The Fantastic City: The Importance of Setting Becoming a Character in Writing

“A city like Ankh-Morpork was only two meals away from chaos at the best of times.” -Terry Pratchett, Night Watch.

The greatest fiction is built upon scene and setting. When the landscape has a personality that the reader can feel, it breathes life into the story. Personally, when I think about some of the fantasy and science fiction I grew up with, I have a hard time remembering characters’ names and traits. But I can easily remember the towering colossus of Gondor from Lord of the Rings, or the technological hellscape of the Sprawl from Neuromancer. Why do these places draw us in so completely, and how do they come to life? And more importantly, how can we as writers create settings that inspire these feelings in our readers?

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Fernweh & Anemoia: Feelings of Longing

The German word fernweh means wanderlust, and refers to a feeling of nostalgia for a place you’ve never been or can never go to. It is also called farsickness; it is a yearning to explore the world. When we read about such fantastical places as Earthsea or Westeros, we are filled with a similar longing. Places we cannot go to represent adventure, a release from boredom or responsibility. And perhaps the fact that these places do not exist and will forever be away from our grasp only makes us long for them even more. Like the bittersweet feeling you get from a love never realized, it’s only more tantalizing when you cannot have it.

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Anemoia is a word invented by John Koenig, a filmmaker and graphic designer from Minnesota. His blog, The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, assigns names to difficult feelings. Anemoia is nostalgia for a time you’ve never known. Koenig specifically refers to the feeling you get when you look at an old photograph and feeling a longing for that time period. It is a romanticizing of the past. Although anemoia is a newly invented word, this is not a new feeling. It can apply to the past, or even an imagined future. One example is a general longing for the imagined future of the eighties, realized in classics such as Bladerunner or Ghost in the Shell. These future cityscapes inspire a yearning that can never be satisfied.

Humans obviously experience a desire to explore places and times that are out of their reach. Fernweh and anemoia capture these hard-to-describe emotions well, but how do they apply to the notion of a setting becoming a character? Writer Donald Maass emphasizes the importance of linking feelings to setting in order to bring them to life. If we as readers are already connecting feelings of impossible nostalgia to places, we are actually participating in that process by adding our own feelings to the ones the writer chooses to emphasize. Maybe humans are hardwired to personify places. We do it every day with sports teams and localized stereotypes (Seattleites love coffee, New Yorkers are rude, Californians are easy-going, etc.).

Writing a Living Place

So how do you, as a writer, make your setting a character in its own right?

  1. All characters have history. Your setting does, too.
    Your setting must have a backstory, a history all its own. Cities don’t just grow from the ground, kingdoms don’t just fall from the sky; they’re birthed.
  2. Appearances are important.
    A city probably won’t wander in front of a mirror and take a long look at itself, analyzing all of its physical details in a handy little internal monologue (and to be fair, none of your characters should do this). But describing the appearance of a place is important. How do your other characters view it? How does it smell, what’s the weather like, etc.
  3. Places are connected to how we feel about them.
    We all have special places that we think of fondly. We remember spending long summers at the lake or a particularly good sandwich we used to get at the corner store near where we lived. These are the feelings that will flesh out your setting and make it seem real.
  4. The devil is in the details.
    How specific should you be? The answer is usually fairly specific. Is it enough to say your city of New Miami exists in the year 2075? Or do you need to mention that most people use flying public transportation systems? Do you need to talk about the smell of fried plantains in the air? Should you bother to mention the flooded, city floor of old Miami now peppered with alligators and algae?
    If you’re inventing a new landscape, be as detailed as possible. If you’re talking about a place that existed but is not well understood or took place in the past…be as detailed as possible. People will probably know your book takes place in the 1920’s if you mention flappers, but why stop there? Bring the 1920’s to life with cruising Ford Model T’s, Gin Rickeys, and Red Scare propaganda. Don’t settle for “just enough” when creating any character; cumbersome details can be edited out later if necessary. To create a believable world, you as the writer will need to know everything about it, even if those details never make it to the page.

Queerdo. Writer. Gamer. Witchy. She/They.

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