Setting isn’t everything, but it’s a lot

One of the panels I’m on during ArmadilloCon this coming weekend is about setting. About building a fantastic setting; about how the setting can drive the story.

Well. Good topic.

Obviously the single thing that separates SFF from all other fiction is setting. Right? You can certainly find compelling characters and neat plots anywhere, though I grant you it might be a trick to find a classic hero in, say, literary fiction, where I suppose it’s still all about antiheroes and passive, depressive nonheroes. I mean, I doubt that has changed lately. But you can find plenty of great protagonists in contemporary fiction overall, from caper or heist novels (Dortmunder, say), to all kinds of thrillers and mysteries, to contemporary YA.

On the other hand, thrillers are very much like adventure fantasy and also space opera, but distinguished from them by setting; hence the situation where a story that is clearly “really” SF gets published as a thriller. I’m thinking of Patrick Lee, whose exciting stories are so much fun but definitely depend on SF elements.

The *setting* of Lee’s thrillers is contemporary. There are just important SF elements driving the plot. So if his books are considered non-SF thrillers, which they are, that does imply that setting is more important than plot in distinguishing one from the other. So I would argue that setting is definitely an important component, probably the most important component, when defining SFF.

So how do you frame a setting in science fiction or fantasy?

That could be the subject of a book, and probably is, but one approach, far more useful in fantasy than SF, is to use a very traditional, even stereotypical type of setting. In fantasy this is of course a medieval-European setting. That way you can use all kinds of shortcuts in setting up the world and the characters, getting to the actual story much more quickly than if you had to set up the setting from scratch. There are drawback to this approach, of course, but I suspect that close to 100% of the time, you will be able to get to the story faster, and thus your story will feel faster paced, if you use a setting that does not depart too much from the typical. (Departing a little is great; it adds a feeling of newness and discovery that lots of readers will enjoy.)

I suspect this ability to speed things up explains a lot of the continuing prevalence of this kind of setting, and I also suspect that it explains a good deal of the popularity of fantasy compared to science fiction. There is no such typical SF setting — the closest we come is a kind of shared set of tropes common to space opera — so a great proportion of SF authors have to do more worldbuilding. The more out of the ordinary the setting, the better the writer has to be to pull readers in before they get bored. Also the more readers just will not be interested. I am thinking of my mother here. She reads all the time, but never fantasy or SF (except for my books). She doesn’t like settings that depart too far from the familiar; she doesn’t like historical mysteries either, though she reads a ton of mysteries with more familiar settings. I think a lot of readers are like that to some degree.

One of the things we hear all the time (relatively speaking) is that

a) publishers won’t buy fantasy that has other than a medieval-European-esque setting, and

b) this is because readers won’t buy other than same.

For example, from a comment here:

“I once heard a fantasy author talk about the fact that there’s so much pseudo-European/Tolkienesque stuff out there.

She said that basically, it comes down to the economic realities of the publishing business. The publishing houses who put out fantasy novels want to go with what they believe will draw their biggest audience, and 99 percent of the time, that’s European/Tolkien-style fantasy. She’d said that she once wrote a very detailed, dramatic novel set in a fantasy analogue of Egypt. After reading it, the publisher said, “This story is great, but the one thing we’d like you to change is the setting – we need it to be something more like medieval Europe.”

So, after a week or so of being upset about it, since she needed to put food on the table, she went ahead and reskinned the story as something with a more Norse/medieval flavor; and they published it.”

I can see how this might happen.

The fact is, I like a good medieval-European-esque setting fine, if it’s well done, but I love a more exotic setting. Ever read BRIDGE OF BIRDS, for example? I’m hardly alone. Many, many, many reviewers also say they love exotic settings. Every reviewer who raves about EON/EONA, for example.

But prolific reviewers are almost by definition super-readers. So am I. So are you, probably, if you’re reading this. Super-readers are exactly the sort of readers who do get bored with typical settings. There is just no reason to expect the kind of person who reads maybe ten books a year, maybe twenty, to ever get bored with any particular types of setting. This would lead to a situation, which we arguably see in the real world, where unusual settings are a tough sell to publishers, but once the book is out there, reviewers and award committees just love them. But they don’t really hit it out of the park with the greater mass of readers and don’t become best-sellers.

I believe setting transcends even genre, setting up fundamental divisions within literature, so that the three broadest fiction categories are contemporary/realistic; historical; and SFF. And within those categories, the more familiar settings — WWII for historicals; medieval-European for fantasy — are likely to appeal the the greatest number of readers. It’s actually hard for me to see a writer deliberately planning world design and setting one way or the other, because for me so much of world design is organic and unplanned. But I suspect the trade-offs between familiar and unfamiliar settings are inevitable and that it might be useful to have this possibility in the back of one’s mind when starting a new project.

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