A few years ago a bunch of us went to see District 9. For those of you unfamiliar with the story, it's about a ship full of aliens that are space-wrecked on Earth and have spent the last twenty years living in a controlled area called District 9. Although they never say anything to support it, I got the impression it was a darker take on the old movie, Alien Nation (one of my faves). A good example of how readers/viewers bring their own experiences to a story actually, as I made assumptions about things in the movies based on this connection. Things that bothered my husband about it didn't bother me because I assumed XYZ and he didn't.
I wasn't sure if I liked District 9, but I found myself appreciating the movie more for what it did than what is was. I didn't come out thinking. "Wow, what a great movie," but "Wow, they did some really interesting things."
One of the things I found the most interesting about this movie was the choice of setting. The alien ship could have settled over any city, but they (the writers) chose Johannesburg, South Africa. I think that the events depicted in the film would not have happened the same way had this been set in, say, LA or Tuscon or London. The setting brought a cultural history to the problem that made it very believable for things to have happened as they did. In this case, it wasn't an issue of race, but of species. Since South Africa has a history with racial strife and apartheid, attitudes toward the aliens were strongly affected by that past. What happened in the movie fits very well with the history of the setting.
We all know what happens in a story is important, but where it happens has a profound effect on the characters and their views on things (or at least it should). If your setting doesn't add something to the mix, you might be wasting a great opportunity to deepen your story or layer in more conflicts.
Setting plays a big role in The Shifter. Many of the problems Nya faces are directly related to the fact that her city is under enemy occupation. Her attitude about nearly everything is colored by this fact and her experiences with this. Were I to move the setting, the book would be pretty boring. The layers of conflict and meaning just wouldn't be there anymore. And those layers are critical to the story.
If you're working on a story right now that isn't quite working and you don't know why, try taking a look at the setting. Or even if the story is working, but you feel it just doesn't have that oompf it needs to really stand out. Ask yourself, does the setting...
- Offer inherent conflicts that make the protag's job harder, but don't relate specifically to plot?
- Offer a history that creates a deeper thematic meaning?
- Allow you to make a point you couldn't otherwise make?
- Provide a challenge you couldn't otherwise have?
- Pull its own weight as far as the story is concerned, or just sit there looking pretty?
How does your setting affect your story? What does it bring to the tale?
More articles on setting:
Using setting to help build your world
Maintaining your setting
Using setting to raise the tension