I have to imagine that it’s a pretty poor guide who gets lost, but here I am, having found the path after a couple of months wandering afield. The explanations and excuses for this straying off the path aren’t terribly interesting, I’m afraid. I won’t belabor with details, but I thought that returning after time away might give us a chance, before we start again, to talk about why I chose to do this in the first place. To tour all the different places you can go in fantasy with an eye for those who have already been there.
It doesn’t hurt matters that I have to speak intelligently about this subject in front of people who could hurt me if I speak foolishness and lies in about a month at Arisia. Unless I misread my schedule, I am actually moderating that panel, so if I seem unusually motivated, please understand. You see, in Boston, they have these squirrels, and they fear men nor fire and they hunger for the blood of those who speak foolishness and lies at SF cons. All those bark-rending talons, all those shell-cracking teeth…
So to that end, I want to talk more directly than we have in past about settings as character, and what the hell that even means.
If you have a similar public school background to mine, you probably encountered this concept first with The Old Man and the Sea.
You might bear scars; that is unfortunate, because Hemmingway, much as he receives the appellation of overrated, much as he gets mocked, really is quite good with the language. He’s also quite good at making setting matter.
It occurs to me as I start into this topic, it’s one that finds its most common expression in the tropes of a much more unfairly maligned genre than SF&F: literary fiction assigned in grades 7-10, those books with the joy educated right out of them.
Emily Brontë rocked the moor with Wuthering Heights, and yet, the thought of going back there, or to any work by any of the three sisters, who made up fantasy kingdoms when they were kids, gives me psychosomatic reactions.
So, the short of the idea, setting as character, 400 words in – gods – is that you treat your setting, write it, describe it, and most importantly, let it act on the story like a character.
It’s not all that complicated a notion, and in fantasy, our range of tools for making that happen is a lot broader than say, what Hemingway or the Bronte sisters or Cormac McCarthy usually gets to use (there’s a man unjustly destined for the dark side of many a dreary English class).
We do use it well; you can land on the east coast of North America, just south of Canada and find yourself in Lovecraft Country (also Hawthorne Country, if you want to trace it back to “Young Goodman Brown,” and do a little magic trick: Brown met Nyarlathotep in the woods that night. The quarter is in your ear).
From there, you can pretty much follow 90 west and get to October Country.
Turn a south and back a little east, and Silver John’s Appalachia. From there you can go still south to Walt Kelly’s stomping grounds, vampire country and Bayou (a comic you should have been reading since the first time we met) or west into… Well, one day, when I am feeling really ambitious, I will try to convince you that western is a genre of fantasy, but today is not that day.
Lovecraft, Bradbury and Wellman, though, this is a trio that knows. They love the places where they write, they love their setting; go on a roadtrip of imaginary America, and you will know when you cross over the boarders from one to the other. Just look at the trees and the furtive movements within.
A setting needs to be described as a character, be memorable and to have a face.
When we went to the cities, you saw it in full glory – Mieville’s New Crobuzon, VanderMeer’s Ambergris, Lieber’s Lankhmar, Pratchet’s Ankh-Morpork; hell, Arkham, Dunwich and Kingsport – when you arrive, you know where you are, what you will see, and what horrible things are bound to happen to you (shanked by a remade, fungal infection, shanked by a believer in the Red God, shanked by someone, doesn’t matter, but Vetinari’s going to profit by it; eaten by cosmic horror, eaten by a Whately, and eaten by Pan, respectively). This is not so hard to do.
The more difficult part is to describe the setting in such a way that it seems to want something.
Every character must want, have desires and have some kind of agency, a way to work toward those desires.
Lovecraft country wants to keep its secrets until it’s too late. October country, on the other hand, wants to reveal its secrets, if your worthy, and see if you can handle what it shows.
Wellman country wants you to not trouble trouble, but knows you’re going to, because well, there’s trouble all about.
For fantasy, this sort of thing is only slightly more difficult than simply memorable description; we have a lot of little cheats we can use to make a setting want.
Someday, we’re going to tour some haunted houses (I am of the school that says horror is a genre distinct from fantasy for marketers only), and one of the easiest routes to making setting into character is to make it an appendage of a more traditional character, be it person or entity.
This is particularly true in the gothic tradition; Walpole did it with The Castle of Otranto, Stoker with Dracula, Emily’s sister Charlotte with Jane Eyre and Rochester’s house. Jereth the Goblin King controls the labyrinth (possibly through sheer force of being David Bowie).
This method is also approved by the Professor himself, since Mordor pretty much was Sauron, and from there sprang the grand tradition of load-bearing bosses (look up that last phrase on the internet and it will take you to TV Tropes and sic transit the rest of your day).
That route is easiest, but it’s not the only one to take. Consider Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows,” or Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, or even The Blair Witch Project where the setting only makes itself known as an active thing with agency and desires (to make people disappear) as a sort of aggregate of the events of the stories.
Danielewski’s house at the corner of Succoth and Ash Tree Lane or The Dionea House (dionaea-house.com) sort of straddles the line between events and entity.
No discussion of setting as character, especially in fantasy, is getting away without discussing Peake’s Gormenghast, you know, the protagonist of the trilogy, with poor Titus as nothing more than an extension, even when he flees the castle itself. Every character, every action accretes around the castle and its history like layers of a pearl.
I wanted to bring this up before we go any further, since there are a lot of fantasyscapes we get to see as we read and watch (and more and more play and interact), but a lot of those are just set dressing, just places, notable only for what the protagonist has to wear and how wet their hair is.
There are places where setting never gets beyond the lovely establishing shots of New Zealand or British Colombia or the central California desert, and setting can be much more than that.
Place can and should matter; it doesn’t need to be a full player in every story, sure; some have economies that don’t allow it, but in most stories, there’s a lot you stand to gain by spending a few words, a couple of shots, and a little thought into making place a character.
Erik Amundsen has published in Weird Tales, Fantasy Magazine, Mythic Delirium, Goblin Fruit and Cabinet de Fées. His previous Fantasyscape columns for Black Gate have covered The Bog, Crossroads, Wastelands, Dark Places, and Cities.