Deepen Your Setting Part 3

Deepen Your Setting Part 3 by Leslie Watts

Whether your characters live and work in a world that looks like ours, or they enter a portal to someplace virtually unrecognizable to us, finding new ways to enter your story universe will help you craft a setting that better supports the story you want to tell. In the final installment in this series, I’ve created six more exercises to see your setting with fresh eyes. 

1. Location as Character

Sometimes the setting of your story can be a character in its own right, creating conflict and complications for the protagonist. A great example of this is Jack London’s “To Build a Fire,” where the frigid environment of the Klondike serves as both sentient character and conflict. Consider how place shapes the people who live there or even determines who could live there. A given location has its own distinct personality that affects the people and events within it.

Consider these questions to get to know your setting as a character.

  • What are the emotions evoked by the place? For example, if you compare New York City and Savannah, Georgia, the terms that surface might be frenetic versus languid.
  • What is the character of the people who live there? What about the founders? How has it changed over time?
  • If your setting were a character from a story you’ve read or watched, who would it be and why?
  • How do the cultural characteristics of the people and place reflect the terrain, climate, animal and plant life of the setting?

2. The Golden Rule

The Golden Rule is part of an ethical tradition, a general guideline about how people should treat others. A quick survey of history reveals that it is more easily said than done. Still, it says something about a place and people that they aspire to treat others equally. Perhaps empathy is something the people value, or at least think they should, even if they fall short of the mark. Consider how the warrior culture of the Spartans differed from that of the people of Athens. Spend ten or fifteen minutes exploring the way people treat others in your world.

  • What are the rules about how people should treat other people, that is, what do people say?
  • What is the origin of the rules? Religious, cultural? Is it legislated?
  • How do most people actually treat others who are similar to them? And those who are vastly different?
  • How do people treat others when no one else is watching?
  • Are people required to render aid, like good Samaritan laws do in some places?
  • How do strong people treat those who are weaker or have less power in your world? For example, are children treated with kindness or exploited for labor by adults?
  • What are the manners like in your world? Is there an unwritten code that dictates how people should behave? What happens if someone violates the code?

3. The Golden Age

Times of plenty are marked by economic growth, innovation in industries, progressive governmental policies (sometimes), and increased interest in the arts. But as our history reveals, good fortune ebbs and flows. Explore what would happen in your fictional world as society peaks just before a downward trend.

Imagine that you are a political pundit, social commentator, or cultural critic in your setting. You see the writing on the wall and make dire predictions about how life will change in the near future. Draft an editorial in which you explain how the good times got started (what combination of factors led to society’s good fortune) and why they are coming to an end. Provide advice for those who are willing to listen that explains how to weather the lawless times ahead.


4. The Lawless Times

Societies move in and out of order and chaos, though some have more than their fair share of the latter with greater periods of lawlessness, injustice, and corruption. (Western stories tend to explore these themes as well as the individual vs. society.)

Imagine that you are a journalist or historian writing about a time in the recent or distant past when a community, region, or nation within your setting experienced a period of unrest.

  • What was the catalyst that started society’s descent? Did anyone try to stop it?
  • What was this period of lawlessness like?
  • How was business conducted?
  • Were certain portions of the population relatively safe? Who was most vulnerable? Who rose to the top of the food chain?
  • What normal functions of society broke down?
  • How did people adapt to the conditions?
  • How long did this period last?
  • Who helped restore order? How did they go about it?
  • What changes did they make?
  • Did other factors contribute to the recovery?
  • How long did it take?
  • What was the new normal like?

5. The First Spell

The first time your character casts a spell is a great opportunity for you to showcase the magic system of your world. It is as much an element of the setting as the weather and topography, an energy system that the character taps into and can direct to a greater or lesser degree. The character will carry beliefs and expectations, some of which come from other people, and chances are he will be changed in some way by the experience (otherwise, there is no point in the display). The magic can be quite practical or have a spiritual component. (A great example of a first spell can be found in chapter 1 of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Wizard of Earth Sea.)

Take ten to fifteen minutes to sketch a scene in which your character casts his first spell.

After you’ve completed it, review what you’ve written in light of these questions:

  • Why is he doing it? For good or evil? Is he curious and experimenting? Is it an urgent need?
  • Has he seen someone perform this particular act of magic before? Has he had training?
  • How does he feel (reluctant, excited, scared)?
  • How does he wield the magic?
  • Is he confident in his abilities? How certain is he of his result?
  • Is he successful? Does he achieve his main objective?
  • What is he risking? How could this go wrong?
  • What does he learn in the process? What mistakes does he make?
  • What is the source of the magic? What are the consequences?
  • What surprises him about the experience? What does he learn?

6. Ignoring Physics

In a science fiction novel, you are free to play with the laws of nature and physics to create a unique world. The alterations you make should be intentional, but you can ignore certain physical principles to suit the purposes of your story.

  • Write a scene that reveals how your world differs from our own.
  • After you’ve completed it, review what you’ve written in light of these questions:
    • Consider what your purpose is in altering reality. How does the change support the telling of your story?
    • Is this a logical extension of something happening in our world? Or is there a reason within the story for the circumstances to be different?
    • What is the effect on the world? In what ways is it different from our own?
    • Who benefits? Who suffers or bears the cost of the change?
    • Does this change make sense in light of the rest of your world and story? Do you need to alter other physical rules as well?
    • How can you set the expectation for this difference at the beginning of the book?
    • What do you love about this change? What about it inspires you?

After you’ve had a chance to try an exercise or two, come back here and share what you discovered. What surprised you the most? What is your favorite takeaway? Anything you’ll add to your regular tool kit?


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Cast Your Net with Writership: 25 Exercises to Inspire Your Fiction by Leslie Watts.

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