Autumn is coming. Yesterday, I pulled some onions from the garden, felt the first cut of cold in the air, and watched some leaves fall. I took a walk with a friend through the neighborhood last night, admiring the odd mix of little ranches built in the 50s and the McMansions sprouting up where houses like mine have been scraped away. We passed a lot where the hot water tank, the air conditioner, and other metal objects lay in a twisted heap. We spared a moment, trying to identify the remains of whatever appliances had died there. I mused that there will probably come a time when the rental houses around me sell and get replaced, leaving my green little house to cringe in the shadow of the great boxes looming around it.
The walk got me thinking about setting, how important it is, and where I can strengthen it in my current work in progress. A great setting can be an amazing character in of itself, vibrant or treacherous. And of course setting can be overdone, loom so large it overshadows the characters, plot, and story. In fantasy, whether urban or epic, setting plays a crucial role, though I suspect urban often has a lot more fun with it.
Most urban fantasy works with transitions from the mortal or daylight world to another, more mysterious realm. The Never Never in Jim Butcher’s the Dresden Files, the Nightside in Simon Green’s Nightside books, or the Summer Lands in Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series are all excellent examples of worlds living just beneath our own. This approach gives the authors the ability to move from the mundane to the magic without warning. It also grants the chance to dial it back when needed, thus avoiding the problem of scenery overwhelming story. In all three examples I listed above, scenery is nearly a character. It lurks, entraps, and awaits the unprepared. Only the Nightside is the magical setting you might want to live in, and even there, the unwary don’t fare very well.
The danger, as always, is to overdo it, provide too much detail and choke off the reader’s imagination. Once you bleed the life out of the scenery it grows tattered and tired, and I suspect this is partly why epic fantasy, based on the medieval European society, gets wearisome sometimes. Epic fantasy has reached the point where castles, knights, and swords are all nearly as mundane to us as cars and concrete. Like anything else in literature, the trick is to give them a new spin or angle. Opening a door to a world of the imagination, like Faerie, brings endless potential. Never is an alternate world just one thing, one place or flavor. This doesn’t mean that non fantasy writers can’t leverage setting to great effect. I read Pat Conroy’s the Prince of Tides twenty years ago, and I still remember his descriptions of the protagonist’s home town. Its denizens and downfall still come to mind.
Regardless of genre, a writer can twist scenery to their advantage. It can symbolize and express where the characters cannot. It’s one more important tool in our kit, one more to master, and learn to use just right.