How Settings Affect Characters
by Jason Black
Sci-fi, fantasy, and historical fiction share something in common: a strong need for a well-established setting. A well-developed setting gives readers a clear intuition about how characters will behave. Without that, readers can’t tell what makes sense for the characters to do, which ultimately ruins the reader’s suspension of disbelief.
Settings have rules that govern the characters
This is the core idea. The physical realities of a setting yield rules which dictate what is and isn’t plausible—or even possible—for the characters to do. This has broad ramifications on how the characters act and even on the way their entire society functions.
Settings may be quite outlandish, but the characters in them are still just people. They’re still driven by the same fundamental emotions, impulses, and desires as those of us who live right here on 21st century Earth. A believable character’s behavior is the result of acting under those same basic drives, but within the constraints of the setting’s rules.
When you hear people say that the setting in a book or movie is like a character in its own right, this is what they mean: that the setting has affected the choices characters make, in accordance with that setting’s rules. Characters thus have a relationship with the setting as much as they do with other characters.
How to get it right
Let’s take an example. Imagine a Mars colony, well established, with technology comparable to our own, but totally cut off from Earth--perhaps a killer asteroid eradicated the rest of humanity, leaving a scant few humans left on Mars to eke out the future of the species. How will characters with normal human drives behave in this setting?
To find out, you must do a thought experiment about life in your setting. Spend some time figuring out what the explicit and implicit rules of your setting are, and from them, deduce what makes sense for how your characters would live, what they would eat, how they would govern themselves, et cetera.
A good place to start is by making a list of how your setting differs from our real life setting. If any of your items relate to people, make them about people generally. For our colony, the differences are: Gravity is weaker. There’s barely any air or water. All you have is what you brought from Earth. Instead of seven billion people on the planet there are only 54, and they all live together.
Rules follow from those differences. Here’s one explicit rule for that setting: you won’t ever get anything new. With no more supply ships, how could you? Here’s an implicit rule that follows from this explicit rule: you must recycle everything. And I do mean everything.
Consider the mundane
On some level food, water, and shelter are boring, but you can’t skip them. Start your thought experiment with these essentials because the way a society arranges for its essentials strongly affects the shape of the society as a whole. You can learn a lot about your characters and their lives simply by working through how they’re going to eat, drink, breathe, clothe, and house themselves.
Let’s take just one essential: food. Our Mars colonists are going to have to grow their own food. Which means being fanatical about recycling “organic matter.” Food scraps, hair and fingernail clippings, and… well, let’s just say all organic matter and leave it at that. If that makes you squeamish, you with your Earth-based lives of largesse, too bad. There’s simply no room for such sentiments within this setting. Even the dust within the habitat—a rich source of flakes of dead skin cells—will be collected and put straight into the composter.
Now take it further. How does this level of mandatory recycling affect the society more broadly? That is, what happens when those basic human drives come up against this particular rule of the setting?
Let’s look at death. Here, when somebody dies we bury or cremate them. It’s part of our culture. But that doesn’t work in a Mars colony that simply can’t afford to waste the 70 or so kilos of biomass the corpse represents. So they’ll have a memorial service, and then that body’s going right into the composter just like everything else. If it makes the colonists uncomfortable to eat food grown in soil fertilized with a dead crewmate, tough. The alternative is slow starvation.
What about births? Put a bunch of humans together and it’s not long before you have more humans. Except these colonists can’t afford that either. There isn’t enough excess organic matter in their system to sustain additional people. Besides, where would you put them? It’s not like the colony’s habitat is going to have lots of extra room. How would you even clothe them? Problems abound, so no babies. Or at least no unplanned babies, no exceptions. China has its infamous one-child-per-family policy. A Mars colony might well have a one-child-per-funeral policy.
Those are some radically different social rules than we’re used to on Earth. But they’re absolutely necessary for survival within this particular setting. Think about the ramifications of those kinds of rules on how romance and marriages would work. Here, an unplanned pregnancy pretty much just affects the parents and perhaps their immediate families. There, an unplanned pregnancy affects the entire colony, and greatly raises the emotional stakes should that happen within your story.
Setting equals society
The more your setting is different from real life, the more that setting changes the way society itself operates. The more it affects what does and doesn’t make sense for your characters to do in any given situation. That’s what setting does. Maybe your novel’s setting isn’t so extreme as this example, but whatever differences it does have will shape the society in which your characters live. You must figure that out before you can create character who think and act like believable occupants of your setting.
Jason Black is a freelance book editor who actively blogs about character development. He recently appeared as a book doctor at the PNWA Summer Writers Conference. To learn more about Jason, visit his website at www.PlotToPunctuation.com