The Third Character: A (Very) Rough Guide to Settings

You may already have heard it said that all drama boils down to one situation: two people and the conflict between them. Protagonist, antagonist – nice and simple. Except it isn’t.

Because that statement just isn’t true.

It isn’t true because drama doesn’t involve just two characters. It involves three: protagonist, antagonist and…

…the room they are standing in.

Setting, in other words, is the often forgotten third character in any drama. Having your good guy and your bad guy slug it out is important. Creating three acts for them to slug it out through is also important. But giving them the right place to do the slugging is equally as important (some would say even more so) than both of these. Choose the right setting for your drama and it will do at least half the work for you. Choose the wrong setting and you will find yourself struggling against impossible odds, which is what your protagonist is supposed to do, not you. But picking the right setting is tricky when there are so many possibilities. A city? A beach? A deep dark forest? Which of these will speak to your fiction like a mouth to a moist, hot ear? Here is my own, highly personal, view of the ‘character’ of some of the most commonly used settings and the type of fiction they might inspire or complement.

Manmade: cities, villages, hotels

Unless your epic is wholly set in a place cut off from the rest of humanity (in which case go directly to Isolation) some kind of settlement is almost bound to feature. These range in size from megapolis to a couple of huts on a beach, but what they all have in common is a sense of community. This is where people gather – and where people gather, fiction happens.

The one thing to remember about cities in terms of setting is that they are centers of power. Even if you’re creating a whole world (think Game of Thrones for a classic example) the cities are going to be where the nobility live with the hierarchy of might diminishing with the size of the settlement. Villages are not the setting to choose for dynamic stories of power play; the stakes here are inevitably low and the dramas small scale. Cities are where the action is – they have dynamism, a wide choice of locales for your situations and are also inextricably linked with interesting technology.  Because of their high population counts, cities are excellent settings for various types of disasters, from zombie apocalypse to environmental meltdown. Which isn’t to say towns and villages don’t have their uses. A close knit population can be stifling as well as supportive, so if your tale depends on the psychology of small groups, then a village might be the perfect spot. They also hide secrets and are hostile to outsiders. They can be full of pent up emotion, waiting to explode into horrific violence. From a romantic point of view, cities can be lonely places, full of broken hearts and missed opportunities. They also offer a thousand ways for two ideally suited people not to meet, which is the motor that drives all romance. But if your tale is about the truly weird, then set it in a hotel or boarding house. The combination of permanence and transience suits these places perfectly to anything off kilter, from horror to science fiction to crime.

The iconic books:

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, The Miss Marple Mysteries by Agatha Christie (for an acute view of murderous tendencies in small communities), Hotel World by Ali Smith.

Isolation: islands, boats, prisons

But if a village isn’t a restricted enough canvas for you, why not think even smaller? Islands are the ultimate in enclosed locations, and whether your characters end up there by choice, or are the victims of shipwreck, putting them on an island restricts their choices about how to behave in new and interesting ways. The challenge might be how to survive or it might just be how to get along with each other without committing murder, or it might allow your captives some time to reflect on their past if the drama comes from change within rather than without. Ships (both terrestrial and non-terrestrial) make the island portable, which not only adds a dynamic element, it gives the story purpose. Your characters are in transit, but doing it in an enclosed and inescapable environment. There’s a strong element of danger associated with voyages at sea or in space – one wrong move and you could end up overboard – and also a quality of the epic and heroic. In which respect prisons are almost the polar opposite of the ship. Prisons are backwaters. They’re also about isolation, but not of the character-building kind. People in prisons rot and fester and molder as the world carries on without them and they think of only one thing: escape. Prisons are built for desperation not heroism, although occasionally you might get a touch of the latter if someone particularly saint like ends up in one.  Prisons are like mountains – men fling themselves at them and either die or survive in the process. It’s up to you to choose which.

The iconic books:

The Island of Dr Moreau by H G Wells, Moby Dick by Herman Melville, The House of the Dead by Theodore Dostoyevsky

Nature: forests, deserts, mountains

You would think the natural world would be a natural setting for fiction, but it’s far less popular than the urban environment. But then most of us live in towns, so using a setting which is non-urban makes a statement that the choice is deliberate. Almost every type of habitat – from jungle to swamp – has been used as a setting, but some crop up over and over again and carry with them meanings that the canny writer can exploit.

Forests are for concealment. Forests, like seas, contain the alien, the strange and the dangerous. Forests are atavistic – harking back to our origins. Use forests when you want your characters to struggle to remain human, or to struggle with things that are not human. Bodies are buried in forests, small children encounter candy houses with ovens set to high when wandering in the woods. If a forest isn’t the setting for something sneaky, the message is environmental. Trees symbolize the good Earth – protagonists want to hug them, antagonists want to cut them down. And once the trees are gone, what you are left with is desert. Deserts are mystical, places of dreams and (along with jungles) animals that talk. Deserts are where you get lost, sometimes permanently, and inevitably find yourself. Deserts are also erotic – all that sand and heat evokes a sense of the physical – deserts are a place to get naked, to be purified and soiled both at the same time. Mountains also symbolize purity, but not the virginal kind. Mountains are all about challenge, physical and mental. Scaling heights has a psychological and emotional import which plays to characters who have hit rock bottom or who are fighting inner demons. Ascent also has a religious or spiritual aspect: the higher you climb, the closer you are to spiritual fulfillment and therefore the closer to fulfilling your arc as a character. Books about mountains start at the bottom and end at the top, tracing the natural arc of the three act structure. As for coming down, that can be a coda, but unless you’re writing the fictional version of Touching the Void it can’t form the culmination.

The Iconic Books:

Into the Forest by Jean Hegland, The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles, Freedom Climbers by Bernadette McDonald

Freudian Symbols: roads, seas, towers

Symbolism is what makes literature not so much tick as quiver with repressed hysteria. Symbols are a short cut to our collective unconscious, a code your reader can crack without even realizing they’re doing it. Whatever you think of psychoanalysis as a technique, Freud was onto something when he identified dream imagery as meaning more than we might think. Jung took the idea one step further and argued that such symbols aren’t just a shorthand for eroticism, but can capture other aspects of human experience, also extending symbolism from dreams to art and writing.

Roads are perennial favorites as a choice for a symbolic setting. Roads imply journeys, tying in with the protagonist’s inner voyage, or arc. If hopelessness and futility is the message, the road can lead nowhere. If your story is of a more optimistic bent, then a road could lead to salvation or at least a decent hot meal. Roads allow characters to meet people along the way; they can also be the road not taken and imply regret and missed opportunities. Sometimes the presence of a road can highlight a character’s desire for escape, as others pass by and they can only stand and wait. But if roads are made to be traveled, seas, as Robert Frost pointed out, are made to be watched. Seas symbolize inner turmoil and hidden depths. Seas are the implacable judges of our character. Monsters lurk within them, ready to swallow us up, like Laocoön and his children, should we offend the gods. Seas are a primal force, ungovernable and powerful. Characters are humbled by the sea, made aware of their own frailty. Unlike mountains, that other symbol of might, seas cannot be conquered. You can’t climb water; you can only learn to accept its terms or drown. Towers have a fairytale heritage to draw on. Put a female character in a tower and she’s Rapunzel, unwilling virgin looking for romance. Towers are isolating, like islands and boats, but they’re also symbols of potency (Freud again). Towers, of all manmade structures, are the most observant. Towers watch from a distance and once inside them, your characters may find them difficult to escape.

The Iconic Books:

On the Road by Jack Kerouac, The Sea by John Banville, Dark Tower series by Stephen King.

Social experiments: planets, islands (again), the future and the past

But the hardest settings to escape are the ones in deepest space. Scifi writers often explain their choice of genre as an enthusiasm for creating other worlds. Flora, fauna and technology are part of this, but the deepest attraction of a whole new planet isn’t the furniture, it’s the vast social experiments that you can perform with them. Religion, culture, knowledge: everything is up for grabs. If you’ve ever wondered how the world would be if governed by intelligent cacti, then a new planet gives you the chance to try that idea out. Or if you want to see how children behave when deprived of the guiding hand of adults, then an island is the setting to consider. Islands allow not only for isolation, but for groups of disparate people to be forced to cooperate. Whole new social structures can develop, or cultural roots can be examined as your characters build a life together. The past also offers opportunities to play with. Historical fiction might require a high degree of accuracy, but it also allows you to explore what is constant and what changes about human nature. Take a reader back to the Middle Ages and you can show how what people believed then affected the way they saw the world, or equally you can show that some things (love, hatred, the desire for cool clothes) remain constant over time. The future offers the same scope, with knobs on. Like other worlds, the future is an arena for asking all the ‘what if?’ questions your heart desires. What if women were in charge? What if a virus made us all twice as smart but half as tall? What if we discovered the secret of immortality but it made us limbless? With the future, the only limit really is your imagination.

The Iconic Books:

Foundation by Isaac Asimov, Lord of the Flies by William Golding, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel , Neuromancer by William Gibson.

And like I said at the beginning, this is a highly personal list. What have I missed? What am I wrong about? Now’s your chance to tell me….

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WesFord's picture
WesFord from America (CO, NE, NC, AK, NY, WA) is reading We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, Portable Atheist by Hitchens, 20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill May 18, 2012 - 4:32am

This article is interesting. I felt kind of like I was reading a horrorscope. Except, instead of "time of birth" it was "location, location, location" that determined how a story was to turn out. It's something I haven't thought about on some stories, but definitely has me reflecting upon them now.

Kudos Cath, kudos.

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading a lot more during the quarantine May 18, 2012 - 8:41am

Great stuff, Cath. For a lot of writers, this is probably intuitive, but it can be really helpful to stop and think about it.

anshuman.s's picture
anshuman.s from Mumbai, India is reading The Dark Half by Stephen King May 18, 2012 - 10:02am

Lovely work Cath. I enjoyed imagining all the settings and related to some of my favourite books. Particularly, I was reminded of 'A Confederacy of Dunces' by John K Toole and the novella "Rita Hayworth & Shawshank Redemption' by Stephen King. However, what if there is a character among plethora of charcaters living in an alternate setting while his / her physical existence is fenced off in a real setting, I choose for my plot. Any ideas or books that has alternate setting playing out parallel? Thanks in advance. :) 

Calkutta Jackson's picture
Calkutta Jackson May 18, 2012 - 3:53pm

Dammed' good article...forgotten importance...where the setting is jus as important as the 'bodies'...very well written and beyond important in relevance...10.points.



Bill Soldan's picture
Bill Soldan from Youngstown, OH is reading Clive Barker's Books of Blood August 8, 2012 - 8:03am

I absolutely agree with most of your sentiments on the various settings.  The only one that I think is a little inaccurate is the one about prisons.  You imply that people in prison stay the same while the world changes, but I believe prison is a place of great transformation (for better or worse).  I do agree that the world carries on while those imprisoned tend to stagnate, but to say they just fester and remain unchanged just isn't true.  Prison can be a setting for revelation and growth, evolution and devolution.  In most cases a psychological angle would likey be the most apt, but I wouldn't rule out the possibility for other facets of the human condition to unfold or be crushed into oblivion, either.  Just look at The Shawshank Redemption; Red goes from a man who'd resigned himself to his position, accepting that he was going to rot in prison (or go back because he'd become institutionalized), but Andy not only ignites his spirit and encourages him not to lose hope that there was still a life beyond those walls, a life worth keeping hold of, but he provides an opportunity for a genuine friendship in the unlikliest of places.  This is of course just an obvious, mainstream example, but nonetheless one that emphasizes my point.

All I'm saying is there's more to the prison setting than just decay and resignation.

But you did hit the nail on the head with your views on the rest of these settings.  Obviously it wasn't an exhaustive list (in terms of which genre/concept is best suited to which type of setting.  You could no doubt write much more on the topic), but very thorough, covering all the common settings and providing thoughtful and relevant examples for each one.

I enjoyed this essay very much and will definitely consult it when deciding where to set my stories in the future.  Thanks for sharing with those of us who are still at the base of the mountain!