The Importance of Setting in a Story—and in Our Own Lives
First of all, I’d like to thank Mel and her wonderful blog for inviting me here as a guest. It is Mel’s love of books that drives this site, and I am thrilled to be a part of it.
It’s been said that if you write a story, you should carve it out of your own life experiences. That doesn’t mean every writer has to create a memoir or autobiography, but we can draw from our own experiences in the stories we write—including fantasies. J.K. Rowling never went to school at Hogwarts, never wielded a magic wand—but somewhere in her life are the experiences she drew on for characters like Harry, Hermione, Ron, Dumbledore, and a world filled with nameless conflicts.
I believe our lives are stories, with all the elements of a fictional narrative. There are characters—some major, some minor—in our own personal stories. We are each the main character, the protagonist, and our personal stories include all the ingredients of a great novel—conflicts, plots and subplots, rising action, inciting incidents, themes.
Sometimes overlooked, but so important to any story, is the setting—the time and place in which your story takes place. If you grew up in the 1990’s, that is part of what made you who you are—the music, fashion, trends, world events, and fads. Anyone from that era remember Tamagotchis, those virtual pets that somehow smoothed the way for smartphones? Or No Doubt’s “Just a Girl,” a shot against female stereotyping? If you were born in the 2000’s, you were shaped by events and trends of that more recent era. If you live in a city, your experiences are different than if you grew up in the country or the suburbs.Sometimes, characters are pulled from a “comfort zone” setting into a different setting that’s anything but comfortable. Think of Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games, who has to leave District 12 to enter the Arena; or Frodo in The Fellowship of the Ring, from the Shire to Mordor. The ultimate setting can be where the character, torn from his or her own roots, must engage in a fight to the death.
Hopefully, most of us don’t always have to put our lives at risk on a new battlefield. But we are often called to leave the comfort zones of home, family, and community to venture out into the bigger world and somehow survive, calling on the inner resources we’ve cultivated from our places of origin.
Fictional characters are intimately connected to their settings. In the recent Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens, Rey survives as a scavenger in a galactic junkyard settlement, a place much like a frontier town in the old American West. It has helped form Rey into a character who watches out for herself and can take care of things on her own. In The Hunger Games, Katniss’s life in District 12 makes her into a tough individual—one who has perhaps missed out on a few lessons in etiquette and grace, but has learned how to survive. To Katniss, life in District 12 might be difficult, but it represents home and family. When the scene shifts to the Capital, we see the contrast between her tough internal values and the easy luxuries of life among Panem’s elite.
Our origins—where we came from—travel with us on our own life’s journey. We can sometimes feel, like Katniss, that we don’t belong, don’t fit in when we leave the setting of our comfort zone. But we just have to remember that we have strengths to survive.
In my own story, Light Runner, the main character Dara is forced to flee from her home in a Southern California beach town, where her dad is in the military. She ends up in Los Angeles and Hollywood, which become the main settings for the story. Many people think of Hollywood as glamorous and magical: red carpet awards events, the Walk of Fame, celebrity homes, expensive cars. But there’s another side to Hollywood that tourists don’t often see—the gritty back streets—and that’s where Dara must survive. She’s homeless, on the run, protecting an armband that can heal wounds and that everyone wants. I felt that the fantasy element in the story resonated more powerfully when placed against the stark urban streets.
And, yes, I’ve been there in those settings, experienced them. They are a part of my own story, too, but totally fictionalized in my book so that they fit Dara’s world.
Labels: Author, Blog, blogger, Books, BookTube, Fantasy, Guest Post, library, Light Runner, Philip Brown, Reading, YA