When Setting Becomes a Character

Santorini

For those of you in the market for indispensable elements of mystery writing, you’ve come to the right place. As I see it, a mystery is composed of six indispensable elements: characters, dialog, plot, point of view, setting, and tension. Please notice that I listed them in alphabetical order. After all, one must tend fairly to each one if you wish them to play nicely together.

Don’t misunderstand me, we certainly can have favorites, indeed it’s only natural to have them. My own preference among the six elements should be obvious from the titles of my novels—each of them take place in a different part of Greece.

Character status

Frankly, setting plays such a significant role in my work that I think of it as attaining character status—character being that sibling element of setting I personally regard as a novel’s primary driving force.

For some authors, though, setting is of little concern beyond serving as a generic venue for telling the story. For them, a particular location doesn’t matter as long as it’s a city of a certain size, a farm, an ocean, a manor house, or a boxcar. They just need a backdrop for whatever else they have in mind to create, and that’s fine.

But no matter the level of importance you attach to setting, always bear in mind that nothing turns off a reader’s faith in an author more quickly than a story setting Chicago on the Atlantic Ocean, Charlottesville in North Carolina, Pittsburgh on the Mississippi, or Greece west of Italy. Research your locations, if not in person or through individuals, at least verify your observations online and make sure you can confirm that your setting is realistic and accurate.

Hot button issues

A word of caution: In turning setting into prominence, an author at times confronts hot button issues related to that choice of place—e.g., societal, cultural, environmental. These issues are extraordinarily tempting to address, but serious thought should be given to whether allowing them to insinuate themselves into prominence benefits your work. Make sure that the issue and any advocacy on its behalf benefits your story; otherwise, avoid it.

After all, setting is about enhancing what you want to say, not distracting from it.