Setting can be a huge factor for some books and for others not so much. The way I like to think about setting is that it is the character’s habitat. Remember how in third grade we began learning about habitats? How habitat’s shaped organisms (and yes, for the purpose of this discussion people are organisms.) So while habitats in the animal kingdom might include desert, rainforest, savannah, and streams, human habitats are a little more diverse and subtle. Human habitats not only include the physical and geographical components of your characters’ world, but encompass mindset, religious tone, economic outlook, current social thought and mores, as well.
It’s important to keep in mind just how much habitat shapes organisms, from their diet to what they use for clothing, what they do for entertainment, how they interact.
Think how differently a society--and therefore its members--evolve when they live in a desert. Now compare that to a society that's developed on an island. Think how different their creation myths are, their diet, their feelings about rain, sun, what their pets are, the material they have available for building and making clothes. All of those details will stem from the world they live in.
And don’t make the mistake of assuming this only applies to historical or fantasy books. While more subtle, even the differences between urban and suburban and rural habitats in our own time can be significant and affect such things as:
• What kids do after school
• The sounds they’re used to
• How they might react to a stranger
• What they do for recreation
• Their attitude toward other kids
Other things to consider when dealing with a contemporary, realistic setting are, Is the world of your novel a dark and edgy place? Filled with hope and grace? Normalville, USA?
If your story IS set in Normalville USA, it is even MORE important that you make your town come alive by using specific, concrete details. Does your Normalville’s main street have two liquor stores, a billiard place and a bait and tackle shop or is it lined with antique stores with a strategically placed Starbucks or two? Both main streets conveys something different: poverty vs affluence, hope versus despair. What is the crime rate in the town? Do people feel safe there? How do the citizens feel about the weather? Is a bright sunny day cause for rejoicing (Pacific NW) or merely one more in a long string of drought filled days?
The point is to consider all the different ways a habitat (setting) affects people--helps form them--then incorporate select details that help bring your setting to life and make it feel absolutely real to your readers. As an added bonus, it will also add nice complex layers to your character.
Some of the first big decisions you’ll need to nail down are:
• Whether to use the real world versus a slightly altered world versus completely new and different world
• Set in current times, or in the past or future, or in another “age” altogether
• Within the world you choose, does the character live in a small town or city
Next up? Some important questions to ask yourself as you wrestle with these issues.