One of the things I enjoy the most about writing is the unlimited special effects budget. When you’re staring at that blank page you can, in less than a hundred keystrokes, write something that would cost Hollywood a hundred thousand dollars. In this regard, we authors have got Hollywood beat. But settings… not so much. Even the most simple locale in a movie is scouted, checked, propped, designed, lighted, and treated with the same care as any other element of the film. It’s a visual medium, they have to. Some movies go so far as to including visual cues, color cues, tonal shifts to enhance mood, thematic patterns, all in the backgrounds of their settings. Movie settings are stylized, vibrant, and alive. Authors could take a lesson from it.
I’ve heard professional authors say that “it’s all about the characters, setting doesn’t matter”. This is unfiltered bullshit. There never was, nor will there ever be, a character that exists outside of the context of setting (I know some of you will take that as a challenge to create one. Good luck.). More importantly, it’s vital to understand that characters emerge from setting. Astrophysicists don’t walk out of ancient Egypt. French peasants don’t emerge from Eskimo communities. Lovesick farmers’ daughters aren’t born into the families of Wall Street millionaires. Generally speaking, unless you’re writing something wildly genre bending, you’re gonna get Egyptians out of ancient Egypt, Bankers out of Wall Street, etc… The environment produces the characters. Sure, once they’re produced, you can move them around. Nothing wrong with your scientist getting stuck in the past and dealing with primordial dangers, but the character didn’t come from that setting. Let’s say, if in that example our scientist has a kid, and it’s raised by the scientist in a primordial world. That kid is going to be entirely different than the scientist and be shaped by the setting. Wherever the story takes you, the kid is still “kid raised in a primordial world” and will have the mark of it all over their behavior. Remember the formal Lord Greystoke from England, raised in wealth and privileged? Oh wait, someone changed his setting as a baby and you might know the guy as Tarzan. Of the apes.
So, characters walk out of their settings. Got it. But what does this have to do with Hollywood being all stylized and slick with their set pieces? Here’s the thing, those set pieces allow you to attach personality traits, beliefs, and thematic elements to your character. Once you’ve done this, you can now contrast them with any other environment they come into contact with. A character raised in a dull, grey, foggy moor is going to have a different reaction at a circus on a bright sunny day than a man who was raised near a Middle Eastern marketplace. Does the guy from the moor love the color? Find it invasive? Dislike the bustle and show and long for simplicity? Does he long to be a part of it, or see it as wasteful? This is where “It’s all about characters, setting doesn’t matter” really starts to stink, because, these sorts of things, what the character thinks and how they respond is exactly where you get to understand the character. Knowing a character is more than how they react with others, it’s how they react with their environment.
And the big beauty of this is when you apply that free special effects budget to your writing. What sort of person do you get when you have a planet full of people with constant rain and no sunlight? Or a culture with dozens of different species? Or a world where everything is clean, polished, and pain free? Or a city in the sky? In the same way as the wild west formed cowboys, and the open seas formed pirates, your fantasy and sci-fi settings should be producing new types of heroes. C’mon people! I wanna hear some stories about Bizringers and Tumbucks!
The trick is this; filter your character through your setting. Make a setting, any setting, and then think about how it would feel to live in it, how it would change you. How would it change the community, and how would that change you too. Here’s an easy one. Imagine suburbia. Easy, normal, strip malls, cookie cutter houses, etc… Now, for this setting, the main character grew up living next to a man who’d built a fifteen foot wall around his property. How would that change him? Would he be annoyed? Curious? Sick of people asking if he knew what was on the other side? Frustrated by the lack of sunlight? Glad for it blocking the morning light so he can sleep in? Did friends avoid it or come over and play wall-ball? In this example you get a community of normal kids, and one who grows up just a little different, with a strange perspective. The wall is a tool to explain them, to get into their head, later as the story progresses.
Now, if you really want to have fun, ask yourself this; what would happen if everyone lived behind a fifteen foot wall? What would those people be like?