The best settings influence or benefit the story.
Think of some examples from books or movies you know and love. Many could probably take place in any big city or any small town, but that means the setting isn’t a major “character” in the story. Dystopians and many other science fiction or fantasy novels treat the setting as a character and the plot usually leaps right out of it. This is certainly the case in recent popular YA Dystopians like The Maze Runner, The Hunger Games and Divergent—the setting practically is the story (though not really because the main character changes quite a bit in each one).
Pick some stories in which the setting clearly benefits the overall story is some way. Take the time to analyze why the setting matters. What makes them memorable and special?
Keep in mind that setting includes the culture, the economics, and the prevalent attitudes of the region. Consider stories like The Scarlet Letter or The Crucible in which the characters’ religious beliefs are the very thing that make the story possible. Obviously One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest could only take place in a mental institution, but Kesey portrayed the asylum (and the nurse who ran it) in a particular way that clearly set up his plot and themes of individualism VS conformity, power abuse, etc.
A Streetcar Named Desire, my favorite play, could have happened in any major city of its time, but the fact that the Kowalskis choose to live in the French Quarter tells us a lot about Stanley and it is a sharp contrast to the plantation lifestyle to which the DuBois are accustomed.
My mind immediately leaps to Gotham City. While there are many incarnations of it, the city usually seems aptly named. That is to say, it is a dark and spooky metropolis—the kind of place that could give rise to a man who dresses like a bat, a psychopathic clown, a crocodile man living in the sewers, and many other scarred individuals with a penchant for mayhem.
Similarly, the city in David Fincher’s film Seven is unrelentingly bleak. It is home to murder and all sorts of moral depravity. While the city is filled with dull, dark colors, rain, and misery, the library (with its bright green lights and classical music) seems like a refuge for our great literary heritage. Unfortunately, we see that the library is empty . . . which ultimately magnifies the drudgery of the city.
On a happier note, check out the film Pleasantville which has two modern teenagers transported into a 1950s television show where everything is always innocent and happy. In this case, the setting changes as the characters within it change. It’s an interesting film worth watching.
What are settings do you find memorable and powerful? What makes them so?