I’ve been thinking today about what makes a setting like Hogwarts so great.
The first piece of the formula for a captivating setting is to choose a place that is familiar.
Familiarity = An Understanding Reader
Take Hogwarts, which is essentially a school.
We’ve all spent a lot of time at school, many years of our lives. School is familiar, relatable, “homey.”
Thus it makes perfect sense to set a young adult novel series in a school. Who can’t relate to being in school?
Why You Should Choose a Familiar Setting
Many writers have done this, not just J.K. Rowling.
Take the Percy Jackson series, based at an academy for demigods. Or The Perks of Being Wallflower, not a fantasy novel by any means, but set at a high school. Or even the smashingly popular podcast series, Serial, which I recently finished (what do you think: did he do it or not?), set in a high school in Baltimore.
Why do schools work as settings? Because they are familiar, and familiarity instantly allows the reader to put themselves in the shoes of the characters.
Other familiar settings, specifically from Harry Potter, include:
- The mall, i.e. Diagon Alley
- A stadium or sporting field, i.e. the Quiditch pitch
- A capital of government, i.e. the Ministry of Magic
- Home, i.e. the Burrow (certainly more than Privet Drive, right?)
Familiarity just works.
How to Take Your Setting to the Next Level
However, how do you take it to the next level and make your reader enthralled?
And that’s where the second piece of the setting formula comes in:
Familiarity + Fantasy = A Captivated Reader
J.K. Rowling doesn’t just write about a normal school. She gives us a castle haunted by friendly ghosts where the staircases move about and the paintings talk and you sleep in four poster beds in the tallest towers of the school.
Who wouldn’t want to go to that school?
Even the non-fantasy examples I mentioned earlier contain elements of fantasy. In The Perks of Being a Wallflower, the awkward and lovable Charlie goes to school with the girl of his dreams—the beautiful, older Sam—and makes friends with the popular kids and is surprisingly unstoppable in school yard fights.
That was definitely not my high school experience. How about yours?
The Setting Formula that Will Hook Your Readers
If you want to set your story somewhere that will instantly hook your readers, the formula is Familiarity + Fantasy.
You take a familiar setting, something so normative that nearly everyone has experienced it, a school, a mall, a sport, a home.
Then you twist it, adding your own fantasies about what that normal place could look lie.
Finally, you set your protagonist (and your villain!) loose in it.
Reader = Hooked.
What is your favorite setting for a story? Let us know in the comments.
Describe your fantasy school? Would it look like Hogwarts or a something closer to reality, like The Perks of Being a Walflower?