This was a picture I took whilst wandering around Hawarden village today. Looking out, away from the village, the view to me is timeless. I always find this kind of view, one with almost a complete lack of evidence of humanity in it, very inspiring and I instantly imagine what sort of adventures my characters would have if they suddenly found themselves somewhere like this.
Experts may say there are obvious factors which would determine the date and place of this setting: the way the trees have been cleared, for example, and the way the land’s natural folds have perhaps been augmented by human hands to enhance the view of the castle built at the top of the rise, just to the left outside of this picture. They might also say that the species of trees and grass and the nature of the weather, as well as the tarmacked path, would all suggest nothing but a landscape in modern day Britain.
To them I say, facts are boring! It’s my imagination, I can make it any time, any where and any place. In my mind, this is exactly the sort of landscape I imagine my main character, Rowan, journeying over, by foot, as he attempts to reach the mountains at the northern boarder of the country he lives in and his mother’s homeland beyond it. (We will, if you don’t mind, also ignore the fact that his photo is quite obviously taken of a view to the west, as it is past noon and the sun is in the picture. Details, details.)
This made me consider just how important and exciting setting is when it comes to story telling. Whether the setting is particularly significant or not, it shapes your story, even if you don’t want it to. The place in which the story happens can’t help but effect the plot, the characters, even the pace. Your character’s home, their relationships, their ambitions, their very diet will be effected by what’s around them and their relationship to it. In which I case I always feel it’s better to have a well-realised setting than not. Even if the landscape doesn’t come into the story much, it will help you get inside your characters’ heads.
Even in real life, your setting effects everything: how you get to work, where your food comes from, what allowances you have to make when wanting to go further afield and even your very motivations for going further afield: are your family far away? Are there no decent shops near by? Think how all this must impact on your character as they go on the journey you set for them. Even if they don’t go anywhere physically in your story, their journey is the story itself.
My novel, though fantasy, is undoubtedly set in a country not dissimilar to Britain. This might be considered lazy in some ways, as it makes it very easy for me to visualise what my character has to wear, how he travels, what he sees when he does and how the community around him live their day-to-day lives. But I can’t help but think of the more wide-ranging fictions I’ve encountered, the most famous of which at the moment are those of Tolkein, and the epic and eye-widening spectacle that is the film adaptations of his stories. Now, there’s some landscape! Of course these are examples of fiction which, like so many fantasy works, include an actual journey. In fact, largely, the journey is the story and the landscape an inherent part of it. This landscape dictates a lot of the plot and action, both in the books and all the films, the three Lord of the Rings and the more recent The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
It was a stroke of film making genius to use the landscape treasure-trove that is New Zealand to provide such a wondrous, epic and unmistakably Tolkienesque backdrop for these film adaptations of what can be considered cornerstone works of fantasy writing. It had read the books before, but the films more than ever made me realise that if my character is journeying, I need to think big.
But it must be real. I must come across as real. Just because I’ve never climbed through a mountain pass doesn’t mean that one of my readers one day hasn’t. If I get it entirely wrong, the reader is thrown from the page, unable to suspend disbelief any longer. And from the landscape outwards the whole story crumbles as it cannot hold it’s own weight without a believable setting. So I think hard when I think of where my character is. I think of my walks in the countryside and I think of the castles I’ve visited, ruined or not and the older cities I’ve seen, like Edinburgh, and draw on it all to try and shape my settings realistically.
For the more unfamiliar locations my character might find himself in (and, let’s face it, it’s a fantasy novel. There’s going to be a battle on the high seas or a journey through dripping caves or a scramble over a snowy mountain pass) it tend to rely on other books I’ve read or films I have seen to map my mental landscape. I remember how the film crew or the writer convinced me that those characters were really there, how they reacted to the situation, what they had to do to move on, how they reacted when things when wrong. And then, most importantly, I have to climb into my character’s head and consider if they’d do the same thing, given the same situation.
It is tricky, but not impossible, I hope, and I hope that when my character does finally journey through those mountains, the mountaineers among my readers will say, “Ah, yes, that’s just how it was.”
I reassure myself with the fact the Tolkein based a lot of his settings on the British landscape, just like me, and the power of his imagination did the rest.