Monday, April 13, 2015

13 Week Novel-—Week 7: Setting as Character

6 Ways to Develop Setting as Character

Setting is critical to your story. To any story. To feel like we really are someplace, whether that place is on the moon, in ancient Mesopotamia, the White House, or Tucson in 1965.
Is your setting overwhelmed by words? Image: din bcn
Last week I may have implied that a writer should not bother with setting during the first draft. A writer doesn't need to do all sorts of research and build up setting during the first draft, unless it helps him immerse himself in the story.

But a writer should pay attention to setting as it affects the story and the characterotherwise it's entirely irrelevant.

Please please please, don't ignore setting until the next draft and then try to figure out how to "add it in." Anything added in, from themes to character traits, is difficult to integrate in a way that feels natural to the reader. Purposeless setting is about as easy to detect, but maybe not as painful, as an added in subplot. The setting should be an organic part of the story that advances it, one that may even be a character in it's own right.

But how do you do that?

DON'T blather on with description. That is, don't look at the setting and try to figure out how use a different combination of beautiful and clever words to show us what the moon looks like or the types of trees that grow in this place or what the bedding looks like or the type of car or the teacups or the art on the wall at length. Sure you need to find different words eventually, in later drafts, but this does not build the character of settingit builds boredom of readers.

If you'd rather not frustrate or bore your readers, there are several approaches to creating a setting that acts more like a character. And these are things that are important to start doing in your first draft because it takes time to build a character.

1. Know everything about your setting. What do you know about the city or town in which your story takes place? What's the population? Why do people live there? What is the main industry of the town? How do people travel in and out of it? What issues of government, utilities, and business impact the town? How do global issues touch it?

If it's a small space, one apartment or one room or just the school building, know every damned object in that space, know how the light moves through the space, the changes in temperature and air, which doors stick or remain locked at all times.

Then, also think of the culture of the place: its history, demographics, and social values. What are the expectations here? What happens if someone does not follow the norm, if social contracts are broken? What are the things only natives of this place would notice?

Setting shapes characters, to a degree. Whoever the innate person is, that person is affected by physical and cultural factors within that communitywhether the person is raised there or is a new arrival. (Read Crawford Kilian's excellent blog post on this!)

2. Interact with the setting. Watch your characters as they move about their world. What are they doing in it? How do they react to or deal with the conditions of that place, or the goings on there? Have them use items from that setting, but describe them only as the characters move with those things, between them, handle them.

Sometimes you'll hear that you need to sit down and work really hard to see these things in your mind and writing, to think it through. I find that annoying.

I am partial to getting away from the computer and interacting with people and the place where I live. Here, I will observe. I will watch what my friends and family do as they move through the world. I will watch co-workers at the office, strangers in cafes or grocery stores or parks. (I might be a little creepy.) What do they do with their hands as they speak and how does that relate to the place. Are there gestures specific to place? What do they touch or tap or hold onto? What are they doing, what am I doing, that is specific to this place? How do we take our coffee that is distinctive? What kind of plant is she watering? Where does he escape to as he walks the dog? How can that be seen in the time and location of my book?

This may seem mundane, and I certainly don't want any plant watering scenes if they aren't pertinent to the story, but it allows me to notice those things that I don't necessarily notice. I think about those things that residents of a place may take for granted. This puts me in the mind to pay attention to making my characters residents in their worldspeople who know the place intimately.

3. Notice what is going on around your characters. Take time to watch the periphery and background. If you know what is happening there, it can influence your characters or story in subtle ways or have direct impact.

For instance, if your characters are hiking up a trail and having a disagreement in the wilderness, you might have something important going on. What will happen, though, if they are talking and not noticing a growing hum of bees to their right? Will their voices rise to talk over that hum as they approach it, causing them to get more agitated with each other because of their yelling? Will their noise agitate the bees? What happens as the argument exacerbates their frustration and the bees attack? Or maybe it doesn't get to the point that the bees attack because they are aware that they are in an area where they need to watch out for killer bees. Does that simply raise tension or does it lesson the conflict in the disagreement? Or do they work together to lose the conflict for the moment so that the bees relax, only to have a boisterous and ignorant group arrive and set the bees off?

If I sound strangely focused on bees, it's because there was a bee attack on a hiking trail nearby yesterday. We have some aggressive bees in Arizona.

4. Link emotion to setting. Take one of the locations of your novel and think about who in your novel has the strongest feelings about this place? What are her specific emotions to this place? What does she love and hate about it? Where is her personal corner in it? How was it vital in the development of who she is now? What are the things only she would notice? What are the things that have happened to her here in the past? What are the things that make this place different from any other place? As she moves about this space, weave the sense details with her emotions; use her emotions to choose words for the description that evoke her feelings.

5. Setting measures change. Take a look at one of your early key scenes. Where is it set? How does your protagonist feel about it at that time? Or how does the protagonist feel in general as she interacts within that space at that time?

Next, look for all the other scenes that take place in this same location. From whose point of view is the scene told? What is that point of view character's perception of the place? What words are repeated? Are the same items noticed more than once?

Lastly, find a later key scene or turning point for your protagonist and set it in the same location. How have your character's feelings or perceptions changed from the initial scene you chose? As you describe your protagonist's evolving emotions, your setting becomes and participant in the drama.

6. Your characters have a relationship to their setting. This is when you get to think of the setting most specifically like one of your secondary characters. Screenwriter William C. Martell tells us that the relationships supporting characters have with the protagoninst act as mirrors, contrasts, and shadows. Setting also has similar relationships with the main players of your novel that create a character of setting.

MirrorThe setting can have physical qualities that echo internal issues with the character. Unexpected mood changes, like the weather, An inability to change, like the furniture in Grandma's house. A personal chaos that is embodied in a fast-paced sales office.

AntagonistThe setting can be one that has opposite qualities of the character that introduce conflict, cause trouble, or act as obstacles to his ability to reach his goal.

Symbolic AntagonistThis setting will have qualities that contrast the character, but show what wants or needs to become or learn.

ShadowThe setting can lurk as a reminder of the character's struggles. Is he controlling? Put him in a governmental work environment where he has no ability to make even the smallest decision. Was he in a group home for kids with behavior issues in his youth? Force him to visit his aging sister who has been institutionalized after attempting suicide.

You probably don't want to incorporate everything here. Just experiment to find what will work with your story, your narrator, and your characters.

After all that, get back to work on the writing of your novel and meet your 2500 word minimum for the week. Then check back here next week. I'll be around.

You can also read another post on setting that includes exercises here.

Coming in a little late? Find out about the 13 week challenge here. And see the first week's activities here.

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  1. I easily get bored when characters are described in long descriptions. I mean give me some basics/overview and I'd get to know them as the story goes along, right?

    These are helpful tips. I hope more aspiring writers could read this.

    Enjoy the weekend!

    1. I agree. I think character is more about how she struggles through the story--not her backstory or what she looks like.

      Until next time, Lux!

  2. Excellent article. Setting is one key ingredient in my current series. The local, the history, the food, the language (hopefully) permeate and add to the story, plot and characters. You suggestions will help me stay on track. Useful series you have going here. (

    1. The waterfalls in Nova Scotia look beautiful, Mahrie. Is your current project set there?