The Hunger Games arena.
The Shining’s Overlook Hotel.
There are so many examples of how, when setting is used to its fullest potential, it can take on a life and character all its own. This is especially true in fantasy and other forms of speculative fiction, but across all genres, setting can, and should, be more than just where your story takes place. Of course, it’s perfectly fine for your setting to be nothing more than a lifeless stage where your characters act out the plot you’ve carefully crafted, but it’s not going to add anything to your story, and you don’t want your story to be just perfectly fine when using the setting to your advantage could make it something truly great.
Imagine all of the mechanics of your book (the who, what, when, where, why; the tension; the conflict; the character motivations; the plot) as a chess match. Your setting could be a mere pawn—something that’s on the board and has a purpose, but that isn’t going to make as big of an impact on the game as the other pieces. Or your setting can be a much more important piece, such as a Knight or a Bishop. A game-changer instead of a mere game-player.
So, how can setting be used as a character? Let’s take a closer look at the world of Harry Potter.
J.K. Rowling could have very easily set Hogwarts, Harry’s magical school, in a normal, plain old castle. Oh sure, magic could have still been performed in its rooms, but the castle itself could have been nothing special. She could have left out the enchanting villages of Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade, and the fascinating microcosm of the Ministry of Magic, and set the entire story, from book one to book seven, in commonplace London, with nothing remarkable going on other than whatever magic Harry and his friends happened to be learning at the time. Would the story have been as successful without the magnificent worldbuilding that has inspired a series of extremely successful films, a play, and a theme park? Maybe. But it certainly wouldn’t have left as lasting of an impression. One of the reasons Harry Potter became an instant classic in modern literature is because its millions of fans felt instantly transported by Rowling’s unique and thought-out setting, making the wizarding world feel like a real place we were actually visiting every time we cracked open one of those magical Harry Potter spines.
The moving staircases of Hogwarts are just one example of character-like traits being used in the setting to impact the story. More than once, Harry and his friends ended up somewhere they didn’t mean to thanks to Hogwarts guiding their steps and subtly moving the plot forward. Even plants and trees are more than meets the eye in Rowling’s world, as evidenced by the Whomping Willow that takes out the Weasley’s flying car, and the Mandrakes that have a lethal scream. Everything in the wizarding world is alive and has the potential to impact the story. If you look at your setting as a character, as a game-changer, your book can do the same thing.
Another great example of setting being used as a character in speculative fiction would be the Overlook Hotel in Stephen King’s The Shining, although, unlike Hogwarts, which usually acted as a friend and ally to Harry Potter, the Overlook Hotel is a sleeping monster that wakes once the Torrance family comes to stay. The hotel itself acts as an enemy, slowly creeping into Jack Torrance’s mind through cabin fever, the ghosts of its past kills coming to life all around him, driving him insane. If the Overlook hadn’t been used in this way, not just as a character but as an antagonist, The Shining would be a pretty boring story about a family who stays in a hotel over the winter.
Of course, speculative fiction isn’t the only place where setting can be used as a character, impacting and affecting the plot. It can be used in contemporary stories as well, such as in a book that covers several different generations living in the same house. The house doesn’t change — it stands as a warm, friendly place, where the lives of all of these people have been imprinted on its walls. Seasons change, time moves forward, but the house remains the same, its eyes telling the story. Or maybe your contemporary novel takes place in an old high school, where the crookedness of the hallways makes for perfect hiding places for bullies and other dangers, making your setting an enemy for your main characters much like the Overlook Hotel.
Make your setting work for you. Force it to add something to the story instead of just being a lifeless canvas. After all, do you think a whole new series of films set in Rowling’s world would have been made if she hadn’t first set up a fantastic setting in the original Harry Potter books that would make people want to visit it again and again, even without Harry and his friends being a part of it? (Looking at you, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, you incredible film you). In fact, that’s probably a really great ruler for all of us to measure our settings against: Would anyone want to visit this world again, even if different characters and an entirely different story populated it?
Food for thought.