When you sell a man a book you don’t sell just twelve ounces of paper and ink and glue - you sell him a whole new life. Love and friendship and humour and ships at sea by night - there’s all heaven and earth in a book, a real book.
Crafting Homes of Paper, Ink, and Neutral PH Glue: Writing a Setting Your Reader Can Call Home
nb: this is the Sparknotes version of an essay I wrote for my MA last term.
Why do we love Hogwarts so much?
How can we strive to recreate the devotion readers have felt towards Hogwarts in our own writing?
These are the questions I asked myself last fall. I wanted to demystify the success of Hogwarts as a setting readers all over the world identify as a second home. To begin, I looked at a wide variety of fantasy books for similarities in settings I knew to be beloved: Hogwarts, Camp Half-Blood, The Shire, etc. (note: I had to narrow the field, and I found fantasy better at creating remarkable settings than contemporary fiction, with more well-known examples to draw from, but I would argue that the same principles apply to settings in contemporary fiction).
In my research, I identified six key elements for creating a setting that is sure to captivate readers.
The Hagrid is my own term for a maternal character who introduces the protagonist (and the reader) to the setting. The Hagrid is kind, nurturing, and, above all, very enthusiastic about the setting. Once the Hagrid has both the protagonist and reader excited about the setting, the Hagrid delivers the protagonist to the setting.
The Hagrid usually isn’t the mentor figure of the series, but can act as one before the mentor arrives. (Think Obi Wan versus Yoda)
Examples: Hagrid in Harry Potter, Grover in the Percy Jackson series, Obi Wan in Star Wars
Why might a writer want to include a Hagrid in their work? The Hagrid is useful for two things: building up the setting for the reader and letting us know that it is a place where we might find more friendly faces. The character is a subtle way of ensuring the reader trusts that this setting will be a good one.
A REMARKABLE POINT OF ENTRY
Narnia has The Wardrobe. Hogwarts has Platform 9 ¾. Camp Half-Blood has a magical barrier.
The remarkable point of entry separates the setting from the real world. It delineates the humdrum world the protagonist and reader are used to from the fantastical place they’re headed. It’s the harbinger of adventures to come.
Additionally, It lets both the protagonist and the reader in on a secret. Not just anyone can get past the RPoE. There’s an air of exclusivity around it. No one knows what lies beyond except we select few.
We who know to walk through the wall.
We who were told the day’s password.
We who opened the book.
The remarkable point of entry marks both the setting as someplace special, and the protagonist as someone special. Because the reader goes through the RPoE by way of turning the page, it marks them as special, too.
AN INCLUSIVE COMMUNITY
Readers like to see ourselves in books. Now that we have entered this setting, we must feel as though we can belong there. Few books truly succeed at diversity in regards to race and sexual orientation; however, authors have achieved an air of inclusivity by utilising a couple of different methods.
The first is by showing that different categories of people can live in this place. Think of the house system in Harry Potter. The cabins of camp Half-Blood. Include a system of categorisation in a place and readers will immediately sort ourselves into it and achieve a sense of belonging for it.
The second–and fiction’s favorite–method of showing that a setting accepts everyone is by populating it with misfits. Think of Neville and Luna in Harry Potter. In The Lightning Thief, Percy Jackson has both ADHD and Dyslexia. Where in the outer world, these cause Percy trouble, in Camp Half-Blood, these traits help him excel. It utilises the trope of the ‘misfit’ to best effect: it transforms the setting into a place where the things that make us different and weird turn out to be our greatest strengths.
The settings in these books provide a place to belong for those who might not have any other place to belong. The settings become places where readers feel as though they could not only belong, but succeed in, too.
A SENSE OF SAFETY
The setting must not only provide a place where anyone can belong; it is almost always a place of great safety. Hagrid refers to Hogwarts as one of the safest places on Earth. Percy Jackson is told he’ll die outside of Camp Half-Blood. The Shire is known for being quiet and safe.
This makes sense as a feature one might want a home to have. It is the reason places like Panem and The New World in The Knife of Never Letting Go, although well-constructed settings, aren’t places a reader might ever wish to be “welcomed home.”
Because of this, safety is a crucial feature of settings the might ‘welcome a reader home.’ Without it, a reader may revisit a story for the plot, or for the characters, but never because we wish to return to the setting itself. The reader must know that whatever adventures take place, things will turn out alright in the end.
Although the setting must be safe, it cannot be boring. For a setting to truly enchant a reader, it must come with the sense that once there, adventure will find them. The Shire is the best example of this.
Bilbo does not want an adventure. He says so outright when one is first suggested: ‘we don’t want any adventures here, thank you’ (Tolkien, 5). Nonetheless, he finds himself in the middle of one: ‘Mr. Baggins… was beginning to wonder whether a most wretched adventure had not come right into his house’ (Tolkien, 11).
Although adventure is rare in The Shire, the reader would likely identify with Bilbo, and feel if they lived in The Shire, they would be picked out for an adventure, too. In any case, they’d be in the right place for it.
You see this with Harry stumbling across the Mirror of Erised, with the sybil granting Percy a quest.
It’s a trope of the hero’s journey: there must be a call to action, the hero must reject the call, and something must happen so the hero is forced to take action anyway. The unavoidable adventure that sets the plots into action, but it does more than that. It makes the setting a place where stories occurs. This allows the reader to imagine that if we were there, then, surely we would fall into an adventure worth writing a book about, too.
How could we not?
AN ELEMENT OF THE FANTASTIC
This element makes good on the promise set out with the remarkable point of entry.
It’s most important and indefinable feature of a beloved setting.
This is the talking portraits and moving stairways of Hogwarts. The round doors, under-hill homes, and second breakfasts in the Shire. The deadly serious games of Catch the Flag at Camp Half-Blood.
It doesn’t necessarily have to magical, but it has to be unique and larger than life. The fantastical element is the ‘wow factor’ of a setting. It’s what makes the setting stand out in the reader’s mind. What truly captures the reader’s imagination. It is crucial for making a setting truly effective.
I’m not going to claim that this list is either prescriptive or comprehensive, but hope it might prove a starting point in transforming your setting from a place your characters inhabit, to a place your readers inhabit, too.
Lord!” he said,“when you sell a man a book you don’t sell him just twelve ounces of paper and ink and glue - you sell him a whole new life. Love and friendship and humour and ships at sea by night - there’s all heaven and earth in a book, a real book I mean.
Pages fluttered like frantic wings in the air above him; books crashed to the floor like stricken birds. Like Icarus, their flights ended in the scorching and consumption of their wings by a burning heat. It was frightening how easily a person could be destroyed- humans were such fragile creatures. Cradling the leather bound book as if it were a delicate, living thing, Will ran the tip of his finger across the twisting, vine-like script that covered the pages. He fingered the outline of his twisted clock with its numbers spilling from their confined space, time slipping ruthlessly out of his control.
On all sides he was surrounded by shadows. The only light came in pale and wan from the thin space between the heavy curtains on the window behind him and softly glowed from the fire before him. The sent of burning leather, paper, ink, and glue mingled together and filled his flaring nostrils. He watched as other people’s thoughts and worries and cares and fears were slowly eaten up, swallowed by smoke and flame. Fingers still splayed over the spine of his own mind in written form, he hesitated only a moment before tossing it into the fire.
Strange, that the same man who thought nothing of devouring those he deemed inferior was so careful not to cause undue stress to his patients. One corner of Will’s mouth twitched upward. Of course he wouldn’t want to cause them trouble- that would be rude. His gaze lingered on his crooked clock as the fire devoured the numbers. It was now the eleventh hour. Things had been put into motion that could not now be undone.
Another dull thump brought him from his reverie. Flinching, he blinked and rubbed his eyes with a thumb and forefinger while phantom flames danced behind his eyelids. A faint tremor passed through his hand as it ran down his cheeks and jaw; when it fell back to his side, it was steady. There was a storm raging inside of him- a flood of emotions was crashing against the walls of his mind, threatening to push through the cracks. He stood now at a crossroads and from their perch on each of his shoulders, the devil and the angel whispered to him.
When the time comes, they breathed against his skin in voices so similar that he could not distinguish between them. Will you do what needs tobe done?
Sitting before each of them in turn, he had felt certain. Oh yes. Hannibal was the only one who understood him, who saw him for what he was, and didn’t seek to exploit the gift- the curse- of his empathy. He was his friend. Jack, grim and quiet and righteous, used him as a tool- as a weapon with which he could cut down the shadows of the world and usher forth a world without monsters. It was a noble cause. It was just and good. Jack also was his friend, but in an entirely different way. They both had at one time or another, used Will for their own purposes and would no doubt continue to do so no matter what he chose.
Both were counting on him. Deep inside, in the shadowed corners of his thoughts, Will felt an almost physical pain at the thought of disappointing either of them. To disappoint Jack was to let down a father; to betray Hannibal was to turn his back on a brother.
He stood now at a crossroads and he knew not which way to turn.
“One can never have enough socks,“ said Dumbledore. "Another Christmas has come and gone and I didn’t get a single pair. People will insist on giving me books.”
― J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
“Books make great gifts because they have whole worlds inside of them. And it’s much cheaper to buy somebody a book than it is to buy them the whole world!”
― Neil Gaiman
“A book is a gift you can open again and again.”
― Garrison Keillor
“When you give someone a book, you don’t give him just paper, ink, and glue, you give him the possibility of a whole new world.” —Christopher Marley
“Make it a rule never to give a child a book you would not read yourself.” —George Bernard Shaw
I have read or glanced through some of the books you have agented over the last few years and we are impressed by the quality and focus of some of them whose lines and harmonics challenge the descriptive resources of language. It appears to us that your publishing focus has a different angle, which does not consider the book purely as an object, a physical construct of paper, cardboard, cloth, ink and glue.
Dear Mom and Dad, you were right. I should have been a doctor.