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The Power In Writing Setting As A Main Character:  A character named Setting is one of those things I try to keep in mind while tackling fiction, regardless of the project.

The suspension of disbelief is grounded in the real, and if your characters experience all five of their senses in the world you’ve built, then the reader experiences this reality you’ve created in an impactful way (this may be a good future Substack prompt).

I am reminded of Arrakis.

From the moment we meet Paul Atreides in Frank Herbert’s DUNE, there is a feeling of direness. There is an ominous force that can be a powerful ally to the house, but it is so dangerous, so harsh and unyielding that it may consume the entire family before they can win it over.

This is Arrakis.

It is a desert planet, the universe’s only source for Spice – the most precious of commodities and the only way navigators can fold space-time for interstellar travel – it is the environment that spawns the native Fremen, the fiercest of warriors, and this distant planet of Arrakis is being studied by Paul in such a way, so closely, that the rainy home world he is currently on is overshadowed by his upcoming destination at the start of the book.

Upon arriving at Arrakis, the dry air has a taste, the rich spice a pungent smell, the wind is gritty with sand on the skin and roars in the ear, and the horizon is blinding with the shimmering sun.

The planet of Dune becomes one of Paul’s closest companions . . . once it is won over. For Arrakis has to be won over by the outlander; it has a personality, has its own purpose and desires and suspicions and hang-ups.

Setting is one of the most important of the main characters in DUNE. Setting is the reader’s guide to the story, though it can be untrustworthy at times.

Setting does not always fit into the cast of characters in your work, but it always affects them.

In “Hills Like White Elephants”, Ernest Hemingway does the near impossible: he creates a jarring, visceral, and moving tale of a young woman’s struggle with abortion in just a few pages.

In such a short span, readers come to loathe the girl’s partner and deeply empathize with her.

The brief time does not allow the setting, the train station and the scenic view, to become one of the main characters here, but the surrounding hills that “look like white elephants” instills the girl’s youth and imagination.

The setting helps to form and to strengthen and reinforce the main character.

The setting is vital to the tale, though it may not be as active and overarching to be a main character.

You have to feel out whether your story’s setting will have a more supporting role, be integral but still remain in the background, or be a major player and an active one at that.

I will not speak about any of my current works-in-progress – that is baaaaad luck! – but in my novel CYBERWAR I always kept in mind the rain.

Rain! Rain! The bitter, uncomfortable, cold rain!

The rain is incessant in the story.

I kept the blackness beneath the dark clouds pointed at the characters like a spotlight.

The bleak, desperate environment does not let up on the minor and major characters that walked the pages.

Setting became one of the major players for me.

With CYBERWAR, my publisher was reminded of a Blade Runner-like atmosphere, to which I nodded happily and thought of giving a John Wick ‘YEAH!’, and in my mind Setting was a noir-esque, gritty climate that clung to everyone on the streets and chilled and soaked them, bathed them in shadows.

For 80,000 words and countless reads, edits, and rewrites, I never stopped to think about the whipping of the wind, laden with rain. The sound of it thumping, the smell of the oily puddles in the roads, and the bitter taste of it. That goddamned rain.

Setting can be a powerful character in your writing, and I suggest you keep them at the forefront of your mind. If you leave your setting to the periphery, it may be forgettable, and you don’t want such an aspect of your story to be in any way forgettable.


“The Power In Writing Setting As A Main Character” was first published on Substack.

The Power In Writing Setting As A Main Character

by R.J. Huneke time to read: 3 min