Greetings, fellow word-slingers! This is finals week for me, so today's post will be an exceptionally broad overview of an exceptionally important topic: your story's setting. The story setting includes everything that affects your characters. It is the environment in which they live, breathe, and find meaning. It is where they fail and learn to succeed. All this to say, your story's environment matters.
Why your story's environment matters
Creating an effective environment is a key facet to your story's success. It's part of world-building; and no, we aren't talking about weather, though naturally, that plays a part. No, my friends, the importance of environment can be summarized in two key reasons:
- The environment determines the ways in which your characters respond to your plot's stimuli (i.e., when you throw rocks at them). The way your character thinks is largely determined by who they hang out with, by the prevailing political systems, by the economic and technological advancement of their world. (Yes, even if your character is full-on-Katniss-Everdeen, rebel in the world you've built, that character is still framing “rebellion” in relation to their environment).
- The environment determines how deep your reader can swim in your book. Ooh, that's a biggie, but it's invaluable. Here's a really simple example: did you ever wonder why Harry Potter is such a big hit? One of the reasons is the environment at Hogwarts. The readers can feel, hear, smell, taste, and touch that magical school; if the school hadn't been described, if the spells and their effects had been glossed over, the world of Harry Potter wouldn't seem nearly as magical as it is.
The real world engages all senses at all times. Whether or not you're aware of it, you're picking up stimuli from all around you (which is why when something changes, you notice).
What is your story's environment?
I like to break this down into three simple categories: senses, philosophies, and abilities.
- What does it sound like to be in your character's world? Do they hear traffic? Wind? Fire? The clink of glasses in a bar?
- What does your character see? What colors are prevalent? What architectural and clothing styles dominate? What animals, faces, skin colors, and law enforcement are part of your character's daily view?
- What does your character smell? Is body odor a thing here (in which case they might not smell it because it was normal, but perfume would sure as heck stand out)? Do they smell smoke from fires? The strange burn of melted steel? The weird garbage/flower/exhaust scent of big cities? The salt and fish of the ocean?
- What does your character taste? What spices are available? What meat is the most commonly used (fish, chicken, pork, venison, mutton…)? What kinds of vegetables or fruits would they know? Does their local cuisine know “sweet?” Is it sugar sweet? Molasses sweet? Honey sweet?
- What can your character feel? Are the walls and streets made of something abrasive like concrete, or splintery like wood? Is there carpet everywhere, or just wooden boards (or metal, or dust and straw, etc.)? Does clothing feel machine-manufactured, or hand-sewn? How heavy are weapons/tools?
- What does your character's society think about human (or your species of choice) rights? What does your character think of them?
- How does money work? Does your character view it as a necessary evil, as super important, as something to be shunned, as barely worth a thought?
- What religions are prevalent, and how have they shaped your world's cultures and people? This affects cuisine, fashion, music, and more.
- How does your character view God (or gods)? Death? Birth? Are children innocent or not? Should the elderly be protected? Does worth stem from ability, or is it innate? How do animals rank?
- What does travel look like in your world? Bullet trains? Planes? Spaceships? Magic portals? Horses? Feet? Wagons? Ships? (Whatever form of travel this is, you'll need to know what it looks like and how long it takes to make it convincing.)
- What does medicine look like? How quickly do people heal, and from what kinds of wounds? (For that matter, how is health on average? Nutrition? Are all your old folks bent double from lack of calcium when young?) What kind of technology is available to aid in everyday life? What kinds of tools? Weapons? How easy is it for those things to be manufactured and obtained?
- If there's magic, try to answer why, how, and who. Don't just go, “It's magic and doesn't need an explanation.” Today's readers like explanations. They like magic that almost makes sense. Aside from all that, however, what are magic's limitations? What can it do and not do? Who can use it and who can't? Why?
- Is everyone violent? Is no one violent?
- Is everyone literate? Why? Why not?
- How many languages does your character need to know?
How do you use your story's environment?
These are just a few of the questions you might want to ask yourself while world-building. I know it may seem overwhelming (and good news: it can get a lot worse!), but this is really worth your time.
Now here's the kicker: you need to know these things because they determine just how your characters can play in your world. However, your reader doesn't need all the details.
You don't have to explain the entirety of your environment in your story. For example, if you've figured out it will take your characters three months by horse to go from City A to City B, you don't have to explain the mileage and average speed of a horse in the wintertime and all that. But you do have to note that your character shows up with three months' worth of beard growth, or perhaps just three months' worth of sleeping on the ground, so he's really really ready for a bath and a bed.
To go back to Harry Potter, J. K. Rowling did something quite brilliant when it came to food production in her magical world. See, food has to come from somewhere; it doesn't appear out of thin air by magic. It isn't prepared by itself. The kids don't know this (as kids in developed countries rarely appreciate where food comes from, this is appropriate). They don't learn until much later in the series that the food isn't being magically conjured at Hogwarts, but purchased and prepared beforehand by an army of House Elves in the kitchens below.
So yes, Rowling did not explain that food couldn't be conjured. Instead, she showed it.
- Wizards could struggle to feed a large family. Suddenly, this made the less-than-wealthy Weasleys welcoming people into their home an act of love.
- Wizards could be in danger of starving. Suddenly, this makes the image of Sirius Black desperately hungry while trying to hide from his fellow wizards a realistic problem.
- Wizards could be poor. Suddenly, we see why they'd need a bank, an economy, and jobs. Food needs to be grown and purchased.
Rowling showed it. Wow, she showed it.
This week, it's your turn. Explore your characters' environments. What do their senses tell them? What do they believe about the world? What are the able to do within it? Have fun with it! Let loose, and you'll be amazed at the results.
Your challenge this week is to consider the environment in which your character lives. What do they feel? What do they think? What are they able to do? If you know the answers to any of these questions, your character's reactions will make more sense, and your readers will be able to dive more deeply into your book.
Best-Selling author Ruthanne Reid has led a convention panel on world-building, taught courses on plot and character development, and was keynote speaker for The Write Practice 2021 Spring Retreat.
Author of two series with five books and fifty short stories, Ruthanne has lived in her head since childhood, when she wrote her first story about a pony princess and a genocidal snake-kingdom, using up her mom’s red typewriter ribbon.
When she isn’t reading, writing, or reading about writing, Ruthanne enjoys old cartoons with her husband and two cats, and dreams of living on an island beach far, far away.
P.S. Red is still her favorite color.