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Setting as a Character

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"Places are never just places in a piece of writing—they are as essential a character as any of the people populating a story."

In most works, the setting is static. A backdrop against which the world itself is painted. The world affects the characters, but it doesn't interact with them. These works are different. Sometimes the setting itself is treated like a character in the work. It interacts with the characters. Reacts to what they do. It's almost like the setting understands the characters, and is one itself.

This often happens when the setting is some kind of ship. Spaceships and large boats like breaking down at inopportune moments, then starting right back up after the mechanic sweet talks them.

In Film Noir and stylistic pastiches thereof, it's also common to talk about The City as a being which, much like a living organism, is made up of millions of subsystems going about their own business to form an emergent whole.

Note: This is NOT Genius Loci, a location that actually is a living being. The landscape isn't actually alive, it just acts like it at times. When the setting is a spaceship, don't confuse it with Sapient Ship (a ship that thinks and talks) or a Living Ship (an example of Organic Technology).

See also: Companion Cube.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • Children of the Whales: The island that the majority of the story takes place on is a living creature. Although Falaina itself is largely passive, the island's children frequently manifest themselves in human form in order to influence events. Its "rudder" is also her own entity and looks like a small, weasel-like mammal.
  • One Piece: The Merry Go is considered a character. It has been featured on the title page (a spot reserved for the Straw Hat Crew), crew members have caught brief glimpses of a shadowy spirit-like figure fixing it(self), and, at one point, came seemingly out of nowhere to save the crew from certain doom. It even had some last words to say to the crew just before it died.
  • Space Battleship Yamato: The Yamato is the main character of the show. It is the ship's fighting spirit that enables their amazing victories.

    Comic Books 
  • Astro City: The titular city inspired much more hope and awe, mostly due to being a City of Adventure.
  • Many Batman comics have the characters, especially James Gordon and Batman himself, discussing the city in their narration. They tend to treat it as a person (usually a 'she') and talk about their love/hate relationship with it and its affects on them and everyone else.
  • Sin City is the main character of the series according to Word of God. The protagonists refer to the city as a living being metaphorically, mentioning how she thinks and acts. The city is also said to have a negative effect on peoples' state of mind.
  • A plot point in the climax of Star Trek: Debt of Honor: Kirk declines to follow T'Cel in exploring the dimension the creatures came from because he feels he betrayed the original USS Enterprise in Star Trek III by sending her to her death as a fugitive from the law. Therefore, he feels he has a responsibility to ensure the Enterprise-A has a long and honorable Starfleet career of her own.

    Fan Works 
  • Fanart, Recursive Fanfiction, and Filk Song about the Rainbow Factory will often depict the titular factory (or the Pegasus Device inside) as a character, although how literal that may be is Depending on the Author. Sometimes its seen In-Universe as a monstrous creature by workers because of the many horrors that are perpetuated within, and sometimes its implied to be a literal Genius Loci that eagerly encourages death to be carried out inside itself. Slyphstorm's song Pegasus Device deliberately blurs this line;
    A mighty machine built within the wake,
    Of a long dead dream, little demon awake,
    The citizens sleep, never quite knowing when
    The device will reawaken, hungry again

  • Event Horizon: The eponymous spaceship went To Hell and Back and has become an Eldritch Location. Though it doesn't appear sentient, it seems to act as a malevolent force.
  • In The Hangover Part II, people keep saying of a missing person, "Bangkok's got him!" One of the main characters wonders why people keep phrasing it that way.
  • Screenwriting guru Syd Field argues that the main character of the 1976 movie Network is the network.
  • The Grid from TRON: Legacy, as the digital realisation of Clu's plans, almost seems to join the fight against the main characters. The soundtrack helps The Grid seem alive too.

  • Codex Alera: Captain Demos' ship, the Slive, is one giant wood fury; as such, Demos is able to manipulate it to give himself an advantage in nearly any fight that occurs on it.
  • Discworld:
  • Ankh-Morpork would definitely count as well, especially in the NightWatch books. Various characters have described the city as a Brilliant, but Lazy Loveable Rogue, who is utterly filthy, has a love/hate relationship with royalty, and shies away from conflict so it can defeat enemies via either bribery or assimilation.
  • Lancre itself is a much more overt example of this trope, yearning for a king.
  • In Dragon Bones, Castle Hurog is Powered by a Forsaken Child, Oreg, who is the castle. That was done intentionally, by an evil sorcerer. However, the surrounding lands were magical well before that, and reacted with a series of natural disasters when a dragon was slain. Hurog also has a negative impact on the inhabitant's minds, with which Oreg has nothing to do. (It could be the magic of the place reacting to the cruelty that was done to him, though, that's not clear.)
  • The planet Mars in The Martian is one of the main driving forces of the plot, and is referred to in the second person at times.
    Mark Watney: Fuck you, Mars!
  • In Lois Lowry's Messenger, Forest, an actual forest, is discussed as a character with a capitalized name. It kills people, seemingly at random, sometimes with a warning afterwhich the person can't enter without fear of death. It also changes and can grow plants very fast.

    Live-Action TV 

  • Firefly:
    • The show's creator Whedon considered Serenity the ship to count as a main character (just ahead of River's feet). One of the DVD collection's special features is titled "Serenity: The Tenth Character". The characters love her to bits, especially her captain Mal who saw her great potential in the flashback episode, her ace of a pilot Wash and her mechanic Kaylee.
    • Played with in the final episode when River tricks the bounty hunter Jubal Early into believing that Serenity, the ship which is constantly anthropomorphised throughout the series, is actually alive, and that she has become a part of it.
  • Horatio Hornblower:
    • HMS Justinian, also known as "Slough of Despond" according to Archie Kennedy. She's stationed at Spithead and is as idle as her crew, and slowly dying in the same way as her old frail captain Keene is dying. Her midshipmen are tormented by a nasty bully. Her lieutenants are not effective authority figures. Her hands are ill-disciplined. Something is rotten aboard the ship... and Archie points out she reeks in his introductory Motor Mouth monologue. "Difficult to say who smells the worst, the men or the beasts in the manger forward."
    • HMS Indefatigable is a frigate and the best loved, coolest ship in the series, captained by fatherly Sir Edward Pellew. Her sailors are extremely proud to be serving aboard her and call her affectionately "Indy" or "the bloody Indy". She kicks some serious ass and has many Big Damn Heroes moments when she saves those in need.
    • HMS Renown is a 74-gun ship of the line. The atmosphere aboard Renown is very tense because she's commanded by crazy Captain Sawyer. When Sawyer's paranoia and madness peak, it's mirrored by her being aground and under gunfire from a Spanish fort. Power Trio of lieutenants Hornblower, Bush and Kennedy take matters in their hands and manage to refloat her. The Renown is also very much loved. Even Wellard, who suffered the most in Sawyer's hands, cheers when he spots her as she's sailing to help them when they try to capture the Spanish ships.
    • HMS Hotspur is Hornblower's sloop and his second command in "Loyalty" and "Duty". She's a mere small sloop of war and not as flashy as frigates or ships of the line. However, with her stellar captain she manages to do many daring deeds and her First Lieutenant Mr Bush calls her "a fine ship".
      Major Côtard: I was expecting a somewhat larger vessel.
      Captain Hornblower: Don't judge a ship by the number of its guns, major, but by the skill of its crew. The Hotspur is more than equal to the task.
  • Star Trek: The Original Series: USS Enterprise, NCC-1701, was a big part of Engineer Scott's appeal as well; he served as her advocate amongst the cast and was most directly responsible for her life-saving bursts of energy.
  • Stargate Universe: Destiny, the Ancient ship that's home to the main characters. While it's not actually sentient (we think), it had enough quirks and foibles to fall into the category within the first few episodes. For the first season, the ship navigates on its own and runs 90% of functions without the crew's input, based on parameters set by the Ancients that the main characters can't figure out. In season 2, we learn that the ship can affect brain waves to cause dreams and hallucinations.
  • The Streets of San Francisco: Series creator Quinn Martin said that the city of San Francisco was "the third star of the series", after Karl Malden and Michael Douglas (who played the two cops who were ostensibly the leads of the show).

  • The Protomen, refer to The City as a character, in both Act I and Act II. A city that's asleep and in darkness but that will be woken up. It doesn't wake up though.
  • The Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Under the Bridge", a love song to Los Angeles... and heroin.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Sigil, the City of Doors, is given an almost-living quality in the Planescape setting for Dungeons & Dragons. As a Portal Crossroad World, 'Doors' within Sigil can be anywhere at anytime and can activate for seemingly no reason at all if provided the right key at the right time, which can end up helping or hindering Player Characters. One of (many) theories about The Lady is that she is the City's Anthropomorphic Personification, which if true would only add to the mystery.
    Dak'kon: Among the People, it is known as the city that does not know itself. […] In not knowing itself, its existence is flawed.
    The Nameless One: You speak as if the city is alive.
    Dak'kon: It may not be aware and know itself in the sense that you or I would know ourselves, but it lives. It grows, changes, and touches the minds of all who live within it.
  • In Fate games, the setting is treated as a character in its own right, so that various Aspects of the setting can be "compelled" in the same way a character's Aspects can be "compelled". The setting can be sentient, of course, but generally aspects of the setting will have an Aspect like "Ropes Hanging From The Ceiling" or "Slippery Floor", which player characters can compel to create advantage or disadvantage.

    Video Games 
  • Celeste: The titular mountain is often referred to as a person, though it never is confirmed whether it is sentient. It is capable of creating physical manifestations of the climber's internal turmoil and, according to the old lady, it keeps her sharp and honest.
  • The city of Kirkwall grows and changes over the course of Dragon Age II, though it's a particularly dark example in that it seems to actively resist Hawke's attempts to make it a better place.
  • Silent Hill: "Silent Hill" seems to have a personality, doubled by the fact that it bases its forms by the heart of those that enter.

Alternative Title(s): Ship As A Character