Will your characters travel? If they do, will they go far, like Frodo and the Fellowship or Roland Deschain’s ka-tet, or will a short car ride suffice?
Like scenes, every setting should have a purpose. Your characters could travel through the desert. There isn’t much to see, and it gets boring after a while. Would they fight? What if they break down? Now they’re stuck in the middle of nowhere without any water. What kind of conflict can you get out of this situation? How will it drive the story forward?
The entire plotline in The Lord of the Rings revolves around the quest to destroy an object of great power before it falls into the wrong hands. To do that, Frodo and Sam have to travel through some pretty inhospitable terrain, and they encounter many hazards along the way. It’s almost a Middle Earth travelogue.
However, each place they go is significant to the story. For example, right away they encounter Tom Bombadil and quickly get in trouble in the Barrow Downs, where he must rescue them. This may seem like a digression, but during their time with Tom and his wife Goldberry, they get a glimpse of the vast and uncontrollable forces controlling the world outside the Shire, into which they are about to venture.
The terrain they travel through parallels the quest. The hobbits begin their journey in the Shire, a pastoral landscape of small villages and simple folk. As they draw closer to Mordor, the terrain changes. It reflects not only the external events but the internal ones as well:
- The Shire: the innocence and peace of Middle Earth and of the hobbits, which they gradually lose as they go
- Isengard: Orthanc, one of the Two Towers, is kinda creepy, like a preview of Barad-dûr
- Rivendell: the last outpost before the Fellowship ventures into danger
- Amon Hen: where Boromir’s desire for the Ring leads him to betray Frodo and die.
- Rohan: the wild and windy land near Gondor where defiant allies dwell (Rohirrim!)
- Gondor: Minas Tirith, the White City, lies right at the edge of the desolation of Mordor and suffers from its proximity
- Mordor: rugged, bleak and horrible, where dark things thrive and the Ring is ever powerful
Fangorn Forest represents the power of nature to overcome the machinations of men—we’ve all seen what happens when structures are abandoned. Grass grows, trees sprout, and water wears away stone. Tolkien imbues the setting itself with sentience. And it’s pissed.
As they get closer, the landscapes become larger and more forbidding. Frightening stuff for little hobbits who never before got as far as Bree.
In The Dark Tower, gunslinger Roland’s ka-tet must travel long and far to reach the linchpin of a dying world, in an attempt to repair the damage that is tearing it apart. Eddie, Jake, and Susannah are drawn into Mid-World (one section of All-World) by Roland. They become his apprentices and soon share his obsession with reaching the Dark Tower.
King incorporates many elements of the everyday Earth the three apprentice gunslingers are familiar with, which further emphasizes that Mid-World is not just another universe but one of several parallel universes linked alongside it. The remnants of a civilization similar to the United States litter the landscape. Vast swaths of it were irradiated in an ancient nuclear war, leaving fantastic mutations in both beast and man.
The ka-tet must find their own sustenance as they travel along the path of the Beam, one of the energy lines leading to the Dark Tower. They encounter much danger along the way. In the village of Calla Bryn Sturgis (read this as an adult and all the familiar names just jump out at you), they even meet a character who made early King fans scream, “SO THAT’S WHAT HAPPENED TO HIM!”
Everything here serves a purpose as well. The events at Calla Bryn Sturgis play a huge part in the quest for the Tower; why I cannot tell you (read the damn books!). Each digression carries its own meaning.
- On the beach, Roland draws his companions and they begin to painfully form their group.
- In Mejis, we see into Roland’s tragic past and begin to understand the dark machinations of the Crimson King.
- Through a thinny into Topeka, Kansas, on an Earth ravaged by the superflu (yes, it’s the same world as The Stand), our intrepid explorers encounter King’s perennial villain (OMG READ THE BOOKS).
See how far you can go with this? You don’t have to get this elaborate, of course. Your characters may never move from one spot. They might be like the characters in Bug and stay put in one motel room for nearly the entire story.
For a very long quest, you’ll need to establish quite a few settings. A map, authentic or imagined, can help you picture your geography and topography. Even if your characters don’t stay long in any one place, you should give each one real thought.