Speculative Settings

So we’ve talked a bit about how we characterize our characters. We’ve come up with some fun characteristics including making sure if they do have powers, there is some price to pay. So good.

Every hero must have a weakness, right?


Let’s shift a little. What about settings? How do we define these and how do they differ for speculative fiction?

The way I’ve been defining my settings recently is this:

Once again, using an Excel spreadsheet, I list my settings on the left in the rows. Then for each column header, I list the five senses. Oooh, maybe for spec fiction, we need to add the sixth sense. Wait, there could be a book here. It could be called The Sixth Sense.

Anyway, what I want to make sure is that for each sense, the setting has some unique characteristic. I don’t want all my settings to be alike. I want to make sure my characters smell what the heck is going on in addition to hearing it. How would a space station smell after all? How good was sanitation on Babylon 5 anyway? I forget. Did they expel trash back into space or recycle everything or what?

But anyway, I digress.

As I start to get more into each setting, another question to ask is how each setting differs for each character in the story. Maybe one character is extra-observant and notices everything whereas a different character might get grossed out by smells. And yet another may be oblivious and totally unfazed by everything going on around them.

So I realize of everything I’ve said above, is anything really different for spec fiction? My answer in short is yes. The reason:

World Building

It’s what we do. It’s what requires so much more of our attention. I realize all novels create worlds in which their characters live, but in spec fiction, many times these worlds (or elements of them) are unique. Plain vanilla readers will have never lived under the sea. They will never have been inside a tomb. Never left Earth for a space station. And it seems to me it is precisely these details which set apart totally visual speculative fiction from the rest. Our settings must sparkle. They must stand out. They must be memorable.

Okay, I’ve talked enough. I want to hear your thoughts on settings in speculative fiction. Your methods, what works, and what doesn’t. And what books had fantastic settings? I need to know!


PJ Hoover wanted to live in a house shaped like an elephant when she was young.

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Filed under P. J. Hoover

5 responses to “Speculative Settings

  1. Parker Peevyhouse

    My favorite spec fic settings:

    the spaceship in the My Teacher is an Alien series.

  2. Settings are the lynchpin of spec fic writing. If you don’t display what is different it might as well be general fiction. The trick is to describe what’s new, have it be interesting and clear for the reader, and not bog down the story with massive blocks of narrative.

    For me, one favorite method is to salt the dialog with bits of explanation if something particularly needing explanation occurs, and intersperse it with narrative.

    There seem to be two types of readers and writers, though–those who like dense world description and those who do not. I rather like dense world building, myself; but some readers don’t want much. They are probably also readers who like stories that are mainly dialog, too, I’m thinking.

    As an example of worldbuilding that is really well done, you might check out God Stalk by P.C. Hodgell or the Kate Daniels series by Ilona Andrews, or Dune by Frank Herbert. And there are a ton more, but these authors are all exemplary in my mind.

    • I loved the dune books, writtenwyrdd! The setting was fabulous in these.
      on dense description, did you ever read Gormegnhast books? These were seriously dense decription novels.

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