Setting the Stage

Over the past few weeks, several of the urban fantasy writers I follow on social media have been visiting places they’ve written about or intend to set stories in. I’m enjoying watching them post their pictures and make observations on some of the quirky names and fun tidbits they are finding as they wander.

I realize it’s not always feasible to travel to the places that we want to write about – that whole money and time thing always comes back to bite. (Thank goodness for the internet!) But when authors do get the chance to sound out the locale of their books in person, I can’t help but feel it adds to the vitality of the story.

I have never quite decided which side of the fight over “which is more important – character or plot” I come down on. While a story without plot is boring and arguably not a story at all, the tales I reread have vivid characters who keep drawing me back to think about them and how they resolved the conflicts they faced. It boils down to — strong plot engages me once; characters engage me repeatedly.

Stories and characters don’t exist in a vacuum, however, and characters only fascinate me if the settings they inhabit are vivid or fresh. That doesn’t mean that the setting must be something brand new, just that the author’s voice must transport me to a place that I haven’t thought of in a particular way. I should have enough detail to believe I’m there.

Some argue that setting can be a character in its own right. I’m not sure that argument doesn’t do a disservice to the notion of character. After all, setting affects what the characters do, but so does the plot, and so does the conflict. Setting is its own domain and written properly can be a living, breathing aspect of the story that determines interactions among the characters of the book. Mostly, I expect it’s a moot argument. The important thing is that to create memorable stories, you usually need a strong sense of setting.

So take time to do that research. Visit places you’re writing about if they exist and you have the resources. If you can’t, do your internet research as well as possible. Andy Weir could hardly go to Mars, but I certainly thought I was on Mars while reading The Martian. If your world is pure fantasy, create the maps, the geography, and the history, but please share only the tip of the iceberg – thanks! Too much detail overwhelms.

Do you have a favorite author that uses setting particularly effectively?

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