The Importance of Setting, Part 1: Lifestyle and Problems

Setting Swamp

“Many people in a rather reckless context claim to ‘just tell it like it is’. In actuality, nobody really stresses what one says so much as the motive behind what one says; hence, he is merely blowing hot air and detracting from ‘what is’.”
-Criss Jami

Imagine a traditional book that doesn’t throw you straight into the action, the gritty chase that you care nothing about, save for if Liam Neeson is running after the crook. Instead, you are beginning the tale with a scene set up, not as bad as say Steinbeck, but enough description to flaunt your verbosity for the first few paragraphs or so. Question is, what do you describe?

Why, setting of course.

Many times under looked and underappreciated in many novels, the setting can have a powerful impact on many things, namely the tone, characters, etiquette, and lifestyle. Readers of Fantasy commonly fall into the “Arthurian” trap, a hodge-podge of medieval times. Usually, you have a pitch fork in one hand and a sword in the other. But broad readers of Fantasy understand that that is the mere tip of the iceberg, like Science Fiction must inhabit some aspect of space, or a Historical Romance must delve into the posh intrigues of the Tudor or Victorian Eras.

No, setting sets the place, the time, the life of our characters. Setting can help you tackle tough ideas of today, simply depending on the advances (or regressions) of the time, your time.

Say you were a feminist and wanted to address the injustices of monetary gain and the divide of sexes in the workforce. Go back to the Dark Ages, to a time where women worked just as hard, if not harder, than the men who got to sit on their behinds waiting for some deer to trample along. While they’re sitting down on the job, women are tending the crops, performing back breaking labor beside the men. Or maybe they’re scrubbing clothes, wrinkling hands and blisters along the way.

Perhaps you wanted to discuss racial tensions of your time. Talk about the prejudice of the Jewish people in Egypt during the time of Pharaoh’s reign. Maybe the Chinese workers who helped build the Trans-Continental Railroad out in West America can help show the problems you wish to convey.

These are merely suggestions which the time period can alter your impressions of the idea. Be subtle, but be dynamic.

Lifestyles also dramatically change depending on the setting. Take for instance today’s society and the differences you see in rural places compared to urban life. The clashes you have can add conflict or a resolution that is much needed to your work. Play off the land. If the weather is rain, only the stubborn or desperate will plow the fields, tend the crops, and so on.

Make sure your characters adapt to the times. If technology (or lack of) affects your people, show it. How do the people work with or without said device? That’s an obvious question, but in a Dying Sun world, is the grand feats of science against the quasi-medieval world seen as “science,” magic, or even something dangerous and weird?

Men and women in a more pristine time period, more regal you could say, like the Victorian Era, would have to abide by manners and etiquette such as where to sit with dining and which spoon to use.  Prohibition Era gangsters would follow hat etiquette, tipping it in greeting. It’s the little things that add flavor to your world.

If you put an idea out there, in the world, make sure it’s necessary. Not important, but needed for the story in some way. If you show oppression in the land, say in a Dystopian government, people will probably become darker, crueler, serving their survival instincts than people in a more luxurious world would. Would the people carry around weapons, even if they were outlawed? And on the flipside of that coin, pampered individuals will be lazier in some aspects. You don’t have to attack that, but add it for setting’s sake.

Make sure your characters abide by the time. In a secondary world, people crave realism. Prejudices of the time are quick to fling in. But if you show something, make sure it adds to the setting, to the conflict and resolution even.

Most importantly, make the world unique.

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4 thoughts on “The Importance of Setting, Part 1: Lifestyle and Problems

  1. I love this, it’s so true.

    Little quirks and mannerisms really bring a story to life and add a pinch of flavor to the “bubbling soup pot” of a fantasy world. It’s an aspect I really enjoy imagining for my own creations.

    I was going to say a bit more, but I’m going to make it into a blog post instead – it developed into a ramble I shall endevour to rescue your comment box from. 😛

  2. I love the little details that come together when world-building. Plus, I tend to overuse the Chekhov’s Gun, so I have a problem muddling up the trifles with the trying-to-make-obscure necessities.

  3. Really loved this post/article. Looking forward to Part 2. You make a great point, and like Louise, I’m probably going to write up a post about my own take on this. Cool stuff, Chill.

  4. Pingback: Pacing – Why must you torture writers? | Writer's Periodical

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