Creating an Imaginative Universe: The Importance of Setting

Recently the television show “Legend of Korra” aired a one hour special telling the history of the first Avatar, Wan.  I won’t get into too many of the details of the plot here (just in case you haven’t seen it yet), but what I will spoil for you is that the episode is much different from its predecessors in both the Legend of Korra series and Avatar: the Last Airbender.

No longer do we see bustling cities full of people or lush landscapes with unique animals like the so-adorably-cute-you-must-have-one-for-a-pet turtle-duck.  Instead, we see isolated towns living atop giant, living animal guardians.  We see jungles fit for a nightmare.  We see a peaceful oasis where it seems no one wants to leave.  We see a city in the clouds, barren and rocky plains, towering cliffs and isolated stone.  It’s the same world we’ve seen before (there’s still people and firebenders.  Lots and lots of firebenders…), yet it is somehow different.  There’s a unique feel to it, as if the world the characters move in is a whole new world we’ve never seen.  But it’s this uniqueness that breathes imagination into the story.  It’s what sets the story apart from so many others, bringing an element of excitement and wonder to what we, the audience, are witnessing.

Imagine Wan’s journey in learning how to bend all four elements and bring balance to the world if he were only staying in a town.  Would the story have been as effective?  Or even if it was effective, would it still have made the story stand apart?

Setting is the integral background of a story-the part that often isn’t the center of attention or the most popular part of writing, but without it, the story would not be as powerful.  Setting is to storytelling the way the background strokes of a painting are to art.  You can have a lovely picture of a person in the painting, but where he or she is in that picture helps tell the story.  If the person is standing in the middle of a beach, doubtless it is a story of a nice vacation (and it’s a story I want to be in!)  If the person is standing in a church with his or her new spouse, doubtless it’s a story of a wedding.  Where the person is in the picture adds depth and meaning.  If it were simply a blank canvas, the meaning of the picture would be more difficult to interpret.  Why is the person happy in the picture?  Why is the person sad?  Without the background, we might not have any clue.

Other stories have stood apart from others because of a unique setting.  Imagine Star Wars on Earth instead of space and other worlds.  Luke wouldn’t have much of a journey and Chewbacca would look pretty awkward walking down the street.  Imagine Lord of the Rings in a modern city instead of Middle Earth.  Places like Moria, Hobbiton, Lothlorien, and Minas Tirith would cease to exist.  What made Star Wars so unique was the different worlds Luke visited in his journey to become a Jedi-Tatooine, Hoth, even the different space ships.  What made Lord of the Rings stand apart were the many lands inhabited by the Elves, Hobbits, Dwarves, Men, and Orcs.  Their lands were a reflection of who they were.  Without them, would we have been able to understand the ethereal quality of the Elves or the simpleness of Hobbits?

Setting is imagination at its finest.  It’s the area where the writer or artist creates the world in which the characters live and the plot proceeds.  It’s often times the most difficult part of writing, yet it’s also the most rewarding.  It provides us a chance to create a world no one has ever seen, a chance to make dreams become a reality.

It’s the chance to share your imagination with the world.