Choosing the Perfect Setting – Part Three

Edinburgh, Scotland may seem an odd choice for a YA novel about King Arthur returning to modern day. Given that premise, London probably makes more sense or else somewhere in the English countryside where Camelot may have been located. But Edinburgh? Why there?

Because it is perfect. Here’s why:

The architecture helps visualize the themes and what the characters are going through internally.

  • While Edinburgh is a thriving modern city, most of its facades are cold stone several centuries old. Everywhere you look, the present is clashing with the past . . . and considering King Arthur is returning from some otherworldly past, this visual is appropriate: He feels this clash within himself—a man out of time. So the juxtaposing architecture reflects his inner turmoil.  Arthur isn’t the only mythical person or creature who steps foot into the modern world, so although he’s the one the story focuses on, what he feels is echoed by all of the legendary beings that pop up.
  • Additionally, Old Town is a multi-layered maze with new mysteries around every corner. There are more ghost stories and local tales of gruesome horror than any other city I know of—plenty of interesting details to help flesh out the world. There’s even a system of tunnels sealed up beneath the city—the world of the past, sealed up and forgotten, but right there, just underneath the surface. In my story, the barrier between the world of myth and our own world is weakened. Where better than a city where the barrier between past and present is already thin and, at every turn, under attack?
  • The city’s mysterious nature reflects another theme: that no one is what they seem and that everyone has a secret.
  • Edinburgh Castle sits atop a hill at the center of town, backed up to an imposing cliff. This castle was actually J.K. Rowling’s inspiration for Hogwarts. This is the perfect setting for my climax when our heroes defend the city against a siege of mythological beasts.
  • The mountain opposite the castle is called Arthur’s Seat. Legend has it that King Arthur led a battle campaign from there. Is there a better place for King Arthur to reappear than on a mountain that bears his name?

It is also true that I fell in love with Edinburgh. It is one of my three favorite cities (alongside Chicago and Wellington, New Zealand). I might say this story is my love letter to this amazing city.

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Choosing the Perfect Setting: Part Two

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?

Choose the Perfect Setting for Your Story

The perfect setting for your story is the one that helps illustrate the story’s action or theme.

Setting is a choice that you make. This is an important decision that many do not consider seriously (they just choose New York because it is a big city—not because of the architecture, history, culture, etc.).

The setting is one of the main characters in your story. Important Note: Setting is more than just the geographical location and time period in which the story takes place—it is also the emotional, religious, political, economic, and social environment of that area and period. These elements are vital to your World Building.

Try answering the following questions as you brainstorm:

  • Given the plot, characters, and themes you want in your story, what setting makes the most sense? What setting can help “visualize” those elements? What setting can intensify the drama that you want to play out?
  • Does it make sense for the story to be in a city (if so, which one?), small town, or wilderness, or an imaginary world? Why?
  • Should the story take place in the past, present, or future? What benefits and limitations exist within each of these choices?
  • What kind of cultural, religious, and socioeconomic conditions will help the story along? How can you make each of these “do the work” of telling your story?
  • Can your descriptions of the setting/background somehow help explain the theme?
  • Is the setting connected to the plot or character in some way?

I’m sure there are many other important issues to consider when deciding upon the setting, but coming up with answers to the above would be a good start.