The Importance of Setting

— Originally published 8/21/2008 @ LiveJournal

I originally thought to write this as a defense of setting, until I reread the comments in the previous (friends locked) post and realized I’d misread comments: people weren’t dismissing setting as important, but rather questioning why I was so wound up about starting my story in a saloon. Thoughts like “Are you people nuts? Of course setting matters!” came racing through my head on my first hurried read through the comments last night, and I do stress hurried:-D. In the calm light of morning, after a good night’s sleep, I see the danger in reading hurriedly and forming opinions based on such readings. It’s a good thing I didn’t flap my gums off last night!

I still want to talk about setting though because the thoughts are there in my head right now and who know, maybe they will be useful to others. I for one never really fully understood the importance of setting in story until I attempted to switch settings of a story a few months back and saw the story completely fall apart. Setting is one of those elements that is so ingrained into how characters view their world and how events unfold that to switch settings is to create a completely new story, because setting is so much more than just the pretty picture on the wall where your characters play.

A lot of folks talk about how they first come up with a character than they build from there. I’m a bit different. I usually have a setting in mind, then I create people to inhabit it and react to it, and story develops from that. For me, knowing where I’m setting a story, any story, is paramount and I can’t just choose a setting at random and decide my characters will do this there. Each setting comes with its own history and social norms in addition to weather and climate and it’s own particular animals and plants and foods, all things that will influence how characters think, feel, and act, and it must be very carefully considered, and in the case of historical fantasy, it also must be carefully researched. Can I tell the story I want to tell the way I want to tell it given the social conditions of where I’m setting it, or will I have to alter it so much that it will be a completely different story? I have occasionally come up with a character first, but setting was also attached to them in my head so there’s never any question of where that character’s story will take place. Sometimes I flounder around about the specifics of setting while I’m writing: in my latest, I knew it took place in the Old West, in land ceded by Mexico after the Mexican-American war, but research unrelated to setting helped me narrow that down to Arizona, in Navajo territory.

Setting, I believe, is the key to story authenticity. If one doesn’t know enough about their setting, the story won’t feel real and characters will end up acting “out of character” given the social norms of the setting. On can plunk a character down in a strange new land, but they can’t go on as if things are business as usual. Characters are products of their environments and if readers are having difficulty believing a character’s behavior, it’s usually because you’ve slipped outside the social and political bounds of your setting (though this too could be attributed to readers not being able to connect meaningfully with strange social customs of foreign cultures because they are so disparate to what modern readers of a particular demographic know, even though it’s completely true, but that’s a whole can of worms in of itself.).

As for the saloon, there isn’t anything inherently wrong with my characters meeting up there. After all, there were saloons in the Old West and they were the primary social gathering place for men of the times, until one considers that my characters are indigenous people, and given the area this takes place in and the history of the local Indians raiding the settlers for horses and livestock, would they have been welcomed in a town saloon where the primary clientele are white ranchers? Probably not. I could have kept them in the saloon and rewritten it to reflect this animosity and maybe in another rewrite I’ll play around with that, just to see what comes of it, but the way I had it written was completely unbelievable and, shudder, completely Hollywood cliche. It simply had to go. I think the primary reason that opening with a bar scene has come to be considered cliched in fantasy is that maybe all those bar/tavern scenes felt the same as other bar/tavern scenes before them, down to the dark stranger watching our heroes from the corner behind a sinister cloak that it screams “same setting as every other European fantasy story”, hence the yawn and the rejection. But if it were completely different and made it obvious that the setting was different than the normal, then maybe the story would get a little benefit of the doubt.

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