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  • Leah E. Welker

My Favorite Things, Part 3: Settings


A footbridge in the midst of a lush, purple-tinted garden. Photo credit: Cosmic Timetraveler on Unsplash.

One of my favorite things about fantasy is exploring fantastical settings, places that either would either be impossible on Earth or are currently unreachable to me. And I don't think I'm alone in this. After all, one of the touted benefits of reading is to traverse new worlds—all from the comfort of your armchair.


So the real question to explore in this post is what kinds of settings do I find the most compelling?


Settings that aren't too dark

Well, surprise surprise (at least it shouldn't be a surprise by this point, if you've been following me thus far) I don't like spooky or dark settings. Some people do, and that's fine. But when I read, it isn't to immerse myself in a dark world—my mind can go there too easily on its own.


When I think about it, one of the reasons I hated Wuthering Heights was the setting. Of course, in good writing, setting, mood, and theme are inextricably connected, so talking about one is much the same as talking about another. So, if I disliked the oppressively gloomy, hopeless, malignant setting, I can hardly blame the setting alone, because it was just doing its job for the theme.


Although I still liked Jane Eyre, written by a different Bronte but with similarly dark and oppressive settings. Also, North and South, even though the majority of the book takes place in the dark smog of the UK's industrial north. As I'm teasing out the differences in my mind, I note that the characters make the setting worth it: they are bright characters that shine all the more brightly against that dark backdrop. (And the romances are far more redemptive and hopeful, too.)


So, yes, I acknowledge that dark settings are occasionally necessary and part of the enjoyable experience—but it takes some gosh darn radiant characters and a hopeful theme and a happy ending to make it worth the slog to me. For the sake of my mental health, I need a big net positive.


Settings that aren't urban

As I'm teasing out another reason North and South works for me, I realize that it's because the dark setting is the villain of the story—or perhaps the necessary evils of the industrial revolution.


I'm aware that the industrial North could represent progress, with its advancement of the lower class (even if that advancement was excruciatingly uneven), and the bucolic South could represent stagnation, with the best possible lifestyle being a luxury of the inherited rich and the poorer versions overly idealized by those rich who thought their paradise was universal and its ordering of the world just (but never was either).


But I still like that Nature is held up as being more wholesome and desirable, even if it's often as an unrealistic dream of the privileged—probably reflecting my own middle-class, suburban (and thus privileged, nature-idealizing) upbringing. I justify this by retaining the same hopefulness of the heroine that there can someday be a reconciling of Nature and Progress, with equitability for all. Putting it a bit less abstractly, someday I hope that technology will work seamlessly with—not against—nature, solving all our environmental and many of our societal ills., when people can live wherever they want to live—the city, the suburbs, the country—and still make a living wage, live in dignity, and have equitable access to food, healthcare, and all other necessities of life.


I'm saying all this to apologize for the next section, saying I know access to nature is frequently a thorny, class-based issue. I know I can justify my dream of settling into my own piece of it only if I am part of the movement to make it a reality for anyone else who desires the same.


Settings that are natural

It's probably apparent by now that my favorite settings are in nature, and when those natural settings are at least net neutral, if not net positive.


This has to do with environments I prefer to be in, what I find the most awe-inspiring, what gives me pleasant chills, what uplifts my mood the most in real life. And those are all natural environments.


I think of standing beneath the redwoods of California; those staggeringly enormous, yet calm and still bastions of life bring a feeling of the sacred to me. I think of standing on an overlook on a mountainside in Alaska, gazing out over the rich, early summer forests, the majestic peaks, the verdant valley, and the distant deep blue waters of the ocean. I think of standing at the lip of the Grand Canyon—a divide in the Earth so breathtakingly immense it truly has to be seen to be believed. I think of descending the many switchbacks into the enormous mouth of the Carlsbad Caverns and listening to the echoes of the cave swallows fade to the ponderous quiet of the deep. I think of snorkeling in the Caribbean and watching the manta rays swim beneath me with their rippling grace.


As you can see, I have been extraordinarily fortunate to have had many wonderful encounters with the natural world, and it always leaves me with a craving for more. Yet one of our modern dilemmas is figuring out how to give more people a more equitable access to those wonders without spoiling the wonders in the process. We'll figure it out someday—I have faith that we will. In the meantime, I argue that one of the ways we can provide that access—and keep that dream alive—is through storytelling.


Sometimes, that storytelling is actually nonfiction: a nature documentary, an educational article, a scientific study, a presentation. Other times, it's through fiction.


Obviously one of the main selling points of the Avatar movies is the natural setting: the deadly yet breathtakingly beautiful world of Pandora. The plot of the first movie wasn't terribly original, but that was fine—the plot was supposed to be secondary to the setting, and thus the two worked together nicely. When I think of an incredible setting, I first think of Pandora: the floating mountains, the bioluminescent lifeforms, the lethal yet majestic creatures . . . yeah, you don't get a more incredible fantasy setting than that.


Settings that are part of the story

But, like I said, in order to make Pandora's rich detail work in a story, the story has to take the backseat. The story is just the excuse to explore that world. You can see that even more obviously in The Way of Water, when the family has to move from their mountains pretty much so that we, the viewers, can see what the seas of Pandora are like, and the focus on the characters shifts to the children because children are explorers and adapters who occasionally do dumb things—thus showing us things of interest that the adults wouldn't have.


When I think of stories that blend setting and plot more equally, I first think of Garth Nix's The Old Kingdom series (starting with Sabriel). I think Nix does that in two ways.


First, the settings in that series are a natural part of the plot journey, brought on by the story and not the other way around. Even though idea kernels may have come from powerful mental images Garth Nix had, he makes sure the setting always serves the plot, starting with the very map, showing a division between an early-twentieth-century-Australia-style south and a magical, medieval north, with the Wall dividing them. An interesting premise, but one that Nix only explores insofar as the plot calls for it. The characters cross the Wall by natural necessity, and though the contrast is fascinatingly stark at times (for example, war trenches in spring on one side and winter wilderness on the other), Nix doesn't dwell on it, because the characters have things to do, places to be, evil to put to rest, and evil to not be slain by.


That leads into the second thing Garth Nix does remarkably well: he is particularly good at providing just enough detail to get the feel for an interesting place without expositing. So plot-driven settings and succinct detail doesn't mean a lack of powerful imagery; the overgrown sinkhole full of ancient, magically preserved funeral ships is one that has stuck with me for years, as well as the sea approach to a decaying capital with its mighty harbor chain and the death-filled underground reservoir.


To paint an impactful, plot-driven scene with only a few strokes is hard, but it's possible, and it's the balance I've tried to strike in my own writing.


Settings that are awe inspiring

However, swinging back on the pendulum again, I admit I do love scenes of beauty and grandeur, ones that make me long to just be there.


Introducing a videogame this time, I think of Hogwarts Legacy. Goodness, talk about a gorgeous game. Leave aside all the magical Hogwarts experiences that have given me childhood closure I never realized I needed that badly after never getting my letter (😂), the environment of Hogwarts, Hogsmeade, and the entire valley are incredibly beautiful, charming, and whimsical. In particular, the "ancient magic" architecture and design are nothing short of awe-inspiring. I mean, walking across a marble floor that's in constant fluid rivulets of motion? A map made of glowing 3D points of light? And talk about grandeur of scale.


Fantasy, particularly visual fantasy depicted through movies, videogames, and art, is notorious for impossibilities of scale. That bothers some people, but not me. I'm here for it, all of it. I'll admit that sometimes I make things a tad unrealistic, but so far that has only bothered one beta reader. And, you know, magic. To me, that's one of the biggest draws of the genre.


Because after all, if we're going to be reading about the impossible anyway, why not read about the impossibly wondrous? With just enough reality to make you feel like you could be there, but enough unreality to make you wish you were.

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