Where in the World Are Your Characters? Setting the Scene

I’ve read and edited at least a dozen stories lately in which the author fails to reveal where the story takes place.  Each of the stories could have been happening anywhere, given the lack of specific detail.

It sounds unimportant.  However, knowing where a story takes place creates a deeper understanding of the character’s actions, fears, motives and desires.  Without this knowledge, the reader may fail to grasp what is “normal” in the story and what is “unexpected” or “abnormal.”  Then when the character acts in a manner befitting the world the author envisions, the reader finds himself unpleasantly jolted by the premise that is nothing like the world his imagination created.

For example, you open your newest book and discover the main character is a fairy.  “Well,” you muse, “this should be interesting.  I love sweet fairy tales.”  (Or not.  Maybe you’re into the mean, prank-playing version of fey.)

You read on and discover the fairy has green skin and loves chocolate malt.  You begin to form a mental image of her personality, and form an idea of how you expect her to react to situations.  You picture where this fairy might live, play or work.

Now drop this green-skinned, chocoholic fairy into…

… A bright green meadow where pastel-colored ponies with fluffy manes cavort among brilliant red flowers and the sun shines twelve hours every day.


… A dark, overgrown forest in which malevolent trees awaken and tangle unsuspecting travelers within their branches for eternity.



… A hipSeattlecoffee shop populated by texting, tech-savvy, young people who converse in the latest slang, and carve out the leading edge of what’s hot and new.

I can see the fairy in the green meadow flitting about, singing to the ponies and fluffing her sapphire silk tutu.  She’s so happy and sweet you don’t need chocolate to make your teeth ache.

But I can’t see that fluffy, flirty fairy lasting long in the sinister forest.  The fairy belonging to this world prefers form-fitting black leather and carries a long, sharp sword.  The forest fairy battles her dark side every moment, and secretly wishes to be a hero to someone.  You expect her to steal your chocolate and leave you to the deadly embrace of the trees.

If the warrior fairy walks into the coffee shop, the customers run screaming into the streets.  The fairy in this world masquerades as human using a magical glamour.  She wears the latest fashions, and collects seven-inch stilettos in jewel colors.  She eavesdrops on customers’ conversations to discover how human relationships work.  She makes friends by sharing her chocolate, which she makes with secret ingredients humans don’t believe in.  You want to dish the latest gossip with this fairy while sipping a grande two-shot soy double chocolate latte with extra foam.

Can you see why it makes it’s necessary for the reader to understand in which world the fairy lives before the story progresses into the first crisis?  Can you see how the needs and dreams of each fairy differ according to the world you create for her?

Don’t leave your readers to puzzle out why your fairy character is acting in a specific manner.  Don’t surprise them by upending their mental image of her world long after you’ve involved the reader in the action.

Fold your world-building into the story as soon as possible, allowing your readers to step into that place at the same time your character does.

Tell us where in the world you are.  Or, in which world.  We can handle the adventure.

Have you read stories that failed to establish where the story takes place?  Did the ambiguity create a better story, or did it confuse your conception of who the character was?  Leave a comment and let us know if you prefer stories written with no specific sense of place, or if you enjoy the mental images inherent to specific place and world.