Setting in fiction

I have contemplated how setting interacts with plot and character development this week. The community where I live is in a high fire risk area, a fact that spurs a flurry of activity at this time of year for some residents. I am fascinated by weather and climate and the effect they can have one one’s psyche.

We have forums on bushfire preparation and some residents spend many hours getting their properties ready for the summer months. I imagine the attitude of those who prefer to bury their heads in the sand is not dissimilar to climate change denial. Apathy results in inaction or the problem appears too big for their brains and emotions to bare, so they deny the risk and turn away. Like a game of Russian roulette they take the chance that they will only ever face an empty cartridge – whether it’s their home or the planet – despite what the science says.

Smoking stumps

I nearly didn’t go to the community forum last night. Bushfire insurance isn’t exactly an inspired topic to spend two hours listening to, but a friend nudged me, so I dutifully went along.  And I am glad I did. It was a fascinating character study and the town revealed some interesting stories.

One woman explained the difficulties she’d had navigating an insurance claim. Some months ago her house exploded after a single lightning strike! It was a sad story but an extraordinary image. Another tale involved one resident in a neighbouring community who had taken out insurance over the phone in 2009 as they watched the flames racing toward their house on Black Saturday. They were then successful in getting the claim paid. That instance prompted insurance agencies to introduce wait periods before new insurance would activate, and people caught in the fires at Lorne in 2015 who tried the same strategy did not have the same luck.

When I read Jane Harper’s book The Lost Man I was struck by how effectively she used setting to drive plot and character development. The oppressive isolation and heat of outback Queensland enabled a sense of lawlessness to loiter throughout the novel, and locating the events in the lead up to Christmas, when family relations are often under the microscope anyway, facilitated how the story unfolded.

Setting has both a physical and chronological aspect in any tale. It contributes to mood and tone and can enhance the plot. It produces the sounds, smells, sights, touch and taste for a story. A character has feelings about a place and it creates possibilities that they must respond to. The time element can influence what options are available to a character and the choices they make.

Smoke swing

C.S. Lewis used setting as its own character in the Chronicles of Narnia. Two different worlds existed on either side of the wardrobe where time, seasons and the way people and animals behaved were different purely because of the setting. Harry Potter would not exist as he did without the wizarding world filled with magic. The settings in these novels came to life through the characters interaction with them and the emotions elicited.

What’s all this got to do with a bushfire insurance forum you may well ask? Well, I found myself sitting there among my neighbours and friends and it was a stark reminder of how setting and time interact with characters.

Before 2009 there had not been a significant fire threat near my town in over forty years. When I attended forums like this back then, there would only be a handful of people. Fire was not something most were concerned about. Residents were comfortable, complacent and protective of their stunning and peaceful setting.

After the 2009 fires thousands of people turned up at forums demanding to know who would save them if a fire came. They had suddenly realised their beautiful setting was a sleeping tiger. When it became clear fire trucks would not roll up to their doors, some went home and learnt about fire preparation and behavior. Others demanded the felling of trees and the slashing of fragile grasslands. What had yesterday been peaceful and beautiful was now hostile. As characters in our own stories, our emotional reactions were varied and intense in response to our setting.

The whole town, and those who pass through it have been disrupted every day this year whilst VicRoads widen a bridge over the river to create an extra lane and install a set of traffic lights intended to improve traffic flow and cut evacuation times if there is a bushfire. The project has been controversial because the community guards its small-town charm like a boxer at the annual heavyweight championships, and modernization is anathema to that.

Time heals many wounds and almost ten years since the 2009 fires the relationship of the characters in my town to their setting has evolved once again. We are about 8,000 residents in total and attendance at bushfire forums has dwindled again, with only about 150 attendees this week.

The bridge saga illuminates the role of collective memory and how people respond to their environment over time. The construction came about because of community outcry about emergency evacuation risks after the 2009 bushfires, but the project has been plagued by complaints about the inconvenience caused by the works and the twice daily traffic jams from one end of town to the other.

The logjam gets so bad that for the last year I have organised my days around not leaving home between certain hours unless it’s on foot or a bicycle. Judging from the community Facebook page which is full of comments, cartoons and criticisms about the project a lot of people have forgotten why it was initiated in the first place. Construction workers are subject to so much abuse by frustrated drivers, they dread coming to work here. Let’s hope that bridge delivers its promise if we ever need it.

What do you notice about how people interact with their settings over time in life? How do the characters in your current project feel about their setting? How does setting interact with the plot and character development?

Main image: A bridge too far

3 thoughts on “Setting in fiction

  1. The book I’m currently reading, Kolymsky Heights by Lionel Davidson, is a masterpiece in story setting. The majority of the novel is set in the frozen wastes of Northen Siberia and the icy landscape, which the main character has to overcome, adapt and use to his advantage, is a character in itself.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Until a few years ago it was one of those books which people only heard about through word of mouth. Then Phillip Pullman asked that it be put on his authors table at Waterstones in the UK and it subsequently reprinted with an introduction by Pullman.


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