“Setting” covers a large field of elements—not just the place and time but all the extensions of those things. A story taking place in Ancient Rome is not merely a story in a city in Italy in the first century. There is the architecture (which looked different when it was new compared to the ruins we see today). There is the dress, but that is more than the costume that covers the body of an actor. The toga had social significance to the people in Ancient Rome beyond its aesthetic appearance and specific functions, and at certain points in time, it was rarely, if ever, worn.
These are the sort of things that should be researched when creating a story that takes place in a historical period, but even if you are inventing a novel setting, say in a fantasy or science fiction novel, the setting is still a far-reaching thing that affects every element of the story. It is wise to think about it and its nuances before beginning. The setting includes how the people live and act and why, as well as what the purpose of habits and dress are. Cultural attitudes, religion, myth, and social structure are also part of the setting.
Using Ancient Rome again, for example, there were different social orders with different relationships to each other. The Patricians, Plebeians, and Equestrians (as the society progressed) had special relationships to one another. Patricians were often patrons of plebeians, and plebeians weren’t necessarily poor. Plebeians also had special elected offices that could not be held by patricians and vice-versa. Politics were performed face to face, and it was not uncommon for violence to be used to physically silence an opponent in public. Yes, If you are writing a story with this setting, these social dynamics will determine how your characters interact with one another.
The setting also includes any special “rules” for the operation of the world (and, therefore, the story). In fantasy and science fiction, there may be magic (or technology that operates the same as magic), which we can define as operations that fall outside of normally allowable reality. Teleportation, levitation, and faster-than-light travel are all magic, as are dragons, monsters, and cursed talismans.
When dealing with magic, there are two approaches: the mundane and the uncanny.
Most of Brandon Sanderson’s stories treat magic as mundane, which means it is natural, and there are certain rules governing its use that are understood by at least a few of the players. In the Mistborn series, magic is highly systematized, and the main character, Vin (along with the audience), is taught the rules of “Allomancy” by a more skilled practitioner, Kelsier. These rules end up having a strong impact on the plot as they provide the boundaries necessary to solve the riddle of the evil Lord High Ruler and his apparent immortality. By establishing rules to the magic, Sanderson also creates unique characters and a plot that can’t be found in other settings.
The uncanny approach to magic doesn’t include thorough explanations of how magic works. It doesn’t, as with Sanderson or authors like Robert Jordan and Steven Erikson, turn the magic of the world into an understandable and predictable science. In the uncanny, magic is rather an unpredictable and fantastical chaos that infuses the setting. Authors like Robert E. Howard, J.R.R. Tolkien, Fritz Leiber, and Michael Moorcock treat magic more like the force of the perilous faerie, something which is sometimes a tool of the characters but more often a threat.
With the uncanny, the main characters generally (but not always) don’t have access to magic themselves. Instead, they might have a Gandalf-like guide who uses magic mysteriously or draws on ancient incomprehensible arts, or they might face off against an evil sorcerer whose powers can only be guessed. Magic is most often an unpredictable danger or an uncertain ally. The Hobbits in Lord of the Rings don’t really know what powers the one ring has beyond the surface level, or how it was made. All of that is beyond them. Conan doesn’t question where his vision comes from in Phoenix on the Sword; he acts on the knowledge and leaves the wondering to his companions.
Harry Potter is an example of something between mundane and uncanny. There is, presumably, a hard set of rules for magic in Hogwarts and beyond, but the children who drive the story don’t know those limits. Compared to their opponents (of the evil sorcerer variety), they have no magical understanding at all, yet they use what they know with concrete belief from their education. Rowling is also able to use the strengths of both approaches in the plot, where previously learned magical knowledge will provide the solution to a problem and where the villain waiting at the end has weapons of uncanny strength the children cannot wield themselves.
Sometimes fans will separate these treatments into “hard” and “soft” magic systems, with soft systems lacking concrete rules and hard systems being more inspired by role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons. I view the difference as mostly a manner of emphasis, as with any imaginative work, there will be things that any given character does not fully understand.
Science fiction, as mentioned, also uses magic since advanced technology functions the same way (and indeed, there is magic in books like Dune. Psychic powers and magical substances abound in classic science fiction). Here the difference between “hard” and “soft” science fiction is again a matter of emphasis. “Hard sci-fi” takes time to explain its technology as if it is real, and sometimes it is an extension of known principles in the now, whereas things now called “space opera” tend to focus on the characters and plot without intense exposition of the setting beyond what is needed for the story to function.
Speaking of Science Fiction and Fantasy, some genres are defined primarily by their settings, though we shouldn’t confuse the two. There are lots of elements beyond setting that define the various literary and film genres, but if you are using a fantasy setting (an invented world), the work will always be part of the fantasy genre. Likewise, futuristic settings with advanced technology are automatically science fiction. There are many sub-genres of both of these further defined by other elements besides the setting itself, and there are many, many crossover genres.
As an example, when people think of “film noir,” they think of black and white movies from the mid-20th century featuring crime and mystery plots. When making a noir film in the 2020s, would you as a filmmaker set the film in the mid-20th century, or is the genre more about the style and story? Blade Runner, which is unambiguously science fiction, is often described as noir as well, primarily because of its visual style, its drama, and its plot. Clearly, neither the setting nor the primary genre is all-defining for a story, though they are important.
As a note, stories set in the “here and now” eventually become stories set in the past. Catcher in the Rye was set in and written in post-war America, but the attitudes of the people of that time, as well as other elements such as technology, become antiquated. Eventually, such books become “period fiction,” and reading them may require some additional knowledge of the time in which the author was writing, or they become supplements for a historical understanding of a period, being a reflection of the norms and conflicts of the time.
An important contrast between “period fiction” pieces written when their settings were current and pieces written now but set in the past (like “period piece” movies and historical fiction novels) is where the author’s emphasis lies. Authors who write in the past tend to draw attention to elements that are unique to that period, whereas an author from that time might not, such details being banal. Reading Charles Dickens is thus a very different presentation of mid-19th-century England than reading a modern book set in that time and place. A modern author would do well not to try to imitate Dickens in some attempt to be period accurate, though that exercise might indeed be interesting to a few. The purpose of exposition is to tell a reader what they need to know about the story, and a modern reader will need more explanation of the setting than a reader from 150 years ago.
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