Friday, March 7, 2014

Setting as a Character (With Examples from Divergent!)

I realized a few weeks ago that my story was lacking something. After some Nancy-Drew-esque investigation, I realized that the missing element was the setting. I had overlooked it and maybe you have too.

I was inspired to think of my setting as a character after reading this article. We all know that flat, boring characters are a big no-no, but it's not as common to think of setting in terms of flat and round. To write good stories that resonant with the reader, we need to get away from the generic forests and castles; we need to get away from flat settings.

How can we do that? By treating our settings like characters and remembering that the setting is more than just physical land, it also includes the culture.

To flesh out my setting, I started by altering a character sketch template to a setting/culture sketch template. This is what I came up with. To get the brain juice flowing I'm going to use the Dauntless area in Divergent by Veronica Roth as an example.

Physical Setting:
Place: Dauntless Headquarters
General Physical Appearance: Entrance is gained by jumping into a huge hole with a net underneath. Lots of slopping ceilings and walls made of stone. Long, dark hallways. Glass, cement, and other "cold" building materials.
Specific sub-settings: The Pit, the Chasm, the Dorms, the Dining Hall, the top of the Hancock Building, the Training Room, the Tattoo Parlor, etc. etc. You can describe each sub-setting in as much detail as you'd like or see necessary. If you'd like to see detailed sub-setting descriptions for Divergent click here.
History: Faction was formed by people who blamed cowardice and fear for the problems of society. This is  a section of dystopian Chicago. See corresponding landmarks such as the Ferris Wheel on Navy Pier.
Surrounding places and relationships:  Surrounded by the HQs for the other four factions. Neutral relationship with all. Works best when every minds their own business and keeps their distance. Take care of minding the city gate and patrolling the factionless.
Memorable/Quirky Places: The old, rusty creaking Ferris Wheel; the Chasm with the slippery, thin railing, a reminder of bravery vs. stupidity; the zip-line at the top of the Hancock building.
More qualifiers: weather/seasons, terrain, potential natural disasters, building types etc.

Cultural Setting:
Social Class(es): Ranking is determined by the number of fears you have, how long you've been around and how brave you are.
Collective Values: bravery, justice, boldness, freedom from fear/tackling fear, loyalty, thrills, control etc.
General Enjoyment: zip lining, getting tattoos, other thrill-seeking activities
General Jobs: Tattoo artist, fence guard, weapon maker, fighter, initiate trainer etc.
Food: enjoy chocolate cake, hamburgers, and other indulgent food
Common Fears: being controlled by the other factions, being "afraid" or not brave enough, not being "Dauntless" enough
Collective Weakness: can be violent and rash. They can also make dangerous decisions for the thrill.
Collective Strength: They are loyal. They are also very strong in the mind and body.
Collective Appearance: Always wearing black, skin-tight clothes. Lots of different hair colours, piercings and tattoos.
More qualifiers: education system, treatment of elderly, government, religion, etc.

If you'd like to look at the Dauntless HQ setting/culture in greater detail I'd recommend these links (Divergent Wiki, Divergent Fans, Divergent Lexicon) where I pulled most of my info for this post.

Once you have a good grasp on what your setting looks like (culturally and physically) you've got to ask yourself why it all matters. How does it effect the journey of your MC? Why is the story taking place in this setting and not somewhere else?

Let me know in the comments what you think of setting/culture. Do you have anything to add to my setting sketch template? What your tips are for creating believable settings?

Reading: Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
Listening: Josh Schott
Watching Veronica Mars


  1. I've always loved the setting from Divergent. Seeing it all fleshed out, it makes sense why it was so great. I've known for a while that I need to make my settings better, and now I'm definitely going to try morphing mine into a cohesive character. Awesome post :)

    1. I loved the setting from the get-go too, but I didn't realize just how thought out it was until I wrote this post and really looked into it. Good luck with your setting; I know how difficult it can be. Hopefully this post makes it a bit easier!

      Thanks for the lovely comment:D

  2. Firstly, thats a really cool header, secondly, this is a really good point, but you also have to be careful not to overflesh it. I've actually stopped reading a series as I was sick of reading pages and pages describing every species of fauna they were passing. Symbolism in setting is the best! Especially dystopians :)

    1. Thanks! That was a fun little header to make.

      I totally agree with you on overfleshing; it can be really draining for the reader. I always think that the author should know way more about their setting then they put in the novel. It gives the author's writing a confidence and believabilty to really know their setting, even though they don't share all the details.

      And symbolism in setting, yes please! I'm a big fan of that:)

  3. The setting in Divergent is pretty darn cool. I loved it! It was almost as good as Panem. Panem, Hogwarts and Camp Half-Blood... The S.H.I.E.L.D helicarrier, 221B Baker Street and, of course, Ponyville... Those are places I'm going to remember. Just because of the setting. Because they're almost characters. Especially Hogwarts which almost has a mind of it's own...

    1. Hogwarts is AWESOME! One of my all-time favourite settings, for sure. How can you not loving talking portraits and moving staircases? I also love Panem and 221B Baker Street.

      Thanks for commenting:)

  4. Great post! I have to admit I sometimes overlook setting as well - in contemporary, for some reason it doesn't seem as important (even though it should be).

    1. That's so true.
      I think contemporary definitely hurts in the setting department. I think it's because modern cities and schools (which makes up a lot of contemp. settings) are so common place to people. Even "normal" or "ordinary" settings need unique and interesting parts to them:)

  5. YESYESYES. I need to use this idea for my future stories!


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