You guys' comments always make me smile. Thanks for the wonderful responses.
Today we're talking setting. For an example of what I think was a perfectly done setting, read Stephanie Perkins' ANNA AND THE FRENCH KISS.
The perfect setting is relative, and varies from reader to reader and writer to writer. For me, the perfect setting is somewhere between 'just a backdrop' and 'an extra character'. My favourite settings walk a thin line between influencing and staying out of the story.
STAYING OUT OF THE STORY
Setting is like the difference between a black and white movie and technicolor. Some black and white films were remastered to be in colour. It's the same film, but it's different.
A setting should be painted well enough that you see the colour. But it should not be so entangled with the story that it would be impossible to transpose the story to another place or another time.
Not having the setting too intertwined with the story helps to make it more universal. ANNA AND THE FRENCH KISS takes place in Paris, but it could have happened anywhere. Take a few essentials- Anna being unable to understand the language, meeting a gorgeous boy who can, being afraid of cultural sterotypes- and you could lift ANNA right out of France and put her down in any non-English-speaking country. In fact, you could just as easily put her in an English speaking area with a thick accent or dialect (the Deep South, Yorkshire, parts of Africa).
INFLUENCING THE STORY
Even though the story should be transposable, I like a setting that once in a while crosses into plot/character territory. Take HARRY POTTER, for example. There are several times that Harry finds himself in the wrong place at exactly the right time. He hears things he's not supposed to, gets accused of things, discovers Fluffy, trains an army. These things would not be possible if it weren't set in a big confusing castle with moving staircases and secret rooms.
What's the point of setting a book in Japan if there's nothing 'Japanese' in it? This can be something stereotypical, like going to an anime convention; or it can be something only someone living here might think of, like always laughing at the jokes first at comedies in the cinema, since it takes the non-natives longer to the read the joke in the sub-titles.
There are lots of books set in anywhere, USA. And it took me about 20 times watching one of my fave movies to finally hear something that confirmed it's location. There's nothing to say you can't do this, but I'm not a fan.
THE DANGER OF OVERUSING YOUR SETTING
If your setting comes up ever 34.21 seconds, you may be overusing it. If a novel set in Japan spoke only of the fact that it was in Japan and the differences and similarities to the West, it would read like non-fiction. The closer an author gets to that point, the more he/she risks me getting fed up with the setting. The one exception is if it's a setting that I care about. For example, I might be more tolerant of an over-used Japan setting.
Another danger is mentioning the name of your setting too much. I say "Barbados" now much more than I did when I lived there. When you say schoolschoolschool, or FranceFranceFrance, or TokyoTokyoTokyo, it's like you've got something to prove to somebody. This is an important area to 'show not tell'. Remind us the character is in school with an annoying teacher, in France with macarons, in Tokyo with soba noodles.
WHERE THIS MAY NOT APPLY
Some science fiction, some fantasy, most historicals (and probably lots of other categories I can't call to mind right now) break these rules. For these authors and readers, the novel would not be possible without the setting. If you're writing one of these genres and/or extremely strong settings rock your world, then go for it.
But personally, the characters and the plot are more important to me. I don't think I'd have gotten through all 7 Harry Potters, regardless of the cool spells and creatures, if it wasn't for Harry, Hermione, Ron, Snape, Draco, Dumbledore, Dobby, etc etc.
What about you? How do you like settings? Just a pinch? Or drowning in it? Or somewhere in between?