A few years ago, there was a Top Ten Tuesday topic challenging participants to talk about their favorite setting. In that post, I got specific and talked about the books I had read at the time whose specific settings I really enjoy. Today, I want to revisit that topic, but in a much more general sense. A book’s setting is so important because it helps shape the characters and drive the plot. More importantly (for me), it brings the book to life. Successful world builders construct unforgettable places and intrigue all of our senses to disappear into their creation.
There are a lot of really amazing worlds in the science fiction and fantasy books I read, and I genuinely love most of them. That said, there will always be a few places that will tug my imagination more than others. Here are my top five general settings and why I love them so much!
This may be the historian in me speaking, but a scene set among ruins will always have me intrigued. There is so much possibility in this setting. In contemporary books, ruins are the perfect place for potential lovers to either flirt or have their first kiss under a sunset. It creates a timeless feel to the moment and there are so many metaphors to be had about imagining this love spans time or that the people have been reincarnated to find one another over and over. Less so at a place like the Palace of Knossos which is very busy, but find me a tucked away corner of a less popular site and I think there’s a love story to be had.
In action and fantasy novels, ruins are wonderful places for either battle or introspection. Looking at the rise and fall of a previous empire gives perspective to mortality. They usually have a lot of nooks and crannies that are useful for characters who want to sneak up on their enemy. On the other side of things, dead ends are traps and topped columns are tripping hazards and they could lead to a close call for our protagonist. Since ruins are crumbling, there are always perils to the architecture itself, crumbling staircases and the like.
Also in fantasy and perhaps the realm of horror, ancient monsters and ghosts can be found hovering in and around ruins. These can be a chance encounter or a plot device. Ruins in both science fiction and fantasy have the possibility of hidden treasures, fallen comrades, curses and traps.
Ruins are so full of possibility. I love them.
Forests are most commonly used for travelling scenes. There’s forest hikes and the like to be had in contemporary and romance, sure. Where I really enjoy forests is in fantasy, horror, magical realism, and historical fiction. They have their place in science fiction too, depending on the subgenre.
Any scene set in a forest is full of possibility. There could be danger in the treetops. There could be wild animals. So many horror scenes involve running through a forest at night and getting lost among all the seemingly identical trees. Forests come with anticipation, whether it’s during a journey or during a flight. They also come with magic.
Forests tend to be forgotten areas. They’re the place where relics are found, where groups of people can hide, where dead bodies can be discovered if that’s your kind of books. Fledgling mages train in forests away from the eyes of those who would stop them. Teenagers in the countryside flee to the forests to hide, to escape, to find themselves. I would know – the forest was my refuge when I was younger. It still is. There is a wisdom to the trees, and a special kind of quiet. It could be that I am biased from personal experience, but I think forests are one of the best places for stories and characters to grow. Give me all the secret rebellions hiding amongst the trees like Robin Hood’s Merry Men. I am here for it.
Give me princesses climbing to the high branches to escape meddling princes. Give me strange forests of interstellar fungi that whose spores contain toxins that, when properly harvested, can kill a man of save his life. Give me young lovers escaping into the trees to meet in secret lest their parents find out.
Give me forests, please!
This may seem like a bit of a stranger setting coming from me, but hear me out. There’s a lot of possibility in farms. It comes in a few different shades. Let me introduce you to a familiar character who came from a farm. He used to muck out stables, but when i became apparent the girl he loved would only marry a rich man, he took to the high seas. It was not long before his ship was overtaken by the nefarious Dread Pirate Roberts who killed everyone except one. He’d say, “Sweet dreams, Wesley. I’ll probably kill you in the morning.” … If you’re lost, the book/movie I’m referring to is The Princess Bride and loves if you have not read this book, you must. The book is better than the movie, as unlikely as that seems. And it all started on a farm.
Farms are excellent places for an origin story. If a book starts on a farm, it means your hero is about to have the adventure of a lifetime. Buckle in and get excited.
Another great use of farms? Horror stories. Haunted farms, murders living on farms, murderers going to a secluded farm in hiding and then murdering everyone. Because of the acres and acres of land around the farmhouse, it’s a perfect place for unspeakable things. The quintessential “go ahead and scream – nobody will hear you”. So tense, so much anxiety, I love it.
All this said, both scenarios I’ve provided are very stereotypical. Excellent, but stereotypical. There’s more possibility than that on a farm. These are also places where great things can happen. Secret laboratories. Budding rebellions. Powerful wizards can live on farms, hiding from the incessant nobles who keep asking for trivial glamour spells when they should be worried about the dark magical storms brewing in the north. Farms are solitary by necessity, but all the animals, space, and quiet creates a lot of opportunity to grow.
Festivals are the calm before the storm.
Characters are always happy at festivals. They find love. They think they’ve finally succeeded at their quest. Festivals are bright and colorful and filled with hope and joy. Who doesn’t love a festival – in real life or in a book?
The appeal of festivals in books is that they serve so many purposes. In many books, festivals are the only time the protagonist gets to take a break. We get to see them lower their shields and be vulnerable. Whether that vulnerability means they are actually having fun for the first time in years, or if they let themselves fall in love, even just a little bit… it’s always an enjoyable interlude.
Festivals often serve a similar purpose to balls – a chance for the characters to blend. Balls are stiff and formal. Sure, there are pretty dresses… but festivals are just plain fun. Think of the movie Tangled – Rapunzel and Flynn shine at the lantern festival. The music is uplifting, the decor makes everything feel so special, and both of hem finally feel like then can be themselves for a moment. This is especially important for Flynn, who is so accustomed to putting up walls. If you take a moment to think about Tangled, the festival scene is probably one of the first – if not the first – scene that comes to mind. Snuggly Duckling a close second.
On the other hand, Steelstriker by Marie Lu uses festivals in a very different way. While Red and Jeran search for answers, the city around them celebrates in the annual festival. We experience Red’s mixed emotions are he remembers the joy he experienced in these festivals as a child but the disgust he feels now he knows the real meaning behind them. It’s compelling.
From a storytelling perspective, festivals are also wonderful because they speak so much of the culture of the people in the story. The way we celebrate as individuals speaks a lot to who we are – the same is true of cultures. I love me a good festival scene because I like getting swept up in all the activity, but I also appreciate the technical richness the provide.
At first glance, this probably feels redundant to festivals, but there is a very distinct difference. Comparing carnivals and festivals is like comparing Renaissance Faires to the Cirque de Soliel. Carnivals, county fairs, these things come and stay a while and you look forward to them with such anticipation. The performers are so talented, so incredible. Circuses, too, fall under this umbrella. A place where you go to be awed and amazed. A place where people go to be lied to, but delighted by it. There are so many possibilities in a carnival.
The first story I read that revolved around a carnival was Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury, and that really set the precedent for me. Carnivals amaze, but they’re also a bit creepy. A bit dangerous. I didn’t read another properly good carnivalesque book until I read The Night Circus. Full Tilt by Neal Schusterman and Daughter of the Burning City by Amanda Foody are also excellent examples. Other than these, there is a dreadful lack of books that lean on carnivals as settings and it is a shame.
I could write a whole post about The Night Circus and Something Wicked This Way Comes and how they use their carnival setting to push boundaries and betray the reader in the best way possible. Carnivals are compelling settings because they can’t be trusted. You don’t know what’s real and what isn’t. In that, there are so many options. Strings that can be pulled. When I read a book set in a carnival, I go in questioning everything. In that way, the read is so exciting! Something potentially bad could happen around every corner. It’s tense, but it’s also magical, because you don’t know what kind of joyful mysteries could be tucked in certain tents, either.
Except, of course, the mirror maze. That is always a trap – avoid at all costs.