Geography may seem unglamorous but it plays a major role in many great stories. The Lord of the Rings would not work without its geography of The Shire, Rohan, Gondor and, of course, Mordor. (I’ve always loved the map at the start of the book too).
Wuthering Heights wouldn’t be the same without its geography and The Hound of the Baskervilles would not work nearly so well if the story wasn’t set in a bleak setting (to intensify the mystery as to what the hound is given it’s easier to hide something monstrous on a moor!).
Geography Matters and Cli-Fi
So setting matters. It will influence how your characters live and behave and will cover everything from what kind of foods can be grown to how easy or otherwise it is for your characters to survive.
Geography can also affect politics. If one area in a story has plenty of food due to its climate etc., and another does not because its climate is less stable, there is bound to be conflict. Those from the poorer climate are bound to want to improve things where they are or want to come to the better area in your setting. And yes that does reflect what we know in our own world. Fiction often does that.
So geography matters. But you can see how stories can arise from showing conflict caused by geography. There is a clear story idea there in having a character who wants to make things better so the conflict is avoided. How do they do it? Can they compensate for the poor geographical features elsewhere? What can be done to improve matters? And who tries to stop them (there always is someone!)?
Stories cannot happen without conflict. Something has to change. And why shouldn’t the change come as a result of spotting geographical issues and finding ways of resolving them? Indeed Climate Fiction (cli-fi) is its own genre now.
Implying Likely Geographical Setting
For my flash pieces, I focus on the character as my way in to starting the story but if I’m writing about a fairy godmother, say, the setting can be implied. My fairy godmother must live in a magical world, unless I have shown you otherwise and she is carrying out a job here on Earth, say, but I would have to show you that.
When I don’t specifically set something out, well, where would you expect to see fairy godmothers? And you can also conjure up (some pun intended!) what kind of magical world she has to live in based on your own knowledge of fairy tales.
What pictures come into your head when you read the classic fairytales set in magical kingdoms far, far away? That will colour what kind of setting you envisage when you are given a story set in a magical world and are given only a few details. Your own imagination will fill in the rest and that will be based on what you have read/seen on film. (Disney and Pixar probably have a lot to answer for here but your knowledge of them will help you envisage what a magical world could look like).
Also, what I can get my fairy godmother to do in my flash story is show how she interacts within her own world. If she’s moaning about magical power sources being difficult to obtain because they’re in a difficult part of her world to access, I can show you how she overcomes that to get those sources to help her carry out her job.
In doing so, I will have to show you something of the setting she’s got to get through to do that. I won’t need to spell out everything but the right telling details will show you. If I mention her finding the air getting thinner as she goes further north, west, or what have you, it is a reasonable assumption to presume at some point she is going up a mountain where altitude affects air quality based on what we know here. Where does the air get thinner? At higher altitudes.
The Changing Role of Geography In Fiction
The role of geography in fiction has changed over time. Dickens had to give reams of description as to where his characters were given so many of his readers would never get to visit London and they did need the location shown to them as part of the story. Dickens’ descriptions here would be educational too.
The advent of film and television has changed that. I can show you one of my characters is based in London and you will have your own ideas as to what London looks like. What I can also do is tell you a specific detail – my character is at the Tower of London or Kew Gardens. I don’t need to describe to you what the Tower or Kew looks like.
Our increased knowledge of geography in terms of knowing where places are, what they look like, what you can expect to see if you visit, and the influence of film and television, means writers have to focus on showing a reader what they have to know and nothing more.
The background details Dickens gave would be the first things to be cut out if he was with us writing his stories now. It would rightly be pointed out to him that readers know what these places look like (or at least have a very good idea) because they’ve been there (or have seen them on television etc).
How Geography can Impact on a Story
A lot depends on whether a writer is using geography as a backdrop to their tale or whether it is almost like a character in its own right. We need to know the importance of the geographical setting early on but instead of giving us reams of description, a writer can use characters to discuss their setting.
In The Lord of the Rings, at the start of the story, we are shown that Bilbo Baggins is considered odd by many of his neighbours thanks to him having left The Shire on an adventure (The Hobbit). That tells you something immediately – the rest of the residents are home bodies and from that you can imply they don’t take much interest in the outside world. Their world is The Shire.
On a quest tale, such as The Lord of the Rings, we do have to see the different kinds of country Frodo and the Fellowship of the Ring pass through, precisely because it is so different from what Frodo would be used to. And of course physical geography can cause physical problems for your characters as they go on their quest.
Then certain geographical features can lead to natural disasters – fault lines causing earthquakes etc. That in itself can lead to stories where the characters must overcome the problems caused by their environment – the survive or die options!
Also your characters will need food and drink of some kind so how is that produced? Readers won’t need to know all the details here but if we see your characters eating apples or bread or what have you, we can imagine what at least some of your geographical setting must look like as there would have to be orchards and some sort of arable farming for this to be possible.
Geography and Seasons
Any setting has to have seasons which will again be triggered by the basic geographical tendencies of the fictional world in question. Seasons affect food production. A lot will depend on how much natural light is available for plant and food growth.
Where these things are limited, stories can come from how the characters manage when things cannot be grown. Again there is likely to be conflict here and again solutions have to be found, otherwise no characters would survive. Stories can also come from when solutions that have worked are threatened. What do the characters do to overcome the threat and get life back to normal?
Geography then plays a big role in stories even when it is not obvious. It pays a writer to know the setting of their fictional creation even though they inevitably won’t share it all with the reader. Just tell the reader what they need to know and give them enough clues to imply things. (More fun for them. They picture for themselves the setting you’ve put your characters in based on their knowledge of geography here and you don’t bog the story down with too much detail either).
Characters do have to live somewhere and the environment impacts on everyone, including fictional people. But you can use geographical knowledge to inspire your stories and help make their setting and those you’ve put them in more real to your audience.
And if you can get your readers thinking about whether they would like to live in the fictional world you’ve created or not, well done! You’ve made your created world real to them.
Now over to you – name some of your favourite settings in fiction in the comments box and let CFT readers know why you love them.
Read blog posts by Allison Symes published on Chandler’s Ford Today.
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