Setting as a Character

Setting as a Character

by Jamie K. Schmidt

May 21, 2019


The setting of your book frames your entire novel. A book that takes place during the Civil War will have a different tone than one that takes place during the Vietnam War. Characters who are from a small town in the Midwest will behave differently than characters who live in a Manhattan penthouse. A horror novel will have a much different atmosphere than a romantic comedy.

The setting gives the readers expectations, and you can use that to your advantage. A haunted house comes with a suspension of disbelief that ghosts exist. The author doesn’t have to spend precious words proving the existence of the supernatural. It’s just there, and the tropes of the genre allow for a lot of unspoken/unwritten explanations. In Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities, we accept that Madame LeFarge knits a hit list of aristocrats to be killed. Her obsessive revenge, formed because of the atrocities the nobles did to her family, is understandable. In pre-revolutionary France, the poor were at the whims of the rich.

The setting of your novel can also be symbolic and further the plot along. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is set in Georgian era, England, but it’s Longbourn, Netherfield Park, and Pemberly that are important to the plot and character development. Longbourn is where the Bennets reside, but once Mr. Bennet dies, the property goes to Mr. Collins, so the Bennets have a ticking clock to marry off their daughters. Netherfield Park is rented by a bachelor with plenty of money, Mr. Bingley. He’s only there temporarily while he looks to purchase an estate of his own, which puts him in the Bennets’ sites as a future son-in-law. Pemberly, owned by Mr. Darcy outright, is the ultimate goal of any mother with a marriageable age daughter during that time period. Any woman would be a fool to turn down Mr. Darcy’s proposal because it promises security and safety for her and her family. Yet, Lizzie does just that.

The setting can be as important as who your characters are. Can you imagine Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind without Tara? Or George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones) series without the North, the Wall, or Kings Landing? Or Stephen King’s The Shining set anywhere other than The Overlook Hotel?
When your setting is just as vibrant as your characters are, it brings another depth to your story. Like your characters, your setting should have a backstory. The Overlook Hotel is haunted because past residents’ suicides and other unsavory behavior happened within its walls. Scarlett O’Hara’s Georgia plantation was obtained by her father winning it in a poker game. It weathered the Union’s scorched earth policy during the civil war. And it even has a name: Tara—named after the capital of the High King in ancient Ireland.

Your setting should also directly impact your characters’ lives, their motivation, and how they react to situations. George R.R. Martin’s Stark family, who reside in the frigid North in Winterfell Keep, are prepared for an invasion of terrible monsters that have attacked the Seven Kingdoms centuries before. “The North remembers,” is a popular saying there. As is, “Winter is coming,” which refer to the White Walkers, ice zombies who are looking to destroy the living.
The ghosts of The Overlook Hotel attempt to capture Danny Torrance for his power, and drive his father, Jack Torrance homicidally insane. Scarlett O’Hara does everything from steal her sister’s fiancé to marrying for money in order to rebuild Tara. Criminals and political prisoners sent to The Wall in the North become members of the Night Watch and take strict oaths that they live by in exchange for protection and a wiping of past deeds. In return, they are the Seven Kingdoms’ first line of defense when the White Walkers attack.
Your setting could relate to the theme of your story or reflect a characters’ growth arc. Scarlett’s and Tara’s fate are very much entwined. They both start off the book as a pretty front with underlying strengths. They both endure hardships and come through it. And in the end, both are still standing, but irrevocably changed from their experiences. In The Shining, Jack Torrance has his own personal demons, anger issues, and alcoholism. The Overlook Hotel has tormented ghosts from past tragedies and when they can’t possess Danny, they go after his father—a perfect host. In the end, Jack Torrance and the hotel are irredeemably corrupted and ultimately destroyed. In George R.R. Martin’s series, we follow a bastard child called Jon Snow as he leaves Winterfell to go to the Wall, to his eventually becoming the King of the North. Winterfell, the Wall, and the North are also irrevocably changed through the war of kings and the approach of the undead army.
By giving your setting as much thought and detail as your characters, you make your own job as a writer easier because you can use those details to enhance your characters’ experiences, drive home your theme, and mirror the characters’ journey through the novel.

Related Links:

·        K.M. Weiland: 16 Ways to Make Your Setting a Character in Its Own Right

·        Bronwyn Leroux: What is Setting and Why Is It Important to Your Novel?

USA Today bestselling author, Jamie K. Schmidt, writes erotic contemporary love stories and paranormal romances.  Her steamy, romantic comedy, Life’s a Beach, reached #65 on USA Today, #2 on Barnes & Noble and #9 on Amazon and iBooks.  Her Club Inferno series from Random House’s Loveswept line has hit both the Amazon and Barnes & Noble top one hundred lists. The first book in the series, Heat, put her on the USA Today bestseller list for the first time, and is a #1 Amazon bestseller.  Her book Stud is a 2018 Romance Writers of America Rita® Finalist in Erotica. Her dragon paranormal romance series has been called “fun and quirky” and “endearing.” Partnered with New York Times bestselling author and actress, Jenna Jameson, Jamie’s hardcover debut, SPICE, continues Jenna’s FATE trilogy.

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June 4, 2019

Congratulations, Jennifer! And thanks, Jaime, for how you breakdown such important elements of writing.

Jennifer Hollingshead
May 28, 2019

I am happy to say that my script, The Moon Maiden, has been accepted for publication in PLAYS Magazine. It's been a long journey, but the play started out as part of an assignment for my course with the Institute of Children's Literature. It's an adaptation of a Japanese fairy tale and it's intended for middle grade readers/actors. I'm thrilled!

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