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  • Writer's pictureJames Wade

Setting as a Character

Desert setting in All Things Left Wild

Characters who go through change. Characters who are anti-heroes. Characters who have redeeming qualities. Likeable characters. Funny characters. Characters who are like you and me, except more interesting.

There’s quite a bit of thought that goes into crafting characters for a story or novel, but even the most fascinating character loses their luster if the world around them isn’t believable. I don’t mean “believable” in the sense of realism versus fantasy. More like: credible. Whether it’s world-building for sci-fi and/or fantasy writers, or scene-setting for literary works, the place your characters exist and interact is just as important as the characters themselves. It helps place the time period, geographical location and, most importantly to me, the mood and tone for the story.

Most of my writing takes place in real settings at various times in history. That means in order to paint a realistic picture, I have to spend time researching locations. Fortunately, as my wife and I have been on the road for much of the past year, I’ve had the opportunity to study a variety of landscapes, first-hand. In fact, it was the desert outside of Carlsbad, NM, just beyond the Guadalupe Mountains, which inspired my debut novel All Things Left Wild.

Guadalupe Peak view of the desert floor
View of the desert floor that inspired my debut novel All Things Left Wild

I began with the setting and then developed the characters, and ultimately the story, around the unforgiving terrain. I wanted the setting to be as constant and influential to the plot as the characters themselves. I wanted to ensure the landscape and the time period were both present (literally and tonally) in every conversation or rumination, impacting the characters and their decisions.

In her novel, Big Woods, May Cobb does a phenomenal job of bringing her setting to life. She nails the pine-covered forests of East Texas, as well as the regional dialect and the very particular vibe of the 1980s, which are also a part of what makes up the setting.

Another great example of a powerful setting is the Stephen Graham Jones novel Growing Up Dead in Texas. Jones paints an unmistakable picture of his native West Texas, from the farmlands to the highways to the vast emptiness and far reaches of our great state.

In fantasy it’s easy to understand, as readers, how important Hogwarts is to Harry Potter, or why the Shire is so perfect for less-adventurous hobbits; but real settings like the Busy Bee Cafe in Buffalo, Wyoming (Longmire), Coral Gables in Florida (Solomon vs Lord), Savannah, Georgia (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil), all work to set the tone and vibe for the stories they tell.

The importance of setting is not often underrated by writers, which is why most authors place their stories in towns or regions they are familiar with. Stephen King, a native of Maine, uses the Northeast (particularly Maine) as the setting for most of his novels. Joe Lansdale, a Nacogdoches, Texas resident, rarely strays from East Texas in his work. It’s the same reason so many movies and television shows are set in L.A. or New York (that’s where the writers are).

So notice the world around, take it in, then spill it out onto the page and see if it sounds believable. If not, make up your own fantasy world and nobody will be able to tell you you’re wrong.

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