For myself (and many writers I know), character or plot usually take the top spot. Setting usually doesn’t. Humans connect with other humans, after all, so it’s often easier to invest oneself in characters and their conflicts. A setting, though still important, is a bit more difficult to connect with. If you’re one of those writers who struggle with setting, I’d like to share with you an approach that might help by treating our setting like a character.
No, that doesn’t mean we’re going to write pithy one-liners for our setting (though that does sound kind of cool, now that you mention it). Instead, we’ll explore how to assign vivid characteristics to our settings, how to suggest those characteristics to readers, and how to develop our setting’s arc.
Exploring Your Setting’s Characteristics
Eddard Stark is honorable. Atticus Finch is courageous. Amy Elliott Dunne is dangerously cunning.
Memorable fictional characters always have strong characteristics. How can we translate such characteristics to setting?
Let’s start with the basics. Here are some questions we all ask ourselves when creating characters:
What does this character look like? What is this character’s backstory? What does this character want? What secrets does this character hold? What is this character’s conflict?
Now that we know our questions, let’s answer them for our setting.
Most writers begin with question one, usually using a few sentences to set the scene. It’s the most basic aspect of setting and likely the most obvious.
To address this question through the character lens, let’s imagine what our setting might look like as a character. Are they young or old, rugged or refined, diminutive or enormous?
Better yet, is there an existing character in your book who personifies your setting?
An excellent example comes from my own book. The book’s main setting is cold and filled with snow. It’s cold because the mystery starts out as cold (i.e. we don’t have a clue how it’s going to end.) As the main character finds clues, it gets warmer outside because the main character is getting closer to finding out how to solve the mystery.
This one may or may not apply to your setting but it’s a potent addition when it works. Consider the secrets hidden within the country house of Bly in Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. A setting within a secret is just as compelling as any secretive character.
Great characters have conflicts, and so do great settings. For instance, take the war-torn city of Osgiliath in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. This location provides a visual representation of the greater conflict in the series; what was once a thriving city of humans is now a smoking ruin overrun by orcs.
Suggesting a Setting’s Characteristics
I’ll bet you’ve heard of show, don’t tell. It’s a fine rule of thumb though it need not always be followed. For example, it’s often acceptable to describe a character’s appearance rather than conveniently have them peer into a mirror. The same goes for describing a setting.
Imagine if J.K. Rowling had written this: “The Forbidden Forest was super creepy.” That doesn’t scare anybody! She made it creepy by showing us the centaurs, werewolves, giant spiders, and more that roamed within.
So how can you do the same for your settings? Here are a few tricks.
For starters, allow yourself to “tell” in your first draft. Let’s say you’re writing a story set in a small town during winter. In the first draft, you might simply write, “The town was cold.” We forgive you. It’s just a first draft!
In your second draft, return to those blunt descriptions and decide how to show coldness rather than tell it. Describe the ice hanging from the eaves of the houses, the slippery snow packed upon the sidewalks, the breath hissing from your characters’ mouths. You haven’t used the word “cold” anywhere, yet the suggested meaning is clear.
Furthermore, having one character describe another is an effective way to suggest characteristics. This works just as well with settings.
Finally, show your setting’s traits through action. Cormac McCarthy didn’t just tell us the world was dangerous in The Road. He showed it by populating that world with ashes, marauders and cannibals. If your setting is trying to kill your protagonists, it’ll feel more like a character.
Developing the Arc of Your Setting
Characters have arcs. So, like characters, great settings often have arcs as well. This might sound like an odd concept at first, but it really can make a difference in your writing.
To build your setting’s arc, consider what your setting is like at the beginning of the story, what it becomes by the end, and what happens in the middle to make it so.
Maybe you start with an idyllic pastoral country which ends up ravaged by war. Or your post-apocalyptic wasteland might be restored to beauty by the heroics of your protagonist. Or perhaps your setting stays just the way it always was despite what happened in the middle. Whatever arc you choose, it should improve your setting.
Lastly, do you consider the characteristics of your settings when you’re writing? Please leave your thoughts below.
Sue Powers is an accomplished short story writer. Her many stories have been published in magazines such as Saturday Evening Post, New Millennium Writings, Blue Earth Review, Funny in Five Hundred, Another Chicago Magazine, Happy, Facets, The Writer’s Place and Samizdada. She has written a mystery and is writing another one. She also has a book of stories, entitled, A Surprising Measure of Subliminal Sadness.