A couple of weeks ago I started a series reviewing story basics. I started with Character and continue the series this week with Setting. Unlike some of the other story elements, setting is pretty straightforward. A lot easier to keep straight and not confuse terms.
The simplest definition of setting is it is where the story takes place. As we all know, it can be a real place or something fantastical or even a place within a character’s mind. In addition to be the world, setting also helps the reader fix the time, culture, and mood of the world in which the story takes place.
Below are definitions of a few different kinds of settings frequently seen in literature:
Alternate History – This might seem confusing since alternate history is also a subgenre of both science fiction and historical fiction. In this context, alternate history is a setting because it is a world set in a different universe from what our normal history is. This could also be defined as Alternate Universe or Parallel Universe.
Imaginary World – This type of setting is one in which the author has created a world from scratch including its own set of rules, logic, culture, and religion. This is mostly found in science fiction and fantasy. Many authors who have created their own worlds, such as Middle Earth and Mordor in The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Westeros in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, have based them on the real world.
Dystopia – Stories set in this kind of setting feature societies which have completed broken down. Everything is usually bleak and depressing. This is quite popular with examples such as the various districts within The Hunger Games trilogy. While commonly associated with science fiction, literary fiction frequently employs this setting as well.
Mythical Place – As the name suggests, the setting is some mythical time and place found in mythology, folklore, or religious texts. This is different from an Imaginary World in that this setting would be something like Asgard or Camelot or the Garden of Eden.
Utopia – This is the opposite of Dystopia in that instead of a broken down society, society is based upon the principle of equality in all things. People frequently believe that a utopian world means that everyone is happy and everything is perfect. This isn’t necessarily the case as seen A Brave New World and 1984.
These are just a few of the different kinds of settings. All of us have read books set in real places with real people yet fictionalized for the sake of the story. And we’ve all read books set in a fictional place set here on Earth but which perhaps takes place during our modern time or a point in history.
While setting is one of the simplest literary elements, it’s easy to see where readers could start to get confused. When connecting it with Character, for example, I frequently see and hear people criticize a character’s actions because the story is set in a time period and culture different from own. I’ve seen this more with new historical fiction readers, but all genres are affected. I believe this comes down to readers not remembering the context of the world. Characters within the story’s world who behave as good or bad suddenly are deemed the opposite because the reader projects modern values and their own biases.
Setting, while unassuming and operating seemingly in the shadows, should be on equal footing as other literary elements. Without a firm grasp on setting, an author cannot fully convey to the reader what it is he or she wants the reader to not only visualize, but also how Character and Plot are affected by it. The inverse is true for the reader. Without a firm understanding of the setting, all the other literary elements cannot work as well as the author intended. By better understanding its purpose both readers and authors become better.