Characters can’t just exist as talking heads in an empty vacuum, they need a setting in which to act out their drama.
And it can’t just be any place chosen at random, it needs to be a specific place that your types of characters would logically exist in.
Maybe you can have cowboys in space, or advanced aliens in the Sahara Desert, if you can make it work and make sense. But typically, you want your characters to match their setting.
The CN Tower? Where Am I?!
My favourite setting in fiction is contemporary; stuff that takes place in the modern world with our current level of technology and realism. I can maybe do with a few fantastical or sci-fi elements, like time travel therapy in Being Erica, or spy tech in Nikita. But usually no magic, or fancy gizmos for me, and more focus on straight up day to day people whose lives I can relate to.
If I wanted to write a story about what it’s like to move from a small town and into the city, I’d perhaps use Toronto as my setting for my character to experience getting used to the hustle and bustle of a busy downtown area.
Or if you wanted to write a story about magic and wizards you can use Toronto as a landscape for an urban fantasy, or create a world that takes place in something that resembles medieval times.
Either way, if you’ve got a solid plot and a properly fleshed out cast of characters, any setting could work for your story so long as it serves a purpose.
The more elaborate your setting is, the more important it is to have a solid plot and cast so that whatever imaginitive concepts you come up with, they do not detract from the story’s philosophy, rather compliment it instead.
Setting as Story
Let’s take the film Inception for instance. It’s technically contemporary, but they have technology that allows a group of corporate spies to enter the dreams of their targets to extract information from–and plant new ideas into–their subconscious.
They extract information through their dreams! How cool is that?! Allow me to geek out about that for a second…
So the trippy elaborate concept of going into people’s dreams and the dream worlds themselves aren’t just an aside mentioned as a concept in this world. They’re the primary setting and concept that the whole story itself revolves around.
This idea alone, although interesting, would fall flat if there was nothing for us as movie goers to relate to, and so what makes this story so interesting is Leonardo DiCaprio’s character Cobb. He’s the leader of this extraction group, and despite his expertise at his job, he is often haunted by projections of his deceased wife Mal who shows up in other people’s dreams from time to time.
The theme of loss, grievance, and regret is just a few of the many themes in Inception. On the surface, Inception is about this covert group of dream spies trying to help their client take over a competitor’s business.
At its core though, it’s really more about the power of the subconscious and how much it can disrupt our lives if we do not resolve our personal trauma. It messes with us emotionally and interferes with our work and personal lives the way it does to Cobb throughout the film.
The setting is the dream world, and the objective of past pain is manifested in the form of Mal’s projections showing up when Cobb is trying to work in the dreams of people who have no idea who Mal even is. Apparently, working as an extractor, you need to be free of your own mind so that your own mental anguish does not seep into your target’s subsconscious.
Unfortunately that’s what causes Cobb to have some difficulty at his job!
In a Nutshell
If you’re going to come up with elaborate rules for how the metaphysics of your setting work, make sure that they’re not too convoluted and that they actually serve a purpose in your story beyond making a dude say “whoa that’s trippy!”
The setting and concepts need to compliment the characters’ behaviour and the plot’s objective.
If you have characters who can use magic like the cast of Harry Potter, then the whole magic school setting and the importance of magic should both take focus of the story, as well as mean something to the characters.
If you have characters who know how to use advanced technology, then ideally the world the story takes place in should be advanced enough for it to make sense for such technology to exist. Think Star Trek and Star Wars and how their gear just wouldn’t work in say…Indiana Jones, unless you really grasp at straws for it to work!