Setting: Elements of Setting

Setting has several major components, most of which are at least somewhat interconnected.

It’s important to consider all aspects of setting and how each element will impact the story or characters.

Many aspects of setting have the potential to affect character and story.

Social environment

The social environment a character inhabits affects their place in society, how she view herself and how others view her. It can impact confidence and expectations the character holds for himself or that others hold for him. A social environment can be encouraging and supportive or destructive and hindering.

It’s also important to consider the stability or chaotic nature of a social environment. Instability may breed disillusionment and rebellion while stability encourages things to stay as they are and may either be peaceful or boring.

Place/Location

Where a character lives or was raised will impact how she thinks and what she values. Consider how the land and nature has impacted her life, or how a lack of either may create a sense of fear or longing.

Location also helps determines what hobbies, skills, or habits a character might develop. City dwelling requires different survival skills than country living and classical ballet may not have been an option in a small, rural town.

Place is also important in determining what a character has learned to value. Aspects to consider include, family bonds, responsibility or duty to the community, obedience to elders or leaders, respect for other cultures, etc. Think about what experiences a particular place would have available that will influence developing values.

Time

Time period plays an integral part in creating an accurate and believable setting. This is easier when dealing with the modern world, or a time period you personally experienced.

When writing in a time period not modern or not personally experienced, it is important to thoroughly research the technology, politics, fashion, slang and speech styles, important historical events, differences in geography or town/city structures, etc.

Every time period develops its own social and political culture that is created by a variety of factors. Become familiar with those factors in order to accurately portray a specific time period.

This type of research is also important to know because it will impact the character. Certain concepts and ideas were not widespread or commonly understood in one period versus another. Some ideas, freedoms, or information were simply unavailable in certain time periods and will affect how a character views his or her self or the world.

Mood/Atmosphere

Whether mimicking a real setting or creating a fictional one, mood and atmosphere need to be considered in order for a scene to connect with the reader in the way you want it to.

Determine what type of mood and atmosphere will best serve the scene, then break down what will help create the right mood and atmosphere. Factors may include, weather, decor, time of day/night, sounds, lighting, colors, formal or informal environment, other people in the scene, topic of conversation, and more.

Climate/geography

Weather and geography can influence both the storyline and a character’s thoughts or actions. When writing a scene, consider whether the climate and geography will help, hinder, or remain neutral.

A neutral climate or geography will have little to no impact on the events or actions of the scene. In this case, neither is usually mentioned more than in passing.

A helping climate or geography will provide support to the purpose of the scene, whether that be physical, emotional, or mental. Good weather and a pleasant geographical area can further deep thinking, romantic opportunity, or clam reflection. Bad weather or rough geography can also be a help if it pushes the story in the desired direction (seeking shelter together or providing strenuous activity to clear the mind).

A hindering climate or geography will frustrate a goal or action, through ultimately continue to advance the storyline. A storm might knock out power when it’s needed most or a swampy landscape might make tracking a suspect slow or impossible. While actions or goals might be temporarily hindered, they should also provide opportunities for progression and growth for the character, such as overcoming a fear or physical limitation.

Politics/culture

A character’s political views and cultural background greatly impact how he sees himself or the larger world. It is important to consider how a town’s or region’s politics and culture intersect with a character’s goals, decisions, relationships, career choices, etc. Some areas have strong and specific cultures, which are often intertwined with political ideals. Other areas have more general cultures and political ideals, so individual family culture and politics may play a bigger role in a character’s development.

Young minds are highly influenced and the political and culture environments a person grows up in helps to shape their personality and worldview. A major point of conflict in a story may revolve around overcoming closely held views as a person grows older, experiences a new culture of political view, or faces a personal crisis.

Fully exploring these aspects of personality and character development can help you create a deeper character that connects with readers on a more profound level.

History

History should be considered on a personal, local, and macro level when developing setting.

A character’s personal history with a setting can deeply effect how they view that location and may change some aspect about their personality when they are in that location, such as going how to an abusive environment.

Towns or neighborhoods have specific histories as well. How a neighborhood developed within a larger city might have to do with its ethnic or racial background, or may be more closely linked to career or trade. Natural disasters or community tragedies will also affect the culture and atmosphere of a place.

On a larger scale, major events within a society should be considered when developing setting. What changed about New York post-911 or in elementary schools during the COVID-19 pandemic? What are the lingering effects still seen in New Orleans form Hurricane Katrina? Has the BLM movement changed the way some town and neighborhoods interact with police or racial groups? Some authors choose not to address such issues in order to avoid dating a story, but that often proves impossible. If an large-scale issue impacts setting, thoroughly research the issue in order to portray its effects realistically.

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.