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David Farland's Daily Kick in the Pants
How Story Parts Fit into a Whole (Part 2)



Setting

Most people don't understand how powerfully a setting can draw a reader. If you look at the most popular books of all time and examine the settings--such books as A TALE OF TWO CITIES, GONE WITH THE WIND, DUNE, LORD OF THE RINGS, and so on, you'll find that they have something in common: the books are far longer than others in their genres primarily because the authors spends a great deal of time trying to recreate the settings.

It's no accident that long books with intricate settings are usually the most popular. In order for a reader to become involved with a story, to completely become absorbed by it, the reader needs to be transported into the world of the story's protagonist.

So what should you know about creating a setting? Here are a few tips.

Choosing a Setting:

Superstar agent Albert Zuckerman, in his book WRITING THE BLOCKBUSTER NOVEL, suggests that when you write a story, you look for settings that the reader will want to visit. In other words, rather than setting a story in Boise, Idaho, look for a destination that readers might consider as tourist spots--something more like Seattle or San Francisco. These are more likely to capture the imagination of your readers and draw them in.

If your story requires you to pick a place that the reader might not consider a prime destination, then look at the unique things that the area might offer that the reader wouldn't know about. For example, my hometown of Saint George, Utah is a central location for visiting some of the world's most scenic parks--Zion, Bryce Canyon, the Grand Canyon, Snow Canyon, Canyonlands, and so on. By making use of these areas in my story, I should be able to draw readers into my stories.

But any place might have its own lesser draws. For example, if I were writing about my hometown, instead of having my characters grab a burger at a McDonalds, I could make my setting a little sexier by mentioning a quaint little restaurant in the area, and then going the next step--lovingly describing how the food is prepared, how it tastes, and perhaps describing the restaurant's décor and atmosphere.

So you can take any small town and "spruce it up" by adding interesting facts about the town, showing us its sights, telling us about its interesting history, or visiting local sights.

Creating a Setting:

If you're writing in fantasy or science fiction, you may have to go much further and create a setting. This means that you can develop the setting from the ground up. Isaac Asimov wrote a series of books on how to create worlds from the ground up, be describing the star that the planet circles, the size and number of its moons, the planet's gravitational pull, and on through building its continents, deciding how much tilt it has on its axis, how long it takes to rotate around the sun, and so on.

If you have life on your planet, you need to go a step further and design the life forms on your planet--describing their habits, reproductive cycles, food sources. One good way to create such life forms is to get a field guide to animals, such as a field guide to mammals, and then go through your world and populate it, telling what the animals look like, how large they grow, what kind of habitat they live in, what their range might be, where they live (burrows, versus in the open, etc.), what they eat, and so on. You might even consider drawing pictures of the animals and illustrating your field guide.

However, if I'm dealing with characters in the story that I'm writing, I find that it's much more helpful to spend my time describing the societies that develop in my world. In other word, I need to describe the human (or human-like) characters--their level of technology and education, the types of machines or animals that they use, their customs, ethics, languages, types of government, history, holidays, methods of trade, and methods of government.

While it might be important to develop a setting in order to entice your reader into your world, it's just as imperative to remember that your character grows OUT OF the setting. In other words, people who were born in 1800 in Virginia take their educational level, their attitudes, vocabulary, customs, and ethics from their society. I couldn't drop a modern teenager into a medieval setting without the character just feeling a bit off.

Designing Special Settings:

Sometimes the allure of a setting isn't found in its sexiness or quaintness. Sometimes the setting itself poses a major threat to a character. This can be found in historical settings (think of England during the Black Plague, or any era where a country is war-torn), or in dystopian futures or fantasies. If the setting is supposed to serve as a threat, make sure that the threat is strong enough to support a story.

Consider How Your Setting Creates and Affects Your Character:

So when you create your setting, whether you are using a historical setting, a modern setting, or a fantastic setting of your own design, it's important to ask yourself questions like the following:

1) What kinds of social conflicts are likely to affect my characters? As you may be aware, social conflicts change dramatically over the ages. One of my ancestors, for example, was a young German boy who was sold into slavery as a child. Another ancestor spent years trying to hunt for some neighbor girls who were captured by Indians. A third ancestor was a Cherokee woman born on the Trail of Tears, trying to flee the US Army. In each of these cases, these people were embroiled in social issues that have long since been resolved.

2) What kind of education does my character have? Even a medieval farmer had a pretty solid education. He might know how to build a shed, when to plant and harvest crops, how to keep his tools sharpened and oiled, and so on. He would know the character of locals well, and so on. A young peasant in England was expected to know how to shoot a longbow, and at times there were laws that required young men to practice archery on a daily basis. Don't undervalue an informal education for such people. Learning how to fight with a dagger, for example, was a valuable skill in a number of cultures, and learning how to do it properly from a skilled uncle was the kind of training that could save your life.

3) What historical incidents might your character witness, or celebrate as the basis of holidays? For example, during my life I've seen men walk on the moon. I celebrate a number of holidays that have a historical basis, from the birth of Jesus to President's day. In short, you need to create a cultural history for your character.

4) What types of entertainment will your character engage in? I'm quite sure that some of my ancestors used to go to the Coliseum and cheer while the lions tore apart Christians. I'm just as certain that some of my ancestors got torn apart in such celebrations. My great grandfather was a moonshiner, and in his family, getting drunk was in fashion. When I was a kid, growing up in Oregon in the late sixties and seventies, it seemed that other drugs had become more popular. Personally, I'm looking forward to watching American Idol on television tomorrow, but you get the idea. Certain forms of entertainment take precedence within each society.

5) What cultures might your character mingle with? Does he speak more than one language, or could he be a part of a couple of cultures? I hate characters who seem to know too much, but I've studied enough Spanish so that I used to be able to read it pretty comfortably. My son is fluent in Japanese, another son and my wife know a bit of sign language, and so on.

6) What interesting sights or features in my world will affect my character? If you're creating a fantastic setting where magic arises naturally from the landscape, for example, who would that affect your character? Would he visit magic grottoes inhabited by the spirits of the trees? Or might he find himself hunted by ogres? Hopefully you get the idea. As you create your setting, you need to consider how it impacts and molds your character. Tomorrow I'm going to talk about the second major element in storytelling--your character.

Until then …