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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 

  • Space Battleship Yamato: the Yamato is the main character of the show. It is the ship's fighting spirit that enables their amazing victories.
  • 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.
  • The eponymous air force base in all adaptations of Area 88.
  • 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.

     Comic Books 

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Astro City is the happier version of the above example. The city inspired much more hope and awe, mostly due to being a City of Adventure.
  • 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.


  • 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.)

  • 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!
  • Discworld:
  • Ankh-Morpork would definitely count as well, especially in the Night Watch 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.)
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • In The Slow Regard of Silent Things, everything in the Underthing is referred to as a character, from the rooms to an old belt buckle.

     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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

     Video Games 

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

Alternative Title(s): Ship As A Character