Setting is a difficult thing for many writers. It has certainly been my Achilles heel in some of my work, though I like to think I grow with each story. I’ve been thinking about it recently, and I think that one of the best ways of thinking about setting in your novel or short story is as context. Allow me to explain.
It’s really interesting how the context of something changes depending on where and when that something has happened. A kiss, for example, can mean a lot of things depending on who is giving it to whom and where. A kiss under the mistletoe evokes holiday cheer and romance; a kiss by a lake, summer love or lasting commitment; and a kiss in the dark lust or fear.
My S.O. told me a story once about finding an unspent bullet in a bus station. He had just been told how dangerous the city he was traveling to was, and advised to be careful. The bullet made him laugh, because he is one of those rare fools halfway to Buddha-hood already. He kept it as a reminder of the absurdity of life, and it sits now on one of our altars.
The context of a bullet in a city bus station is very different from the context of a bullet in an open desert. I also have a story about finding bullets. When I was a child, my father and I would go walking through a small patch of desert in the still developing boundaries of Phoenix. In early morning, the desert is a place of fragile loveliness. Though I was only three or four, I can clearly remember watching the hot air balloons rise over what felt a vast, flat expanse, the world made of soft, washed out blue and rocky greys and reds. The hot air balloons became bright bursts of color in this near monochrome. The world was nearly silent but for us.
On one of those mornings, my father found a pack of bullets left abandoned by a hunter. They were bird shot, and I remember him explaining what that was. It is a very different kind of bullet than the smooth, metal tipped casing that my S.O. found in his bus station. The casing is usually bright red, made of some plastic polymer designed to more or less disintegrate on firing, spreading small balls of metal outward in a speckled pattern that becomes less dense the farther away the target is. I don’t recall that I had ever seen a bullet before. My father threw them into a small pond, a watering hole for desert creature the hunter had likely been waiting by.
Setting, then, makes a thing more or less frightening. The incongruity of finding a bullet on the sidewalk or in a store raises questions, worries, fears. But a bullet left by a watering hole in the desert seems natural and unthreatening. As a writer, it is important to constantly be aware not only of the context characterization can provide, but also of setting.
Characterization comes more easily than setting to me personally. I understand the implications to someone’s reaction towards a spider if they have been bitten by one before, for example. No one likes pain, so that dislike can easily transfer to spiders. Character becomes context when a person’s memories and experiences shape their reactions to an event or object.
Setting, however, can be more complicated. It shapes and informs character in the form of cultural biases and previous learned experiences.
A great example of setting’s impact on character is an interaction I had with a friend on a hike a few years ago. She is from Burma, which has a tropical, jungle climate. There are over 20 breeds of venomous snakes in Burma. In Virginia there are only three. Of such little differences is setting made. When we saw a snake on our hike, I was delighted. I knew instantly from its color that it was not dangerous and for me it was a novelty. For her, it was a potentially deadly threat, until I provided her the context of our mutual setting. Even then she was uncomfortable with the prospect of running into a snake in the wild – a character trait that was shaped in part by the setting of her youth.
Through the lens of setting as context, and by understanding how that context is related to characterization and plot, we can begin to improve our world-building. And world-building is a writer’s bread and butter, especially in speculative fiction. So the next time you’re writing away and something happens to your character, ask yourself if she would have taken it differently in a different time and place. I think it will be pretty revealing.