Blast from the past on story building and character shaping from February 2011! The devil is in the details, most especially in writing.
Mr. M. H. Abrams defines “setting” rather concisely in the “A Glossary of Literary Terms: Seventh Edition” (Heinle & Heinle, 1999).
“The overall setting of a narrative of dramatic work is the general locale, historical time, and social circumstances in which its action occurs; the setting of a single episode or scene within such a work is the particular physical location in which it takes place.”
You know what is surprising? I didn’t realize that setting meant two different, if related, things.
I know, le gasp! How could I not know such a thing, English degree-holder that I am? Well, I’ll tell you. It just plain never occurred to me. Conceptually speaking, I knew all that already. Academically, I wasn’t aware it was wrapped up in the same definition. Anyway.
That definition is pretty self-explanatory when you think about it. So, let’s play with the concept for a moment. Imagine writing a book about time travel. How will the definition of your setting be affected then?
Do you select the time period your characters are from as the overall setting, or do you select a time period that your characters will journey to as the setting? How does that choice determine how your characters will act? The outcome of the story?
That’s a pretty extreme example, but it illustrates what I’m trying to point out: where your characters are , in terms of setting, can have a great effect on the way they are shaped. And, the setting doesn’t have to be active—it can be passive. A place (or time) a character had been in before the main action of the book is a passive setting, I would say.
(PS: “Passive” and “active” setting are terms I just pulled out of thin air as far as I know, but they work, right?)
So, as you write, keep the setting of your work in mind. If something feels off between the characters and where they are physically and socially, it may be conflict with the setting.