Tropes: We Need to Talk About Setting

So lately, I’ve been reading a lot of books where setting is important and relevant to the tone of the story. Or wait, let’s revise that: in almost every young adult book I’ve read this year (maybe ever), setting has been important, whether it’s a real-world place, a fictional town, a fantasy world, or a dystopian future spaceship.  And while setting isn’t always the make-or-break aspect of a book,* when the portrayal of the setting falls on its face, the writing is on the wall for the novels I’ve been reading. So let’s talk about that.

*A great sense of setting doesn’t redeem a novel that’s messy otherwise. Here’s a moment of rare praise for the Twilight saga: Forks, Washington feels very real in those books. But there’s your proof; Forks’ portrayal doesn’t rescue the rest of the writing. (Nor does the intriguing dystopian LA rescue Legend, if we stop to not pick on Stephenie Meyer for a minute. And so on.)

(This might apply to all books, too, but for the sake of this post I’m going to use young adult examples, so we’ll go from there.)

My most recent read (#100 of the year, if you’re curious) was Anna Dressed in Blood, a book I was interested in picking up because it’s set in Thunder Bay, Ontario. I have not actually been to Thunder Bay, Ontario, but I know a lot about it through friends, work, and just from growing up elsewhere in Northern Ontario—a place that doesn’t turn up very often in books.

But then, place became one of the reasons why Anna Dressed in Blood fell flat for me. (Not that there weren’t plenty; it’s kind of messy.) Thunder Bay is introduced as if it were a character in the novel, a new setting full of dark secrets that the ghost-hunting protagonist has to adjust to and conquer. But other than one description of Lake Superior, a nearby waterfall, and some old houses (and a joke about Canadians being pale, which…meh), this book really felt as if it could’ve taken place anywhere. I feel like it started with the intention of using the setting to create a tone for the story, then just kind of…forgot. And it’s very possible the author did research into local legends for the story! But because none of that storytelling had much to do with where it took place, the particularity of the setting evaporated. Which really made it feel even more like a ripoff of Supernatural, the show that uses Vancouver to stand in for every setting across the entire US.

Granted, it’s easier to be hard on books with settings that you know more about. I have absolutely no idea if Rainbow Rowell’s Omaha reads as accurate; I know nothing about the place and I’ve never been there. Even if I had, the sense of place that you get as a tourist is always different than the sense of place you may have gotten living in an area—which is probably a very good argument for “write what you know,” particularly if you’re writing about characters who aren’t new to a place.

But even characters new to a place can relate to a setting in ways that come off as disingenuous or just plain boring. I was really enjoying David Levithan for a while there (especially Two Boys Kissing) and then I picked up Are We There Yet?, because not too long ago, like the brothers in the book, I went on a trip to Italy with a family member. But the sense of the cities they visited in Italy was weirdly boring, because their relation to place was almost entirely communicated through tourist landmarks and obvious observations. The premise of the novel is for the brothers to use their trip through central Italy as a springboard to reconnect, but it doesn’t feel as if the specific place actually has much to do with that until the end. And, despite the fact that the book mentions some fabulous meals they have, it doesn’t describe them with any detail, which makes it feel as if the point of the place is missed entirely. (Is it typical to associate Italy with food? Yes. But food matters in this case, okay.)

So thus far, I have issues with two ways I’ve seen setting play out: invoking it without really depicting it, and describing it on the surface without connecting it to storytelling.

So how does anyone write around this? What’s a good use of place? Well, there’s a few options, the way I see it. The first is to not really discuss it at all. You know how a lot of books and television shows treat small towns in the American Midwest as interchangeable? That’s a place you can occupy as a writer if it doesn’t much matter where your characters are from (or they’re telling the story as if it’s a secret, Animorphs-style). It’s not necessarily fun to be generic, but it’s inoffensive. Place in another one of David Levithan’s novels, Every Day, functions this way; the character wakes up in a different body (and often a different town) every day, and doesn’t spend much time talking about the particularities of those settings. They have high schools, coffee shops, movie theatres, book stores. If you have what you need to tell the story, go for it—setting’s just not going to be a point of interest.

The second option is to create a fictional space. This is obviously necessary in a lot of genres (fantasy, some sci-fi), but it works just as well in a pseudo-real world. The best way to ground this is to relate it to a space in reality, but imbue the setting with particular characteristics that work for a story. Jandy Nelson’s Northern Californian town in I’ll Give You the Sun uses the ocean, the sky, the trees, the culture of the people in particular ways derived from that area, but by not placing itself, it diverts criticism about any inaccuracies in its particulars. Maggie Stiefvater’s Mercy Falls in Shiver, Linger, and Forever functions similarly, but in Minnesota with werewolves. Same with Rosemary Clement-Moore’s Texas Gothic with ghosts and witches.

Dystopias can do this, too. Veronica Roth’s dystopian Chicago in Divergent swipes the urban sprawl it needs and conveys its broken-future mood through the busting up of current landmarks. Suzanne Collins’ districts in The Hunger Games trilogy relate loosely to real spaces and borrow their character, while her arenas have particular biomes, mechanics, and atmospheres.

(When writing a fantasy world or sci-fi that’s far-flung in the future or not on our planet, then really I think “just go ham” is decent advice. I mean, borrowing elements from real human history and places is great and provides a lot of grounding. But I don’t think that should restrict anyone.)

The last option is to just use a real place, and this can be the trickiest one. Naming a real place gives a weight to setting that using vague spaces or a fictional setting doesn’t. Not only does it call into question accuracy and logistics, it calls upon the author to convey the feeling of a real thing that people already have opinions about.

Which makes that sound impossible, but actually, some real places are easy; like favourite characters, they’re well-established, and we can either roll with their clichés (New York! the city that never sleeps! the place kids grow up too quickly! anything can happen!) or do something a little different (here’s a kid from the suburbs who in fact is pretty innocent and leads a boring life, until…) and no one will find either out of place. (Ha.) Just saying New York, New York invokes a set of feelings, of myths, of a stream of references and landmarks. Some places contain multitudes because they’ve been so used. And some places contain multitudes just because they differ so much within themselves. (Yeah, I still mean New York, in all cases. What a place. I mean, I still wouldn’t advise using it without knowing anything about it, but it sure is a versatile setting.)

If the place isn’t necessarily easy but you’re also maybe not intimate with it, you can still do well by linking the details you do have to your plot—and avoiding writing characters who know the place intimately. For all I know, the Amsterdam in John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars is very surface in terms of its description, but because he connects it tangibly to the development of the relationship between the main characters—and he describes the food—I’ve never taken issue with that use of place. It’s also helpful not to stereotype. Amsterdam’s stereotype is often as a wild party city; John Green is on about its beauty and history. So even though his characters are fairly tourist-y while they’re there, the feeling of the place is grounded in the storytelling and doesn’t come off as shallow. (Although if you’ve lived in the Netherlands and you can’t stand The Fault in Our Stars, I want to hear about it.)

And the last variation on the last option, other than using an easy place or marrying some details of a non-easy and unfamiliar place to your plot, is just to be or get very familiar with a place and let that breathe life into your work. Obviously the real place isn’t going to be spot-on right down to the last chocolate bar wrapper on the street, especially if you’re using it in a genre piece, but if you can get the major set pieces and mood of a real place into being in the story, then that’s a mark of success, I think. To be honest, I can’t think of a lot of young adult novel examples of this that I would consider decent books overall; important settings are common, but real and contemporary settings are rare. Still, there are some books in which real settings are successful, even if the story doesn’t seem so to me. There’s Forks in the Twilight saga, as I’ve mentioned. Or Orlando in Paper Towns. (Fictional subdivision, but real Orlando.) Place doesn’t really redeem these books to me, but it brings a lot of life to them.

So those are some thoughts on setting in young adult lit: why I love it when I love it, why I hate it when I hate it, and some speculation on how to deal with it in writing. (It’s easy to say as a critic; it’s harder to do as a writer. I would know!) I’ll see you again next week about my Weekly Reads. (Maybe I’ll complain about Anna Dressed in Blood some more.) Thanks for stopping by!

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