SettingThe role of setting is another appeal characteristic that I take directly from Nancy Pearl’s schema. It is a characteristic of a story that is—in the vast majority of cases—immediately obvious and which requires little explanation or unpacking. Simply, setting is where in space and when in time the events of the story occur.
I know that I have strong biases towards certain settings and against others, and I believe that most other people do too. It would surprise me to discover somebody who would be universally embracing of any and every setting for a tale, but perhaps this is just me over-generalising my own experience.
For a start, I admit that I have a strong positive bias for imaginary worlds, so, for example, a storyteller who says:
‘Let me tell you a story set on an Earth starship in the 27th century.’or
‘Let me tell you a story set in the Elven kingdom, in the waning years of the Age of Arlûthtan.’or
‘Let me tell you a story set in contemporary New Orleans in an alternate universe where the Confederacy had been successful in its bid to secede from the United States.’or
‘Let me tell you a story set in a separate physical dimension—at a time unknowable and irrelevant—inhabited only by sapient flashes of light who communicate by casting three-dimensional shadows at each other’
already has my attention in a way that a storyteller who offers:
‘Let me tell you a story set in the Seattle of today.’does not yet. This latter storyteller is going to have to find a more compelling hook to engage my interest, when I'm already listening attentively to the others.
For me, the appeal in an imagined world is often the degree of ingenuity and detail that has gone into the world-building. I find tremendous pleasure and delight in this aspect of speculative fiction, and stories told in the real world, past or present have nothing to offer me in direct competition.
Secondly, I admit that I find some real-world historical settings prima facie more appealing than others (and more appealing than contemporary settings). So again, for example, if the offer is:
‘Let me tell you a story set in Thebes during the Middle Kingdom.’or
‘Let me tell you a story set in Jerusalem in the 11th century.’or
‘Let me tell you a story set in London in the 16th century.’or
‘Let me tell you a story set on a French frigate in the 18th century.’I’m already more interested than in an offer of a tale set just about anywhere in the world today.
For me, the appeal of a historical setting is in its attention to detail and as a springboard for further exploration and learning. I value the novel or film that can transport me to a bygone time and place in which I have an interest, most especially if I come away knowing more than I did when I started. History lessons in fictional form are part of the great appeal of George Macdonald Fraser’s Flashman novels for me; I love fact-checking these as I read, and frequently learning that the full truth of an event or historical figure is even stranger than fiction.
Lastly, I’ll freely admit that familiarity breeds my contempt. This was driven home to me many years ago while watching and enjoying a caper movie from Argentina, Nueve Reinas (‘Nine Queens’). At some point in the course of the film, I thought to myself,
I’m sure if this exact same story were told in an English-language American film set in New York instead of a Spanish-language Argentine film set in Buenos Aires, I’d have lost interest by now.I could attribute some part of that reaction to other aesthetic preferences that I know I have (for example, a far greater reliance on non-diegetic music in most American film compared to films from most other places in the world). But mostly, I admit that the preference is rooted in the opportunity to experience something unfamiliar or even completely new.
Just as with historical settings, when it comes to contemporary real-world settings, I find that I really enjoy learning a little about a place about which I knew little previously; and if this learning happens via a film or TV show, I like to see foreign sights and hear languages that are not part of my everyday experience. Even a setting as basically unappealing to me as (near-)contemporary New York can become interesting to me if viewed through the lens of a culture that is not my own, for example, in the novels of Chaim Potok.
Taken all together, I realise that my preference is essentially for stories set in worlds (real or imagined) as far from my own as possible. I’m happy to accept labels of escapism or even exoticism to describe this real preference that I know I have.
Setting as a filter
One of the possible ways that setting interacts with narrative is to filter the types of stories and types of characters that are likely to be presented. When I take up that offer to read or watch that tale set on an 18th-century frigate, I already come primed with a set of expectations. I feel confident that as long as everything else is handled at least reasonably competently, I’m probably going to enjoy this story. An offer of a tale told in contemporary Glasgow isn’t ripe with the same promise for me; I am less certain of what I am getting myself into.
Of course, this also leaves me vulnerable to bait-and-switch, something I find particularly common in science fiction. It’s all too easy to find purportedly science-fiction tales that are nothing but mindless action stories with ray guns in place of Uzis and hover sleds in place of getaway cars. JJ Abrams’ Star Trek effort in 2009 stands out to me as a particularly atrocious example of this.
On the other hand, some tales translate easily between settings. This premise:
The protagonist has to make a decision whether to honour a promise made to a powerful superior and thereby injure a member of their own family; or protect their family member, defy their superior, and face the consequences.translates equally easily to Imperial Rome, Mediæval England, Tokugawa Japan, Prohibition-era Chicago, Nazi-occupied Europe, folks dealing drugs in the western suburbs of contemporary Sydney, and to any number of completely imagined worlds—anywhere with a feudal-like power structure.
A litmus test to gauge how important the setting of a particular tale is to me might be to imagine (or see!) that tale translated to another setting. All else being equal, I’d be much more interested in seeing the scenario above played out in any of the pre-20th century settings I named, or in an imagined world.
Similarly, I have no trouble with The Tempest reincarnated as Forbidden Planet. So it seems that I’m not especially protective of the Elizabethan setting of my favourite of Shakespeare’s plays, at least when one setting I like is replaced with another setting that I like.
However, to see Sherlock Holmes lifted from his home in the late 1800s London (a setting I like very much) and deposited in early 21st century London (a setting that doesn’t appeal to me) in Sherlock left me cold. A large part of the charm had evaporated from the story for me, and while the show was unquestionably well made, I turned off ‘A Study in Pink’ half-way through, profoundly disappointed.
Setting as everything
Finally, setting is sometimes absolutely intrinsic to the tale in a way that makes relocating it impossible. Flatland springs immediately to mind; if the setting doesn’t intrigue you, there’s really nothing else here. The story stands and falls on that alone. But it’s far more common that a personally appealing setting will only be one ingredient in anyone’s enjoyment of a story.
What settings bias you for or against a book, film, or TV series?
Next week, I’ll discuss the appeal of plot.