Many writers may think the effect of a story setting upon characters is obvious. If the events unfold in a city, a character will likely act in completely different ways than if they unfold in a rural setting.
For example, a woman in her mid-sixties falls and fractures her wrist. What does her husband do? In the city, he most likely calls 9-1-1 if she’s in a great deal of pain, or drives her to a hospital emergency room. But if this happens miles and miles from any medical facility? The husband would likely have to splint the arm himself or try to make contact with the nearest medical person, who might be a midwife, not a doctor.
So yes, we understand that setting affects characters. They act differently in different settings. However, there’s more to setting than the obvious overall affect on a character’s actions. Place and time have particular nuances that can and should influence characters.
For example, the character in a novel, a young man just out of university, is planning to immigrate from France to New York. If this story is contemporary, he may happily take his leave of his family, promising to visit the following year. He may phone them from the airport upon his arrival. He may set up a regular time each week to Skype them. Although he lives in a different country across the Atlantic, he can still maintain close ties with his family.
However, if this same young man is in a story unfolding two hundred years earlier, his decision to leave his home may have a feeling of permanence. He might never see his family again. When he reaches his destination, he may post a letter back home, but it will be weeks before it arrives and weeks more before he can expect an answer. Whatever ties he had with his family will be seriously weaker now.
But there’s more. Writers need to think about what kind of person would leave home knowing he may never return, knowing he is weakening and perhaps breaking ties with his family. The setting dictates a character’s personality and development. A cautious individual or someone particularly satisfied with his situation wouldn’t think of heading off into the unknown.
Even characters with more adventurous spirits or with dissatisfaction in their present circumstances would need a reason to travel so far. What would drive a young Frenchman to take such a bold, dangerous step? Has his father disowned him? Is he escaping a failed love affair? Is he distancing himself from scandal? For example, is our hero driven from his home by a jealous husband for being too forward toward his wife?
Of course, scandal is different today than it would have been two hundred years ago, too. Our contemporary hero would certainly need a different motive for immigrating because it’s hard to imagine that a little flirting, even with a married woman, would reach the level of scandal. Clearly, setting affects a character’s motives.
The contrast between our contemporary and our nineteenth century heroes points to one more effect of setting–a character’s worldview.
What would cause a Frenchman in 1813 to leave his homeland rather than fight in the Napoleonic Wars, to come to America which was embroiled in its own war with England? Does he believe in democracy and oppose the tyranny of an emperor who he thinks betrayed his own country’s fight for equality? Or is he fleeing conscription into Napoleon’s army? Undoubtedly attitudes concerning nationalism and toward war and democracy would color a character’s way of looking at the world.
The contemporary character might be more concerned with economic issues created by the recent global recession or with personal opportunities for success. He might be influenced by a fear of terrorism or by attitudes of, or toward, tolerance.
Clearly, settings play an important role in a story, particularly as they affect the characters. Yes, they dictate action, but they also influence character personality and development, motivations, and worldview.
By the way, authors of speculative fiction are not off the hook. True, they create the world in which their characters live, but those worlds must have consistent rules that govern them. Those rules, in turn, whether they involve space travel or magic, act in the same way that the real world time and place rules do.
About world building in speculative fiction, author Orson Scott Card says
The stories you tell, the world you create, will in many ways be dependent on the decisions you make about the rules of magic [or science fiction]. (Excerpt from Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction, p.50)
Whether in contemporary fiction, historical, or speculative, the setting of a story has an effect on characters that goes beyond what they do and reaches why they do it, how they are changed, and how they view where they are.