Setting As Character: How the Writer Sees It

You often hear, sometimes in GM advice but more often in writing workshops, that it’s not enough to simply have a setting; instead, the setting needs to be a character in and of itself. This is interesting advice, but why is it important? Why must the setting be a character, and how do you do it?

Image courtesy of SailorJohn from stock.xchng

The answer to the first question is straightforward: If a setting is treated as a character in its own right, it is allowed to be real, to grow and change, and in general to contribute to the story rather than being a shadow puppet screen or a cluster of cardboard props. Making the setting more real makes the rest of the piece, be it story or game, more real in turn.

How do you do it? You don’t have to take it literally. While it’s possible to create an intelligent planet, or a building with an embedded mind, that isn’t what these people are looking for. Instead, what they want is a setting that shares the traits that make a character interesting.

  • Possible to visualize. Just about everyone who works with having a setting is aware of this one: if you don’t provide a background, the reader can’t be held responsible for jumping to the wrong conclusions, and then getting shocked when, in a scene they think is in a featureless plain, someone ambushes the characters from behind a tree. A setting needs associated imagery; while doing so in all five senses is preferable, one can make do with visual, auditory and olfactory descriptions most of the time.
  • Dynamic. A setting doesn’t have to be in constant flux, but unless being still and unchanging is part of its schtick, it shouldn’t be completely static. Consider a farmhouse; it may seem set in time, with nobody really coming or leaving, but the sounds and smells will be different in spring than in autumn, people and livestock alike will be born, grow old, and die, and every now and then something from the outside world will pop in and upset the equilibrium, if only for a day or two. And where there are more people, there will be more change.
  • Capable of interaction. For a standard character, interaction includes dialogue and physical contact. A setting isn’t going to be able to shake another character’s hand or throw a tantrum, but that doesn’t mean it’s not going to be interacting with the characters and vice versa. If a ball goes through the window, the window breaks. A person walking through ankle-deep mud might lose a shoe, or at least have difficulty making headway. Setting off a riot in one part of a city likely means people locking the doors in another part.
  • Not born yesterday. Nor created, nor conceptualized, nor otherwise brought into existence that short a time ago, unless that’s part of the setting’s image. Most settings have been around, in one form or another, for quite a while, whether they’re the science hall so newly remodeled it’s still technically cordoned off or the house with the historical placard that’s been sitting on the corner for decades. That science building may look freshly built, but before it was a different configuration of rooms, and before that the site was churned up mud. The historical house might have seen only one family, or several—its plumbing may have been rearranged, its wires removed or installed. It isn’t necessary for the audience to know this backstory, but you have to, as it’s probably going to have an impact on what happens in the setting.
  • Unique. I’m not talking the 100% Unique Snowflake attribute that gets us The Last of a Lost Race characters or mysterious buildings floating in the clouds. But a setting should be at least slightly different from the archetype it may have sprung from. When I show you Esemeli’s room, it isn’t just the Standard Arcane Researcher’s Digs, it’s her room, with her preferred kind of oddly colored flames and her idea of what constitutes guest accommodations. Just give the setting a couple details that make it that particular setting, and not yet another version of the Standard Scene of This Type.

That’s how a setting can become a character. What attributes make your settings into characters?


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