Recently, I started reading an urban fantasy book set in London. I admit to being a bit of a Anglophile, and so the London setting attracted me to the book. But after a few chapters, I put it down, and haven’t picked it up again.
It wasn’t the fault of the main character – who was a totally kickass bisexual, down-on-her-luck wizard. The setting – or lack thereof – killed it for me.
If you’ve ever travelled to London, you know that the city has a life, a personality, all of its own. From the red double-decker buses and distinctive cabs to the ancient cobbled alleys and majestic gothic architecture mingled with the modern. From the scent of meat pies wafting out of corner shops to the reek of sweat on the overcrowded tubes. From Camden goths and the footballers’ wives of Chelsea to the myriad immigrant communities who call the city home … London lives and breathes its own distinctive Londonness.
This author captured none of it. The setting was so bland and shapeless it could have been any city in America, or none of them, since they all also have their own distinct characteristics. I don’t need pages of florid descriptions of Big Ben and mushy peas, but walking the character past a Tescos, or having her sit in an English pub with a G&T instead of a “dive bar” isn’t too much to ask.
One city is not like another. If you ever want to learn how a writer can envision a city and make it so utterly visceral that it feels familiar and foreign at the same time, read China Mieville. Read the Bas-Lag books, or The City and the City, and tell me that after a few strokes of his pen you can’t imagine walking the streets of El Qoma or New Crobuzon.
To me, the setting should be another character in the book – someone who allies with the main character, or throws up challenges in their way. Setting can move the plot forward or provide tension and conflict. Setting has its own quirks that must be navigated. It can be friend or enemy.
So how does a setting become another character in a book? Here are my tips:
Characters can be children of their settings.
Where you grew up has a way of shaping your personality, in the same was as who you grew up with. What if you grew up in a commune? Would you be a different person then if you grew up on the Manhattan East Side or Midwest US?
Create favourite “haunts”
It might be a hollowed-out tree where your heroine went to get away from her abusive father, or it could be a favourite pub where your hero shoots the breeze with his mates. These places create intimacy and camaraderie. They can become personifications for a character’s pain or flaws or motivations. They give your character a comfort zone around which you can seriously fuck them up.
And, when you threaten their favourite haunt as part of the story, you can create feelings as raw and visceral as if you threatened a character.
Setting reveals character
Every word in a book must serve one of two purposes: it must either move the story along, or deepen the reader’s understanding of character. Ideally, each word does both those things at the same time.
Descriptions of setting shouldn’t exist in a narrative just to show how beautifully you can evoke a sunset. Instead, they reveal details about the POV character and how they perceive the world. Then, you can shatter those perceptions throughout the novel, and reflect these changes in how they see their surroundings.
A person with a lot of education will describe things and notice things in a different way to someone who left school at fifteen.
At the moment, I’m writing a book about a girl who has grown up in semi-rural Arizona, and has come to live in a beautiful English castle. It’s wonderful because her rich and often humorous descriptions of her surroundings help the reader to understand how she feels about her change of fortune. A chair represents something very real and important in her life. If she’d grown up in the castle, she wouldn’t describe it in the same way because those experiences wouldn’t be new to her. A chair would just be a chair.
Do your research to add authentic touches.
As an ex-archaeologist, incorporating historical or architectural details into my stories makes me very happy. Many of these details can branch off to become new plot devices. A real secret tunnel under a fortress becomes the catalyst of a getaway plot. A ghost story from an historical pub becomes the focal point of a murder mystery. Mythological details about the realm of the fae inform a magical system. A few minutes of googling, or a fascinating book from the library, will give your books a beautiful depth.
Season plays an important role.
This is a mistake I’m often guilty of. I like to believe I write pretty damn evocative settings, but too often I forget to set a story at a particular time of year. It’s pelting down with rain one day, and sunny the next. The days don’t get shorter or longer. The yard might be littered with fall leaves but they’re not selling special fall drinks at the local cafe, etc. Pick a season (or a specific date, if possible) and start your story from there, paying attention to the weather patterns for the area.
Incorporate easter eggs
Easter eggs are fun things the reader can discover in your stories if they’re paying close attention. Clive Cussler always adds himself as a minor character into his books (almost like a Where’s Wally puzzle), and readers love to hunt him out. Stephen King is famous for linking characters and places through his books. Dan Brown hides elaborate ciphers in the covers of his books. And Mark Z Danielewski’s House of Leaves is basically one giant easter egg, as multifaceted as the house at the centre of the story A house that is very much a character – one that’s bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.
In my own books, I usually include cameos from other characters in each book, and I also make a lot of jokes about my favourite authors or books. I always love it when readers spot them!
(You can see some more amazing literary easter eggs here).
What can you do to improve the settings in your story? How can you create a place that feels real to your readers?
Steff Green is a USA Today and New York Times bestselling author of twenty dark fantasy (as S C Green) and paranormal romance books (as Steffanie Holmes). Her books feature clever, witty heroines, wild shifters, cunning witches and alpha males who get what they want. In 2017 Steff was the recipient of the Attitude Award for Artistic Achievement, to honour her accomplishments as a person who lives with a disability.
Before becoming a writer, Steffanie worked as an archaeologist and museum curator. She currently lives in a castle outside Auckland with her cantankerous drummer husband, a horde of cantankerous cats, and their medieval sword collection. Follow Steff’s adventures on her blog or instagram.