It’s easy enough to see what the setting of a book is. Lord of the Rings is set in a fantasy world, with elves in the forests and dwarves in the mountains and humans living in quasi-medieval cities. Harry Potter is set in our world, but with magic. Ender’s Game takes place in space, in a future world with hostile aliens. Books like Gone Girl—they’re just set in the real world. And so on.
But elves and magic and aliens are only the most visible part of a book’s setting. And “set in the real world” is never actually that simple.
It wasn’t a book that made me realize this; it was the video game Skyrim. The main story of the game is standard fantasy fare, where you’re the hero who fights the evil dragon. But most people don’t play Skyrim for the main story; they play it for the world. The world of the game is huge and detailed, and it’s possible to stumble across all kinds of side stories. You find those stories when people ask you for help, or when you watch them simply living their lives, or maybe when you read a book you stole from a mage’s study or a dead adventurer’s backpack. And as I played the game, I started to notice that a lot of those side stories were… off somehow. Underneath people’s ordinary lives, underneath their helpful advice and their praise for my heroism, they were hiding everything from profound selfishness to much worse things. The first sign was the city where the majority of the inhabitants, most of whom had been friendly and helpful with me, had all happily made a devil’s bargain with a thoroughly nasty entity. But I didn’t realize what was going on until the book that held the story of a group of seemingly benevolent necromancers who resurrected a desperate couple’s young child into something that wasn’t quite human. That was when I started thinking, There’s something about this world that I can’t quite believe in—and it has nothing to do with the dragons flying overhead.
Leaving Skyrim aside for the moment, imagine two books set in the same small town. In one of them, a woman comes back home after a tragedy, reconnects with old friends who help her get back on her feet, and falls in love with her nemesis from high school, who has turned from the arrogant jerk she knew into a genuinely good person. In another, that same woman returns home to find that one of her old friends is dead, and the ones who are left either close her out or are too nice to her. Those books aren’t just in two different genres; they’re set in two different worlds. It doesn’t matter if the towns have the same name, or the maps are identical. In one of those worlds, people are fundamentally good at heart, even if it takes them a while to realize it themselves. In the other, it’s impossible to really trust anyone, no matter how much of a history you have with them. When it comes to fiction, those aren’t just opinions; they’re fundamental laws of the universe, and they control what can and can’t happen as much as the law of gravity.
Realistic fiction sounds simple enough—it’s set in the world you live in. Except it’s not; it’s set in the world the author lives in. Maybe that’s a world where people are fundamentally good at heart. Maybe that’s a world where no one can be trusted. Either way, these elements often carry over from book to book by the same author, because authors often don’t lay out those elements consciously like they do the history or geography of their setting. They’re just writing about the world as they see it. But that doesn’t make these things any less a part of the setting, because they’re a crucial part of how the story world works. A world full of good people has different limitations than a world where no one can be trusted, and vice versa. Certain things simply can’t happen; other things are inevitable. Just like how realistic fiction means magic can’t exist, and historical fiction means no technology from after the time period in which the book is set.
Skyrim is set in a world where, more often than not, there’s something nasty hiding under an innocent-looking surface. Dean Koontz’s books take place in a world where where ordinary life hides epic battles between good and evil. Jodi Picoult writes about a world where people’s families, past and present, are at the center of who people are and how they change. The Hunger Games isn’t just set in a dystopian future, but in a world where violence is the central corrupting element of humanity, and one we can never transcend. There are books that take place in worlds where “everything works out for the best in the end” is a law of the universe. Some books are set in worlds where the universe is an absurd and meaningless place, and in other books, luck is an active force and coincidences happen at just the right—or wrong—times.
Sometimes these things are also the story’s theme, but just as frequently—if not more—they’re simply part of the background. Often they slip in without the author noticing—because, after all, the author is just writing about the world as it really is.
But even if the author doesn’t see these hidden laws (I’m sure there are things hidden in my own story worlds that I would be surprised to discover), they’re there—every fictional universe has them. And they ultimately have as much of an effect on a story as whether it’s set in a small town or on a spaceship.