In Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker, three companions journey towards a mysterious land known as “The Zone,” a place which is described as a complicated system of traps operating independently from man’s control. “Safe spots become impassable. Now your path is easy, now it’s hopelessly involved. That’s the Zone. It may even seem capricious.” Capricious, arbitrary, impulsive, it would almost sound like they were describing a person; but in the realm of storytelling, can’t a location be treated that way? Here are five ways you can reinvent settings to behave like a character would.
1.Make it dangerous
The protagonist needs obstacles, and there’s no simpler way than by throwing them into a “burning, fiery, furnace.” Or at least that’s the way Mr. Dryden put it when describing the desert to T.E. Lawrence. Lawrence of Arabia is a perfect example of the immediate dangers locations have to offer. It isn’t rocket science, think of any specific way a location might try to kill you—sand traps, heat, warring factions—and keep those present and consistent while your protagonist voyages the terrain of your unique setting.
2.Make it the extension of a character
If a character spends an entire movie in one location, wouldn’t their behavior influence their surroundings and vice versa? Think of George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. His relationship with his hometown of Bedford Falls is an endless give-and-take. When we see George happy, so is Bedford Falls; and when George is in crisis, we learn just how different his town would be if he wasn’t there.
On the flip side, you can also make it an extension of the antagonist. Think back to Bedford Falls: When George is out of the picture, the town very blatantly names itself after the antagonist Mr. Potter—reflecting all his twisted morals and virtues on the landscape to a horrifying effect.
3.Make it the antagonist
In other words: Man vs. Nature. Make your location the literal object your hero has to defeat (the meteorite in Armageddon), or to escape from (Castaway) or to even control (Jurassic Park).
4.Give it change/growth
If human beings, animals and even inanimate objects like a brave little toaster can develop and evolve, why not locations too? Jumanji offers a somewhat unique approach to this idea, the place itself is just an entity trapped inside of a game. But once it’s disturbed it starts to grow, becoming more and more infectious while it’s tampered with.
5.Give a backstory, give an agenda
Why are Indian Burial grounds always cursed? How come every haunted house tries to kill the people living inside, because in storytelling people love locations with a vendetta. Something terrible happened at this place— maybe it was sacred grounds that man defiled, perhaps a group of friends buried a secret there that they shouldn’t have. The concept often lends itself to supernatural causes, because it’s very implausible otherwise, but it’s undoubtedly alluring all the same.