Active Settings

I had a note to myself that I should blog about “active settings.” I didn’t remember exactly why I’d written that phrase down, but ideas began to spill into my mind, as if the phrase was a cue.

Thinking of setting as active could be a useful concept for both historical and speculative fiction. After all, setting in where and when characters move, where they act. Setting can say things about character, and character can say things about setting. Our perception of a setting can change completely based on the point of view. In that case, character and setting can illuminate each other; it’s an active interaction.

Consider this brief extract from Arkfall by Carolyn Ives Gilman: “[The landscape] would have looked hellish enough to other eyes. A chain of seafloor vents snaked along the valley floor, glowing in places with reddish rock-heat…Everywhere the seafloor was covered with thick, mucky vegetation feeding on the dissolved nutrients: fields of tubeworms, blind white crabs, brine shrimp, clams, eels, seagrass, tiny translucent fish. The carefully nurtured ecosystem had been transported from faraway Earth to this watery planet of Ben. To Osaji, the slimy brown jungle looked like the richest crop, the most fertile field, a welcoming abundance of life.”

Setting can create tension. In Kage Baker’s The Women of Nell Gwynne’s, the actions of the characters conflict with the mores of their society/setting – even though it’s a steampunk universe, it’s overall Victorian England: “Secrets were, in fact, the principal item retailed at Nell Gwynne’s, with entertainments of the flesh coming in a distant second. Secrets were teased out of sodden members of Parliament, coaxed from lustful cabinet ministers, extracted from talkative industrialists, and finessed from members of the Royal Society as well as the British Association for the Advancement of Science.” The tensions of the historical setting make the plot possible; I think that could be considered an active setting. Another variation along these lines might be the setting is part of what the characters have to overcome.

Other thoughts I had, which I won’t expand on too much yet, include when the setting changes and the characters have to change with it. For example, when a stable situation is torn apart by apocalypse, and the characters have to go through the apocalypse and survive the post-apocalyptic world. A more sedate example might be when seasons change: viewing characters’ lives against a background of changing seasons that might have thematic meaning. In historicals, a background of dramatic historical events could be active, especially depending on what the author does with them.

I’ll have to consider what role setting will play in my new project. I’d like there to be more conflict between my characters’ goals and the setting than there is right now. I also have some vague thoughts of dealing with active conflicts within the setting, between the real world historical elements and my fantasy alterations. It will be fun to see if I can build some of those ideas into my concept.


Last week, I got a mention on SF Signal for my article If You Build It, They Will Come, written for Heroes and Heartbreakers and cross-posted to

About Victoria Janssen

Victoria Janssen [she, her] currently writes cozy space opera for Kalikoi. The novella series A Place of Refuge begins with Finding Refuge: Telepathic warrior Talia Avi, genius engineer Miki Boudreaux, and augmented soldier Faigin Balfour fought the fascist Federated Colonies for ten years, following the charismatic dissenter Jon Churchill. Then Jon disappeared, Talia was thought dead, and Miki and Faigin struggled to take Jon’s place and stay alive. When the FC is unexpectedly upended, Talia is reunited with her friends and they are given sanctuary on the enigmatic planet Refuge. The trio of former guerillas strive to recover from lifetimes of trauma, build new lives on a planet with endless horizons, and forge tender new connections with each other.
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