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Setting as a Character

One of the joys of writing second-world fantasy is the ability to create your own world. You can set up spectacular vistas, ancient empires, mysterious ruins, or whatever else you’d like without worrying about real-world geography and history. You can organize it into places that the protagonists must visit, and in doing so, highlight the places you find most fascinating, and those that you’ve put the most thought into.

Save The Planet by vladstudioSetting is important for speculative fiction in a very different way than it is in other genres. We have to create cultures from the ground up. Setting has to be immersive, which is one of the hardest parts of being a fantasy writer. Fantasy readers are often on the lookout for minor mistakes that can bring them out of their suspension of disbelief.

Getting everything right can be tricky. You have to consider language, economics, government, law, holidays, religions, food, clothing, and even culturally signified naming conventions. While you can base some of these off existing historical places, overdoing it may feel more like historical fiction than fantasy. For epic fantasy that takes place over several countries, a continent, or even a world, you need to know how all the countries are different from each other in all of the above ways, and plenty of other minor ones.

Having a large map means little if the places all have the same sorts of characters, scenery, and culture. No world is that homogeneous.

Different places need different cultures, and characters need to make sense within that culture. The con artistry of Scott Lynch’s Locke Lamora wouldn’t work in a more feudal society where people were in smaller and less permeable groups. Patrick Rothfuss’s Kvothe would have a lot less time to antagonize school rivals if he were desperately trying to survive on Arrakis.

The concepts of setting and character should be cyclical. As you examine one, facets of the other start making more sense. The more you examine the world you’ve created, the more parts of the characters will make sense. The more you think about your character and what their specific flaws and virtues are, the more you can make a society which highlights those.

Los Cuernos del Paine by Ian PlantBut there can be more to setting than a backdrop for adventure. Setting can reveal aspects of your character that cannot be revealed any other way. A setting can act as a psychological reflection of the protagonist. This should be helpful, in particular, for character-oriented writers who are less interested in the backdrop of the world.

Mountains, which must be ascended, can represent a path towards grace or faith. Mount Olympus, of course, was the home of Greek gods. Mount Sinai is where Moses communed with God. Dante’s Purgatorio has Dante climbing the mountain to reach the divine. Similar examples abound in numerous cultures.

Caverns, contrarily, often end up showing the darkness of the protagonist, and their potential to descend from hero to villain. They are representations of the underworld. Perhaps the most popular example in modern culture is Luke Skywalker’s failure in the cave on Dagobah.

Glow by DawnElaineDarkwoodOceans are often associated in ancient lore with primal creation, such as Tiamat from Babylonian myth. Rivers often represent an ever-changing nature, and also a cleansing. Water, in both forms, is often capricious but necessary for life and civilization.

These are all incredibly broad, of course. When you world-build, you might want to change these associations in the lore of your own world. You can then just as easily tie the geography into that lore instead, and that’s fine. If your characters view a river as a place of birth and death rather than a place of cleansing, then use rivers in that sense instead.

Locations come with unconscious but important thematic weight behind them. Acknowledging that and critically analyzing it can help you as a writer to think about the world you’re building. These places can be much more than set pieces for action scenes—although they can simultaneously be that as well.

These are two examples of many where the authors find ways to use the setting as a commentary on the character. If you’re a character-based writer, this can help you think of more concrete setting concepts. If you’re a writer who likes worldbuilding, thinking about this can help you find ways to make your characters more fully fleshed out. This can lead to more interesting settings, more interesting characters, and ultimately, more interesting stories.

This article was originally published on August 2, 2012.
Title image by thegryph.



  1. Avatar Dan H says:

    Love this. I think I may have to print this out and pin it up above my desk for those more difficult days when neither character nor setting want to play together. Great stuff, thanks!

  2. Avatar Khaldun says:

    “Fantasy readers are often on the lookout for minor mistakes that can bring them out of their suspension of disbelief.” World building, while difficult, is still fun and interesting. Incorporating those ideas in such a way as to not kill your reader’s suspension of disbelief is the biggest challenge.

  3. There is an old quote from science fiction, “it was raining on Regulus that morning”. Meaning the whole damned planet. As Poul Anderson always reminded his readers, planets are complete worlds, meaning mountains, plains, forests, jungles, deserts, what have you. I always like to turn to real world Geography and Geology in my world building. Deserts are deserts for a reason. In one of my fantasies I have a world of mostly desert and heavy rain. Why? Because the life has been sucked out of the land, and water is not the necessary ingredient. As far as how setting influences character, I think one of the best examples is Howard’s Conan, coming from a dour land of mountains and mists. It both formed his character and provided the reason for his wanting to leave that land and see the world. And mountains made him a mountaineer, whose ability served him well in the stories as thief and warrior.

  4. Loved this! Exotic locales are one of the things I love most about fantasy & sci-fi. And this part especially stood out to me: “A setting can act as a psychological reflection of the protagonist. This should be helpful, in particular, for character-oriented writers who are less interested in the backdrop of the world.” It helped me realize why setting is so important for me even though the nitty-gritty of world-building has never appealed to me much. Thanks!

  5. Avatar Titus says:

    This really helped Thanks.
    Can you do something about how to name your Character?

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