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?

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.

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.

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

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