The Importance of Setting

I like my narratives like I like my travel adventures: substantial with a beautiful setting and a host of complex, colorful characters.

Growing up as a bibliophile. I adored Austen and the Bronte sisters for their descriptive passages that made less literary-inclined peers groan in boredom. I wanted to know the characters – their motivations, their relationships, their favorite people, places, and things. The entire pleasure of the tale hinged for me on how the characters felt and what decisions they made. While this is most true of novels, it is also true of TV series, movies, and real-world individuals. Without strong character development, what’s the point?

Lately I’ve been hit with the startling realization that setting can give just as much, if not more, to a narrative. This comes not from my tower of books (as quite honestly my fiction stack has been virtually non-existent for the past two-three years), but rather from my experience traveling and also working with people in educational and social service settings. I have studied how context affects personal outcomes, how one’s geographical and cultural context determines one’s opportunities, relationships, conflicts, and motivations.

It is likely that this shift for me comes from understanding the further complexity of what “setting” is. In school, we are taught that the setting is the place and time that a story happens. My current setting? Central California, October, 2012. Therein lies a masterful summary of my current time and place, and yet it glosses over so much. It hides the fact that I am here because of my family, that I am trying to find my place in this community, that I worry about what will happen if I stay (or if I move), and it doesn’t even begin to describe what my way of life is here in our Central Valley culture that is likely much more similar to other agrarian-based areas than any other part of California. My story is still unfolding and I’m curious to see what happens. I know that my setting currently has a huge influence on my character development, and that it determines what other kinds of characters I will meet. If and when the setting changes, so will I.

What do you think is the most important part of a narrative? Is it the setting, characters, point of view, writing style,  plot, conflict, resolution, emotions? In real life or in a fictional world, what makes something worth engaging in for you?