When I introduce setting in my writing workshops, I'll often talk about how it can be used as another character when writing. Oftentimes, I get confused or WTH? types of looks from the participants. It is at this point that I take a deep breath and spin my story. Here's what I tell them...
Let's think about some stories where the setting played an important role, if not became a character in and of itself. The first that comes to mind is The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. I'm not talking about Kansas or the hurricane, but of Oz proper. All the elements that make up Oz-the yellow brick road, the forest of talking and screeching trees, the city of Oz itself- make the story that much more interesting. Would we have wanted to read Dorothy's story if Oz hadn't of been the setting? We can all agree that the story would have been completely different if she'd woken up two cities away from her aunt and uncle's home.
How about any of the Harry Potter books? Let's just look at Hogwarts. From the outside, this castle looks just like any other castle. But once Harry is inside, he can see that it isn't ordinary at all. Moving staircases, talking pictures, this place lives and breathes magic. It would make sense that the author would create such a setting so that the characters to grow. If it had taken place in just a regular castle, without it's own magical abilities, the stories would have been significantly different.
I know what you're thinking - Kris, these are both examples of fantasy and the setting usually has to be over the top. But I challenge you to think differently. What about debut author Jean Kwok's Girl in Translation? It's the apartment and sweatshop that drives the main character, Kim Chang, to want a better life for her and her mother. The apartment they are forced to live in-with it's garbage bag covered broken windows, roach infested walls, and lack of heat- and the sweatshop they are forced to work in-filled with heat, steam, dust, and lack of hygiene-both make the reader feel something for the characters. Would the reader have cared so much about Kim, being as brilliant as no other student in her school, if she'd lived in suburbia? I think not.
When setting is viewed as another character - or better yet, an extension of the characters, the story becomes deeper and richer, as if it couldn't have been told another way.
I challenge you to look closely at your setting and make it come alive for your readers. I don't think you'll regret it.