Nathan Bransford said there were three important traits of setting in a novel:
- Change Underway: the setting should be dynamic, something should be happening in the outside world, be it a storm (King Lear) or a world that responds to outside influence (Narnia)
- Personality and Values: Setting doesn't just include the weather or the physical location of a place--it also include the society, and societal expectations. Does the world expect your character to be a slave, or a hero?
- Unfamiliarity: A good setting should show the reader something new. Whether it be China or Mordor or even our own backyard, we need to discover something.
- Antagonist: This is a dystopia, not a utopia. The setting in some way needs to stand against the character. This could be because the world situation is actively trying to kill the main character (The Hunger Games), or because the world is no longer quite habitable (The Road), but the setting itself needs to present a conflict to the characters.
- History: Dystopias are reflections of our worlds that have gone wrong. There needs to be some element of our current world reflected in the new, darker one. It could simply be a reminder of what the world was like before the apocalypse (The Forest of Hands and Teeth), or it could be a driving force of the novel (Life as We Knew It) but this new world needs to reflect something of the old one.
- A Stage for the Character: The most important thing about a dystopian setting is that it provides the main character with a chance to rise above the dark world and be a hero. Not only should it present conflict, but the setting also needs to be a vehicle for the hero to become better. In The Hunger Games, Katniss's world was against her--but it also provided her with the opportunity to change it. In The City of Ember, Lina and Doon see the world is wrong, and work together to change it.
As Heather Zundel put it, the setting needs to be a character itself. She says:
Setting is a character, and must be given that same amount of attention as any "real" character, and not just act as the backdrop to everything else. Think of of it like the cardboard scenery from your elementary school days. It's there, but has no substance. A bad setting will feel the same way. ...Because when your world comes alive, so do your characters.
So, what else makes a good dystopian setting? What are some good dystopian settings you know of?