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An historical story will not use the same words (or even sentence structures) as a contemporary one. And a book with a college-educated protagonist will feel different from a book with a middle school protagonist. Word choices, what’s described about where and when they are, the imagery chosen… All combine to place a story firmly in a setting. But there is also something intangible to creating setting.
More than physical space
Setting is more than the physical space of the story. It is also the atmosphere of the society that contains the characters. Atmosphere refers to the etiquette expected, spoken and unspoken rules and laws governing interactions and behavior. In the same way a physical backdrop on a stage guides and limits the ways that the actors can move around (blocking), the atmosphere of a story has governing rules (spoken and unspoken) and social or legal processes that should happen when those rules are followed or broken. For a character to move in the setting, like passing through a doorway, it has to be shown to be understood already, or learned from breaking the rule.
Let me explain using a timely historical example. On this date (Sep 2) in 1964, Gov. George Wallace surrounded Tuskegee High School with national guard troops. Despite the federal law stating that the school was to be opened to Black students, he set up a physical blockade, preventing these students from accessing it. Furthermore, all around the South, depending on point of view, people supported the governor’s actions and intimidated Black students, or they supported the federal government’s position and set up guarded walks to help Black students enter schools (ex. Ruby Bridges, William Frantz Elementary School). Unspoken and spoken rules (and laws) were broken in every direction, and that led to the conflicts shown on television: clashes between police and protestors, and between both sides of the public.
If you were choosing to depict situation in a story, you can’t leave out any of the perspectives because the situation didn’t allow for someone NOT to take a side. Friend split up, families split up, neighbors attacked neighbors, or shunned them from their businesses based on how they reacted and thought about this event which occurred because the community had unspoken rules that the people were all supposed to be united – one way or the other – so those who disagreed with the majority were shunned.
How this applies in fiction
Whatever the setting you choose for your story, know the spoken and unspoken rules and the rewards for rule-followers and consequences for rule-breakers. When your storyline contains actions by characters that break these rules, do not forget to add in the consequences. And please, although you might live and work in that environment yourself, if you’re using a rumored event because you want it to happen in your story, make sure (research) that it actually can happen that way – all the way through the rewards and consequences. Don’t inaccurately depict an organization’s behavior unless you are planning, as part of the plot, to show that the behavior (words or actions) of this one individual who is part of that organization was out of line (for selfish or nefarious motivations).
Here’s a situation I read recently:
College students play a prank on a professor. The professor demands to know “who did this?” and the students remain stoically silent. Class goes on as normal after that and the story proceeds, never mentioning the situation again.
Why the author’s depiction of setting is inaccurate
The scene was the author’s way of showing rather than telling that the students think of the professor as stiff and mean. So as far as the author was concerned, it served its purpose, characterizing the MC, the professor as an Ice Queen for their trope-driven story (ice queen thawed). Unfortunately there was no follow through for this breach of the college campus setting spoken and unspoken rules, and based on the narrative, there never had been. Professor was simply disliked and these pranks happened all the time.
Unfortunately, regardless of the nature of the prank, and whether or not anyone is seen coming forward, this sort of thing in reality does not go indefinitely unaddressed and on many campuses it simply could not happen at all. There are other ways for college students to deal with a professor who is stiff, mean, arbitrary or appears capricious in their application of the written rules.
In a college, if a professor behaves unfairly, seen as unhelpful, or didactic and arbitrary, students would report them anonymously to the college ethics board and a hearing would be called. If students were disruptive to the learning environment, after a hearing determining their guilt they are dismissed from the college. There simply would not be a scene where a professor issues a threat, or students perform pranks, and nothing comes of it. If the students’ goal is to remove the professor, they’d just file a complaint; petty classroom pranks is the behavior of middle and high school students. So, at least one student would report the pranksters. Because that behavior is not acceptable at an institution or course where attendance is voluntary. The setting has rules to deal with it that the students have access to.
Yes, classroom pranks happen at a high school particularly in a required course, because high school attendance is mandatory until you’re 18 in the United States and students can feel trapped by a teacher who they hate or who they think hates them. But even there, there are consequences for breaches in the unspoken and spoken behaviors expected by both students and teachers. Students might prank the teacher, and the teacher might retaliate with a disciplinary referral. Even then, the deans get involved, investigate the situation, and consequences are meted out to the appropriate individual (which might be the teacher if the referral was not warranted for the students’ behavior).
Now, if you say, well I’ve seen college students play pranks on professors and I didn’t speak up, and I didn’t hear of anyone else speaking up… You were not paying attention. Improper behaviors by students and professors are regularly parts of a college’s board meetings, and faculty and student government proceedings. And they’re taken very seriously. Many professors have been dismissed once students start complaining about behavior that appears didactic or capricious, even if they are brilliant at their subject, because they are now considered ineffective. Colleges and universities cannot afford to keep on staff professors that students state they won’t take classes from. Attending college is a voluntary action which students pay for. People paying for a service hold a lot of power. Being difficult to get along with in a setting like that very quickly results in you being blocked from being in that setting at all.
So unless the professor is summoned for a review prompted by anonymous reports, or a student anonymously turns in the pranksters, the author has created an inaccurate setting.
Yes, all settings
Research that your situations are actually plausible and find out all the rewards and consequences of actions, both within written rules and the unwritten ones (attitudes and actions taken by individuals within the community toward the breachers as demonstrated by the school integration example above).
Here’s another setting error that I see in a lot of book I will DNF. An author skips writing their characters discussing the parameters of, and safe words for, a kink scene (“it’s all talky and boring, and I want to get to the sex”). To not write the scene, or allude that it took place for that specific encounter is a breach of atmospheric setting, because one of the spoken rules in the kink community is to follow the principles of SSC (safe, sane, consensual). They discuss everything about a scene and the safe words of the participants whenever BDSM is being planned.
As an author depicting activities between characters engaging in kink, you either have to show the safe words conversation, summarize that it happened, or be responsible enough to make the next plot point revolve around the consequences of characters breaking the SSC rules. If your characters have an awkward conversation because they are unskilled in kink, that can be a plot (and characterization) point too. The fact that so many authors do not address this properly is why society holds so many inaccurate assumptions about the kink community.
To build more resonant and realistic settings, let the real rules, rewards, and consequences of the setting guide your choices for plot points in your story. Or set it somewhere else where the rules, rewards, and consequences fit the direction you want to go with your characters and plot.