It’s one of the requirements for writing a story: where it all happens. You can have amazingly detailed and dynamic characters but, unless they’re floating in the vacuum of space, they’re not enough. You need to know where they are, and what effect that “where” has on them and on your story. Your setting doesn’t necessarily have to be a character in and of itself, but choosing the right setting matters.
Setting matters for characterization
Think about how the places you’ve lived have affected your own life. They’re going to influence your way of speaking, even when you’re not aware of it. I’ve seen lists of things about the Midwest that other people find weird and of course aren’t strange to me, but it’s important to know all of those “natural” things you say, do, or expect aren’t universal. If your characters say “Ope,” drink pop, or look for a corn maze in the fall, then your setting is going to have to support all of that.
Setting matters for plot
Also think about the challenges you want your characters to face. Should they be able to run to Wal-Mart any hour of the day and buy things to solve their problems? Do they have access to Internet and cell service? Are they living on top of each other in an apartment block or way the heck out there in the middle of nowhere? If there’s a family emergency, how quickly can they be at their parents’ side? If they have a medical emergency, where’s the closest hospital? Your setting will have an effect on all of these plot elements.
Setting matters for believability
Yeah, I know we can argue about what, exactly, is meant by “Write what you know,” but if your story is set in the real world – even if you’ve made up your own town, like Derry, Maine – your familiarity with the wider setting can really help make things seem believable (even when a killer clown comes out of the sewers). Stephen King is from Maine, so his stories set in Maine have a certain verisimilitude because of his personal experience. When he mentions Yoopers, though – he’s done it twice so far, in 11/22/63 and Billy Summers – it’s … not quite right. (Look, I’m impressed he even knows what the UP is, but Traverse City isn’t in it.)
If you choose to mention real places and you’ve never been there, you run the risk of alienating readers who have. Take Traverse City, for example. I was born and raised there, so King’s reference to TC was cool, but … wrong. There’s also Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes, which messes with the city’s geography in ways that (sorry, Lauren) could have been fixed with a simple google search. Granted, how many people in the world are going to know where there is (and isn’t) a Mailboxes Etc. in Traverse City? Well, say the 15,500 or so people who live there, but … if you don’t know TC, you probably don’t even remember it’s ever been mentioned.
Still. It’s something to think about.
So how do I bring this all together in my own writing?
Not Your Mary Sue opens on an island in Lake Superior. I don’t name it – it’s just … a private island. The actual location along the coast doesn’t really matter. What does is the fact of isolation. I wanted my two characters completely stuck with each other for the first half of the book.
I’ve lived in the UP since 2007, so I know the area. The way Superior looks when it’s the only thing on the horizon. How to warn people if you’re going through certain dead zones because no, your cell phone won’t work – you know you’ve come out the other size when you get a whole slew of notifications. I wanted my characters to have the isolation in Misery but to somehow make this happen in the 21st century, when cell phones and Wi-Fi make that difficult. It’s hard to be a kidnap victim for weeks on end when you can simply dial 911.
My male main character is from the UP, and my female main character grew up in the Midwest and has done a bunch of traveling, which means I can use either my normal speech patterns or the way my friends talk. I don’t have to try to make sure that someone’s always from Brooklyn, for example, because they’re from the places I know.
For me, the setting and initial situation – two characters in isolation – occurred together. I’ve never tried to put Jay and Marcy anywhere other than their rocky island out there in Superior. (Unnamed island, remember, so nobody can tell me I got the number of pine trees wrong.) It just made sense, based on my own life experience.
What’s been really interesting, though, for someone who’s lived in Michigan most of her life, is remember that not everyone knows what it’s like to look out over Superior. How that view can change drastically depending on the weather.
Superior isn’t a main character in the book, but she’s certainly a presence. They’re literally surrounded by the water, isolated because of it, and any thoughts of escaping have to take the lake into account. In Not Your Mary Sue, the setting plays such a major role in that first half of the story that it couldn’t be picked up and transplanted anywhere else.
How do you think about setting when you write? What makes your settings necessary to plot and characterization?