Setting is key. Sometimes I think the setting of a novel gets overlooked by the readers in favor of plot and characters, and that’s not good. The setting helps enhance the plot and characters, for if the world of the story is not well-built and provocative, then the characters will struggle to maintain their connection to the reader, and the plot will taste stale because there’s not enough life to keep the reader interested.
I love a book that has a fantastic setting, and the best settings seem to be found in the fantasy/sci-fi/adventure genres. It’s the whole beauty of escapism, I think, although other books set in the “real world” can also contain glorious settings. (Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain comes to mind.) At times, the setting of a story can even become a character within the novel, for as the protagonist continues with the plot, the setting is what pushes and pulls the character along.
But what book has the best setting?
Now that I’ve started writing my own fantasy-adventure story, I have come to appreciate setting even more. What type of world are my characters living in? How much alike is it with this world? Can the reader get to this new world through a wardrobe or a looking-glass? Is it our world in an age Time has forgotten? Is it a galaxy far, far away? Are there talking animals or faeries or giants or all? Are there cyborgs? Ghosts? Is there a heaven and a hell? Is there any concept of religion at all? Are there only two genders or are there seventeen? Do the characters have accents and dialects? What sort of weapons are available? What is the social hierarchy? What are the political issues debated? Is magic involved, and is there good magic and bad magic, or is it just raw and wild? Is there one god or thousands, and are they good gods or are they cruel?
It’s exhausting, building a world. No wonder God rested.
I could write here of Middle Earth, or Narnia, or even Hogwarts. I could refer to books like the Redwall series, or The Giver and its companions Gathering Blue and Messenger*. I could speak of the worlds I’ve discovered this year in my reading of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy and Kristin Cashore’s Graceling Realm series. The world of Percy Jackson & the Olympians is vastly entertaining as well.
All of these are good examples of setting, some better than others, but the setting I want to share today is one that I enjoy simply because its very nature is meant to be explored and expanded by the reader.
And that world is Neverland.
Of course the Neverlands vary a good deal. John’s, for instance, had a lagoon with flamingoes flying over it at which John was shooting, while Michael, who was very small, had a flamingo with lagoons flying over it. John lived in a boat turned upside down on the sands, Michael in a wigwam, Wendy in a house of leaves deflty sewn together. John had no friends, Michael had friends at night, Wendy had a pet wolf forsaken by its parents, but on the whole the Neverlands have a family resemblance, and if they stood still in a row you could say of them that they have each other’s nose, and so forth. On these magic shores children at play are forever beaching their coracles. We too have been there; we can still hear the sound of the surf, though we shall land no more.
–Peter Pan, Chapter One: “Peter Breaks Through”
I love a lot of books and a lot of authors, but J.M. Barrie is unique because his voice is so amusing and childlike. He writes as though he’s telling you a long and magical bedtime story, and you’re lying in bed with wide eyes, unable to fall asleep because you must know more about Tiger Lily and Tootles and whether or not the Crocodile will catch the evil Jas. Hook.
And what better bedtime story is there than Peter Pan? The setting is a dream constantly shifting and twisting its way through the reader’s consciousness.
Plus, by creating a dreamworld, Barrie can get around such grown up notions like logic and physics. It’s a world of make believe.
After sitting down to create my own world, I find the chaotic and carefree atmosphere of Neverland refreshing. It’s the perfect world for the boy who never grew up.
*FYI – Lois Lowry is publishing a fourth novel for the series called Son this October. So exciting.