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  • Writer's pictureKarina M. Sokulski

Enhancing Setting with Nature

No matter the genre you’re writing, setting is always key to a story. Setting is a writer’s backdrop canvas of geographical tone. From the scale of a story’s landscape to its denizens, every piece offers weight to its fictional world. This element of the story overwhelms plenty of writers, especially when genres like fantasy and sci-fi demand more attention to world building. That’s where enhancing your setting with nature comes in. Setting in any story is its own character, carrying its own weight and communicating to the reader with the narrator won’t have to.

Every biome tells a story that includes living conditions, the stakes populations face and so on. When I’m building my settings, I love watching documentaries like Planet Earth or Blue Planet for inspiration. Every episode of those docuseries focuses on a specific biome. Whether I’m watching an episode focused on deserts or deep ocean, each tells the story of what conditions the wildlife face on a daily basis. Then I imagine my characters living under the same conditions. How would the civilizations of my world interact with the world around them? Are they plagued with rivers full of caimans that can camouflage like chameleons? Or does my protagonist live among a tribe that’s learned to weaponize unicorns in the grasslands? The fun part comes in choosing the biome that most suits the tone and plot of your story.

From Lush to Barren Settings

Every story starts with a status quo. The state of the world your character will inevitably break out of to start their journey. The setting is important to establish at this stage because it will help assert your character’s observation of what they have and why they may desire more. Say your protagonist lives as a scavenger in a world destroyed years prior by nuclear fallout. Finding things is your character’s forte and in return it offers them a means of survival. One many in the world don’t have. This lucky character depends on their good fortune to survive…but say they want to do more than survive. They want to live. In fact, they’d prefer everyone have the chance to live without having to depend on luck. The character wants this because they’re tired of looting half-crumbled homes filled with memories of people long gone.

Alternatively, maybe you have a character that lives in a lush and green world with bountiful harvest. People make a living in this world with low risk of starvation…only there’s a mounting leech problem of the demonic variety and their diet consists entirely of anything with a heartbeat and blood. The problem is becoming so bad, in fact, that the demonic leeches are multiplying enough to threaten human and wildlife populations. The journey is discovering where these leeches came from and how to exterminate the growing competition. The livable conditions of this world are being threatened by something new to its lush environment.

These details can communicate the state of your worlds, so your narrative or characters don't have to. Wherever your setting falls on the scale of overgrown to barren, the state of your character's world will speak volumes to your reader.

Any Horticulture Fanatics Around Here?

I always love a story where a character knows their plants. A character with intimate knowledge of the local fauna and how to use it to their advantage communicates their world’s dependency or aversion to the local flora. This character tends to come from a culture where the practice of using herbs or poisons is normal. The character had to learn from somewhere how they became an herbalist or a botanist and turns out they aren’t the only one in their hometown. Or maybe they came from a neighboring continent with better medical practice and are revolutionizing the countryside of their new home. Two cultures with differing medical practices and someone’s relocated to the grass that’s less green.

Fancy Beasts and Why We Love Them

Whether we're talking deadly, man-eating wendigos or trained hawks with heart warming affection, animals as characters in your novel do more than just provide cool companions. We’re familiar with the type of character who’s the lone ranger who shares the company of an animal companion. This character only socializes with their own kind when they have to and ignore the wary glances they get when they come to town with an oversized wolf in tow. This character’s relationship with nature is a telling one. It’s a mystery to the world around them and one the reader tends to understand as the story progresses. On the surface: this character doesn’t like people. They prefer animals because animals don’t usually tend to engage in human politics. Human politics could be responsible for the lone ranger’s solitude. This character can’t be such a terrible person beneath the surface because the animals, domestic and otherwise flock to them. Underneath: The character actually hails from an ancient and solitary tribe of animancers (opposite of necromancers) responsible for creating their world’s wildlife. Wild animals are their creations and thus their fellow man is responsible for the deaths of their children. These cultures are at odds but tolerant because they are outnumbered by the population of humans that aren’t animancers who depend on wildlife to survive.

Nature Symbolism and How it Affects Tone

I vividly remember reading the book The Scarlet Letter by Nathanial Hawthorne in English class in high school. It was the first time I took to heart the symbolism of the Quaker community associating the woods with the unknown. That perception of the forest remains to this day, just like mountains are mighty and usually unclimbable. The sea is a wrathful force, and the desert is unforgiving. You get the idea. Your setting sets the tone. A lush forest with crystal trees and icy water is other worldly and fanciful. A desolate city ruined from events prior to the story's start is foreboding.

Animals offer their own symbolism. A raven is both known for its intelligence and foreshadowing the threat of death. When an "unkindness" of ravens is spotted in a scene, the reader will quickly put together they're scavenging corpses. An "unkindness" of ravens is the literal term for a flock of the black birds, similar to the expression, "a murder of crows." The association of the birds with death are why many fictional necromancers tend to have one perched on their shoulders when they stroll through town.

Another popular example is a dragon. A dragon is the "dinosaur of the fantasy genre." Dragons always represent the ancient and unstoppable who equate to the ultimate triumph when slain. The legend of Saint George, among many other stories from the medieval era, are to blame for this lasting perception of the mythical beasts. The legend of Saint George goes as follows: a dragon torments a countryside of peasants who have had to upgrade from animal sacrifices to human ones to sate its hunger. The situation evolves to a lottery of who to sacrifice next to the dragon. The lottery selects a king's daughter to be its next sacrifice, but wouldn't you know it the dragon prefers she be its bride. As the princess prepares for the matrimony, Saint George happens upon the situation the same day. The two ban together to lure the dragon into a trap and Saint George sleighs the beast, liberating the people.

Since Saint George killed such a mighty beast, the people bestowed upon him the title of saint and erected a church on the land where the deed was done. The fact that this legend comes from an actual event in history is important because of how the tale was embellished. The true identity of the dragon is most likely a non-Roman Catholic war lord who moved into the region and claimed "sacrifices" to wage war against the Roman Catholics. Their campaigns were successful enough to arrange their marriage with the local king's daughter, solidifying their conquering the region. Saint George arrives to duel them just when the war lord's plan is about to come together and they are executed. In the name of a Roman Catholic victory. Now, this is my speculation, but I'd bet I'm not far off. This embellishment of the truth uses a fictional creature that allows us to speculate truths behind the legend. The dragon suggests an identity of someone not yet converted to the Roman-Catholic religion that was still establishing itself in England at the time.

Notice how this speculation depends entirely on the symbolic use of what a dragon represents. A simple online search of animal symbolism can do wonders when adding animal characters to your story. Consider what your readers can infer about your protagonist if they come from a village of people with domesticated snow leopards. Imagine the possibilities of a world where shapeshifters are evolving to lose their abilities because they are becoming more human.

Colors, natural and otherwise

Remember in science class when you learned about survival of Darwinism and evolution? I vividly remember the example of birds eating all the white beetles in an environment because their coloring prevented their hiding in their environment. Not surprisingly, the black beetles of its same species survived. Evolution tells a story. Natural selection tells us what will survive its habitat and what cannot. Understanding this, many authors take the concept of natural selection and play with how different animals and plants could look in their own stories. Sci-fi writers construct entire planets by telling a story through setting. An example of this is director James Cameron’s film Avatar. The animals and plants of this planet are built differently, so the audience will easily accept why humans require the avatars to venture beyond their military bases.

Colors also offer their own symbolism. In many fantasy stories, real-world animals will be mix-matched to create brilliantly colored chimeras to seem other worldly.Sometimes, the change is much simpler. In stories like The Firebird and any other where the legendary phoenix appears, they all tend to have a similar depiction. A phoenix is literally a red peacock with brilliant feathers that range from gold to orange to red and is reborn in its own ashes. A unicorn is a horse with a horn reminiscent of a narwal. The color an author chooses tend to be indicative of what they want the creature to represent. The phoenix is red because it represents rebirth in flames. Unicorns tend to be pure white because they represent untainted innocence and dreams. The list goes on but this rule can be applied to flora and landscapes in your world as well.

When constructing your fictional worlds, give some thought to how you can detail your setting to reflect the tone you want. Is your fictional world an untamed world full of mysterious flora and fauna? Or is your protagonist stranded in a harsh desert full of danger around every corner? Your fictional world is a character of its own that will tell the part of your story your characters and narrative won't. Don't be afraid to make use of your character's environment by having them interact and depend on what their world has to provide. A character who has a deep relationship with their environment can show the reader much without the risk of information dumping. Enhancing your settings through the use of nature and colors will do a lot more than make your fictional landscapes a prettier sight to see.


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