Where and when you set your story helps determine whether the audience will relate and how much world building and/or research you’ll need to do.
For starters, you need to determine what types of settings you’ll need. Make a list of all the settings your character is likely to visit, including the most mundane places. A home is as important, if not more so, than the location where the crucial plot unfolds. Or perhaps the most important location is the place your character visits the most and isn’t their actual home but feels more like a home (if that makes sense).
Now, the next step greatly depends on what type of story you’re writing. For example, if you’ve decided to set your story in a futuristic sci-fi world or a fantasy land, the audience will need plenty of descriptions for these places. Although, the audience will probably have associations for those two genres, so unless they’re wildly different from the audience’s perceptions, you could get away with a limited amount of description.
However, if you’re setting the story on Earth in a real location, or even a made up name for a generic city or town or whatever else, the audience can conjure up certain associations with those types of places. For example, a city might conjure up skyscrapers and branded shops/coffee shops and launderettes, whereas a village might conjure up local shops with one or two big brands and plenty of churches and pubs.
Historical fiction will definitely require research to know and understand what specific places were like and how they functioned. I’d definitely recommend visiting historical sites if you can, or visiting libraries/museums that could show you what the place used to look like. It also depends what time period you’re setting your story in, and where in the world. For example, if you set your story in Pompeii, I would highly recommend a visit to the place, if you can. If not, watch a documentary or search the internet for photos of what it might’ve looked like. Or perhaps you’ve decided to set your story in the 1920s in Australia. Again, if you can’t visit the actual place, look on the internet for resources.
But why is setting important?
Like I mentioned above, audiences have associations with certain places. But it also can say a lot about a character. For example, if a character spent more time at a cafe than at home, you might question what’s wrong with their home or home life. Equally, a home says a lot about a person, such as a messy environment might belong to a messy person. Or, to make your story interesting, your character might be an incredibly organised person at work but have the messiest home.
Additionally, setting can say a lot about status and class. For example, a poor person is hardly likely to live in a mansion and a rich person is hardly likely to live on the streets, unless some odd situation happens to flip their status/class. What they own and what’s important to them in their home is very telling of a character. A childhood teddy bear sitting on a bed or an old rocking chair passed down through the generations tell you something about the character.
A good example is to watch any TV show or movie you want and to see how they design rooms in their homes. Every object serves a purpose: to tell you something about the character. The same should apply when describing your setting. We don’t necessarily need to know about the lake if it’s not important, but please do tell us about that jacket that belonged to that special person a few years back. Or another brilliant example: Harry Potter. The way J.K. Rowling describes Diagon Alley, Hogwarts or The Burrow are very telling of the characters that inhibit this world and lets us in on this magical world we’ve recently discovered with Harry Potter.
Equally, where in the world they live or come from says a lot about them too. The nature vs. nurture argument is still widely debated today. For example, someone born in America will have a different upbringing and different values from someone who was born in India. Additionally, if someone is from an Italian family and were born there but moved when they were young to Spain, they would have a different upbringing from their family. They would learn a lot about their country’s history, but perhaps not more than that. Or they might be taught certain values at school but their family might teach them different values.
Setting is sometimes overlooked for more important elements in the writing process, but setting is just as important as the other writing elements… if done right. If done wrong, it can feel like info dumping and the audience will get bored. But if done right, even if there are long paragraphs describing the setting, the audience won’t mind so long as it has importance to the plot or the character is doing something in relation to the setting.
Finding the right balance is crucial.
It might be a struggle at first, but once you find that balance, you’ll realise how important setting is to your character and plot.
What are your favourite settings?