At the San Fransisco Conference, I listened to a great panel (Cara Black, Bharti Kirchner, Kemble Scott) talking about Setting as Character. I'd considered this before. In a few manuscripts I felt myself wanting more setting, especially if it was in a city that was interesting. In more manuscripts than I can count, there are faceless, nameless cities and towns that can be interchanged with countless other cities and towns. This isn't always a bad thing (but sometimes it is). In other manuscripts, it made me want to dive in even more, because the writer obviously knew what they were talking about.
So, when do you know setting is a character in your novel? Bharti says that you know you've achieved it if you take the story and set it in a another city and then examine it. Is it the same story? If the story no longer works, then you know you've made setting a character.
Kemble's stories take place in a specific neighborhood in San Fransisco (which means he's also got a built in audience). There is no way he could take the story out of the neighborhood, it wouldn't be the same story at all.
Now, I'm not saying to rush out and make setting a character, so necessary that we learn so much about it we want to puke. But I am saying to reexamine your story. Is there any place that could be made a little more interesting by exploiting the setting?
But contemporary novels can work just the same way. I'm thinking of Will Grayson, Will Grayson. The towns that both Wills lived in didn't strike much of a cord with me, but the city they went to, did. There's a scene in which one Will is staring at his distorted reflection in the Bean. Does the artwork mean anything to me? Not really. But it got my imagination going and I started picturing the city as if I've never seen it before.
Thirteen Reasons Why is set in a nondescript town that could be anywhere in America. Thinking back, I can't even remember if we're even told what state it's in. But the town was vital to the plot, while the character is led from one landmark to another.
Historical novels are another great example. A Great and Terrible Beauty really captivated me because it is set at first in India, then England, and then in a fantasy land. Each, no matter how small, was beautifully crafted, small nuggets spread around for our pleasure. It never hit us over the head with historical facts, they just were; they sat there like o ya, that's the way it's supposed to be.
Now, my examples aren't solid examples of Setting as Character (check out the authors of the panel to see how to do it), but my examples do show how to sprinkle in a little flavor.
So whether you add a lot or just a little, make sure you add enough to get the reader interested, thinking, imagining. But don't go overboard and pepper us with lengthy descriptions (it's not the nineteenth century anymore, you'll bore your readers).
What are your favorite books based on the setting?