The Role of Settings in Fiction & Creative Nonfiction

The setting might be of minimal importance in a story that focusses upon a character’s inner struggles, as in Nuala O’Faolain’s creative nonfiction biography Chicago May. Or place may be so important it takes on the importance of a character, as in Michael Crummy’s Sweetland, with a protagonist who remains behind when his remote island home is abandoned.

Does the setting play a major role in your story?

If setting is key to your narrative, use its drama to flesh out your theme (the essential core idea of your story). The landscape, weather or season, or a specific interior space, can mirror something in the characters’ lives. George Orwell’s nonfiction piece, Road to Wigan Pier, opens with visceral details of a gritty, crowded miners’ lodging, where Orwell stayed to immerse himself in these men’s lives.

“Such places not only feel extremely real, they are dynamic. They change. They affect the characters in the story. They become metaphors, possibly even actors in the drama.”—Donald Maass, Writers Digest Magazine.

Involve readers’ senses. You don’t necessarily have to write about a new and unfamiliar place to make it fresh and vital. Figure out what’s surprising and alive in that place for your characters and draw on those qualities as a reflection of the dynamics of your story.

It’s sensory and specific details that allow you to make this place real but be judicious in the selection and layering of them. Too many and you overwhelm the reader. Give just enough to pass an alluring whiff beneath her nose. Let her imagination do the rest.