I’ve been re-reading recently one of my favourite fantasy novels, A Song for Arbonne by Guy Gavriel Kay, and it got me thinking about something that’s very important in good, satisfying fantasy novels like that one, but that’s often taken for granted. And that’s setting and atmosphere. Setting and atmosphere are always (at least to me!) an important part of a novel, but in fantasy they are often much, much more than just background or wallpaper for your story. In fact they can loom very large indeed, almost like characters in their own right, whether major or minor. In my own fantasy writing, I’ve focussed very strongly on setting and atmosphere, and I want to pass on some of what I’ve learned.
Atmosphere comes out of setting, which itself is a mixture of the physical and sensual (both natural and man-made), the cultural (history and society) and the psychological and imaginative (beliefs, stories, the magical). Before setting out on the journey to create your world, ask yourself:
*Do I want to use the basic fantasy setting template?
This is basically the world of the medieval Arthurian romance, which in my mind is the true fore-runner of most modern fantasy: a Celtic-flavoured feudal, agrarian society, with only small cities, villages set around fortified castles and vast tracts of wilderness. It’s standard, but there’s still lots of unexplored territory there.
*Do I want to go for a completely different setting?
After the medieval romance, Celtic, Germanic and Norse myths are probably the most-used backgrounds, followed, in recent times, by the Renaissance. Japanese influences—samurai society, as well as the modern manga tradition—are also very ‘big’ these days.
*Is the psychological setting to be ‘dark’ or ‘light’?
Is it set against the background of a culture in decline, or a culture on the rise? In the reign of an enlightened ruler, or under the jackboot of a tyrant? Is there hope or fear in my world?
*Do I want my novel to be set in a real place or do I prefer it to be a ‘parallel’ world?
Say you’ve decided to set a novel in the historical period of Classical Greece, you will need to be at least basically familiar with not only the historical and cultural background, but also about the physical aspects of Greece: its geography, landscape, architecture etc. If however you decide to set it in the world of, say, the Greek myth of Perseus and the Gorgons, you should still read widely about those things, but you will have more scope for invention. But beware—the setting must still feel true to life. It must still carry that ‘real’ feeling, which comes from real knowledge.
*Is my novel to be set in the past or the present?
Most writers set their fantasy in the distant past, whether a real or imagined one, as most myths, fairytales, epics and so on are from the past. But it’s fun to set it in more modern times, even the present. My YA fantasy novel, Snow, Fire, Sword, is set in the present day in a country called ‘Jayangan’ (based on the Indonesian island of Java) This is a world where spirits interact naturally with humans and mysterious assassins ride around on motorbikes. I used real Javanese myth and folklore as well as real modern happenings there—including terrorism—to create my own parallel world. Many other writers have used this kind of idea, like Rick Riordan with his Percy Jackson series.
*Is my novel to be set in city or country?
Cities obviously have developed enormously since the Middle Ages, but there’s no reason why they shouldn’t feature in fantasy novels set even in the distant past. Think Ancient Rome, for instance. Equally, a fantasy novel set in the present can be either rural or city-based, depending on what you want to do. A Green Man, for instance, would rarely be found in a city (unless he’d lost his way!) But a setting based around a forest economy—say in a timber village–could easily feature such creatures.
Some useful tools for helping to create convincing setting and atmosphere:
• Atlases, both of physical and human geography;
• Coffee-table travel books- for when you can’t visit a place
• Books of paintings, Old Masters and modern works.
• Collections of atmospheric music: I have hundreds of CDs of music from all different periods in history, and different cultures.
Image by theancientsoul.