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How Important is Setting in Fiction?

Let’s talk about two (fictional) twin brothers, adopted by different parents as infants. Now 40, both Larry and James are doctors, married to their high school sweethearts, and fathers of three kids each. Their lives seem to have followed identical paths. However, Larry grew up in west Texas. James grew up in Manhattan. What does this change? Everything.

Larry and his family live on acreage. His oldest daughter competes in barrel races and has her own horse, and his youngest two children are both in the 4-H Club. Going out to dinner means putting on his Luccheses and marveling at his wife wearing lipstick. Meanwhile, James and his family live on Park Avenue, but James doesn’t believe in spoiling his children, so they take the subway to school. James’s wife is a stockbroker, and James can’t remember the last time the five of them ate dinner together.

The point is that where a story takes place—where a character grew up, where his memories are rooted, what she sees when she opens the blinds every morning—affect everything about the characters. A love story in Madison, Wisconsin will play out differently than a love story in San Diego, California. Use setting to your advantage. Let it imbue your characters with unique, quirky traits. Let it influence their fears and desires. Let it help you shape the plot and create realistic dialogue.

In creative hands—yours—setting can be the very thing that sets your story apart. Consider it a character on its own and give it the time and attention and space it requires to influence your story.CMB