What [setting] never is, at least not in a good production, is a series of pretty pictures in front of which the actors pose and declaim. You need to use your setting for all it’s worth. Otherwise, it’s dead weight. ~Timothy Hallinan, author of A Nail Through the Heart
Literature is about more than figuring out what a writer wants us to think or feel. It’s about creating a fictional world on the page that comes to life on the stage of our mind. Brian Moon and Bronwyn Mellor note that “character and other narrative elements [including setting] are the highly selective constructions” that readers need to interpret actively.
So how do we construct a set that engages the reader’s mind? Build conflict into the setting.
A setting that acts upon or against the characters gives the characters something to act against. In other words, conflict creates movement. And movement is the key to three-dimensionality.
In The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell creates a setting that becomes a formidable opponent for her protagonist:
“John Candotti was born to flat land, straight lines, square city blocks; nothing in Chicago had prepared him for the reality of Rome. The worst was when he could actually see the building he wanted to get to but found the street he was on curving away from it, leading him to yet another lovely piazza with yet another beautiful fountain, dumping him into another alley going nowhere.”
Poor John. Russell sets the stage with more than fountains. She sets it with the frustration John will face when he goes against the powers of Rome. She takes him from familiar territory into the unfamiliar, making him the alien. She constructs emotional walls as difficult to penetrate as the Vatican to keep him from the truth, forcing him down rabbit trails that lead nowhere. The setting is a series of closed doors John must butt against. Either he will resist the setting’s attempt to control its inhabitants, or he will become a product of his environment, sacrificing himself in the process.
Russell could have given us a flowery description of Rome, instead she laced her snippets of description with conflict and turned a good setting into a three-dimensional character.
When a setting becomes a character it makes some actions inevitable and other actions impossible. And it is action or movement that gives our actual characters 55% more life.
Treat your settings as action characters and give a skimmer pause.