classes can be a source of conflict.

Social Circles

Social circles exist in every setting, but the impact they have on a story of character varies. Consider whether circles are fluid, stagnant, or restrictive within a setting. Whether or not a character belongs to a circle, is always separate or outside a circle, or desires to change circles will effect how they exist in that setting.

Social Solidarity

Linked to the importance of social circles, the solidarity that exists within circles can effect a character or the story arc. A strong group of friends or family gives support and encouragement, and may lead a character into occasional trouble. Friends or family who are flighty or unreliable may turn on a character or leave him stranded when they fail to follow through. Faith in social groups will allow the character to move more confidently in the setting while perpetually questioning how much a character can count on others will make her more hestitant within the setting.

Natural vs. Artificial Environments

The physical type of environment a character exist in will determine what types of experiences he will have, what relationship to surrounding she may experience, and whether the environment is supportive or antagonistic toward his goals. Each type has pluses and minuses. Artificial environments may grant access to advance resources while creating a disconnect from nature. Natural environments can be plentiful and physically invigorating, but they are also unpredictable and unstable.

Deterministic vs. Nurturing environments

Settings can be constructed in a way that pushes a character toward a specific role or outcome, or it can encourage exploration and growth in a variety of directions. Deterministic environments often breed feelings of rebellion and mistrust of authority while nurturing environments act as a resource for discovery and expansion.

Personal Networks

Lastly, the network of resources and support systems available to a character within a setting can have major effects of the story and the way the character exists in the setting. Limited networks offer minimal support, even if it contains one or two strong elements. They are far outweighed by elements that are not supportive or discourage change and growth. Personal networks may include family, friends, work or professional resources, education resources, healthcare resources, and more.

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Setting: Why Setting Matters

Setting is not just a location for characters to interact.

Setting is critical to a story’s success for several reasons:

Setting affects how a story progresses. Location can be a hindrance to or facilitate story progression. If a character is taking a physical journey, setting can be used to created physical obstacles, such as a hot desert with a long stretch of no services or fellow travelers when a vehicle breaks down. It can also provide an environment for success, such as a calm and peaceful park where a character can collect her thoughts after a stressful or traumatic moment.

Setting can also affect a character’s worldview and mindset. When, where, and how we grow up shapes us. Consider the differences in how two characters may think and act when one grew up on an organic farm and volunteered at a no-kill pet shelter and another character grew up on a ranch where animals provided food and income and nature was often seen as a enemy to survival.

Setting also helps to establish the atmosphere of scenes and affects reader perception of events. Picture a character walking down the aisles of a bookstore. How does the experience differ when the shelves and books are nicely arranged, there is plenty of light, and cheery music is playing in the background, compared to if the store is dark and musty with scattered stacks of book, the only sound the character’s footsteps and those of someone following him just out of sight? Details of the setting can make all the difference in how an experience will be perceived, both by the character and the reader.

Setting also affects the characters’ choices and actions, depending on how it impacts the scene or story. If a character has a clear view of escape from a dangerous situation, she will most likely take it. If, however, her view is blocked by other people or objects in the way, the decision will take longer to make because she has to consider multiple options. The possibility of a wrong decision or inaction increases. Also consider how a room filled with people all staring, waiting for an answer will provide more pressure to give in or lie as opposed to a one-on-one meeting in a welcoming and bright office.

Lastly, setting can also act as a character, either as an antagonist, such as in a survival situation, or as a protagonist, such as a garden that provides solace and comfort to an introverted person who fears the unknown.

Carefully consider the details of setting and how it will impact all elements of a story.

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The importance of setting in fiction

It’s always good to review the basics before diving deeper, so let’s talk setting. Setting has three major components: social environment, place, and time.

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Social environment will impact the thoughts, actions, and decisions of the characters. A child growing up in an extremely conservative/liberal home will see things differently than someone who was raised more moderately. Place will impact the story by how the characters interact with it and how it shapes their worldview, as well as physical limitations (i.e. an island vs. and mountain town.) Time factors into not only technology, but in self-perception and social rules. A 1950s woman would be much different than a teen in modern time.

There are also two main types of setting: backdrop and integral.

A backdrop setting is not terribly important to the story. The scene could take place anywhere, but happens to be taking place in that spot. This may be a hallway, sidewalk, nondescript café, etc. These settings need minimal description and attention.

An integral setting is one where the time and place influences the theme, character, and action of a story in some way. Animal Farm wouldn’t have been quite the same if it were set in a shoe store. These settings need more in-depth description and development and may even act as an antagonist, such as in survival stories.

cross in fog at the cemetary

Setting also helps set the mood and atmosphere of a story. The description and the way characters perceive it and interact with it should help develop that tone. The covered bridge in Sleepy Hollow has a very different feel than the Love Lock Bridge in Paris.

When describing setting, Show Don’t Tell becomes very important. Please, please, please don’t spend paragraph after paragraph describing the setting to your reader. Let the reader explore the setting with your character in a way that reveals insights about the character or story.

For example, you can say something about family dynamic by having a teen look through the half-empty kitchen cupboards for cereal that’s on the verge of going stale. It’s a simple detail, but it says a lot about how this teen is living. A character looking in her closet and staring a the only two dresses she owns while getting ready for a job interview informs the reader about her financial situation without having a long discussion about it.

Use setting to help tell readers a story rather than telling the readers where the story is happening.