The Setting As A Character

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A trope I am seeing in YA recently, and I may be wrong, but from looking at the popular titles on Amazon recently, I’m seeing a trend of stories set in a medieval magical setting. Their stories may be intriguing, and their characters in-depth and fascinating, but the settings are a simple backdrop that has been repurposed from a hundred other stories before. With swords and shields and queens and kings and dashing enemies who tempt the princesses.

A fellow writer came to me with advice on their story. Although their writing is strong and their ideas truly unique, it falls flat against a setting that is two-dimensional. If this feels like you as well, I would recommend thinking of the setting as another character.

When we learn about writing, we read that we shouldn’t make Mary Sue characters, but no one warns us away from Mary Sue settings. When I imagine some of the more wildly popular series that I’ve fallen in love with, they all have pretty unique backgrounds. Harry Potter has Hogwarts. The Hunger Games has the districts and the Capital. The Abhorsen Series has the Wall. There’e Narnia too. And the His Dark Materials has a unique take on Oxford.

The same thing can be applied to magic systems if you are writing fantasy. It doesn’t have to be overly complicated or go into intricate rules either. You just need a unique concept with easy-to-follow guidelines. Harry Potter has magic wands and forbidden curses. Percy Jackson has magic that comes from being the children of gods. Avatar: The Last Airbender pulls from the four elements and sets them apart as different countries. Add your unique twist on something. Don’t be derivative. Be creative. That’s what writers do.

For a deeper look at how settings can be more than backdrops in cinema, watch the following video. Then try to apply some of the ideas to your writing.