I’m a slow learner. It took me until my 21st book to really learn to use setting to its full extent, beyond the necessity of providing a place for my characters to live and for the action to take place. Setting has three main functions: creating an atmosphere, grounding the action in a physical space, and revealing character. I’m going to discuss the latter in this post.
The hardest thing for me to internalize about setting was that I didn’t need to convey the “truth” of the setting on the page. Readers don’t need to be able to draw an accurate picture of the landscape I describe, and no one’s constructing a stage set based on the way I depict my protagonist’s home.
Dump the idea that you need to be “accurate” or “truthful” about your settings.
What’s more important—telling the reader there are 452 chairs set up in the ballroom, or having the character react to that: “Her knees shook as she looked out at the vast sea of chairs.”? The latter, obviously.
There are two ways you can use setting to reveal character: by showing the environment she has created for herself, and by showing how she reacts to new places.
Revealing character by the choices he makes for his own environment
What are some of the things you can reveal about a character through her own environment?
- Is her place full of items with texture (fuzzy pillows, sisal floor coverings, cashmere throws)?
- Does it vibrate with sound (bubbling aquariums, the hum of a white noise machine)?
- Does it sing with color and striking contrasts of light?
- Are there flowers, scented candles, potpourri?
Economic status and how he feels about his economic situation
- Are there bookcases made of boards and milk crates that house a pricey comic book collection?
- Are there antiques and Oriental carpets on display?
- A collection of unpaid bills in a basket?
- Garage sale furniture covered with slipcovers?
- Is the space dark or light?
- Open or closed?
- Full of stuff or empty?
- Are the furnishings matchy-matchy or eclectic?
- Did she decorate with eco-friendly materials or are there ivory knick-knacks?
- Is the window open while the heater is on?
- Is the place antiseptic, clean, cluttered, or frat house gross?
- Is there a slogan T-shirt, photo or item picked up during travel that shows what’s important to your character?
- Is there a cross on the wall or shrine in a corner? (Note: Don’t try to reveal a protagonist’s entire worldview in a single setting—choose one or two aspects to highlight.)
Revealing character by what she observes in a setting
You can show a lot about a character by what she observes in a setting. Keep in mind that no two people (or characters) will notice exactly the same things when walking into a new setting. A reminder: You are not relaying the bare facts about a setting, the “truth” of it. Your character is describing it, which is a very different thing. Who your character is will determine what aspects of the setting s/he mentions—a biker gang member will not describe a room the same way as a society matron will. Consider the following setting and the three characters’ descriptions of it.
- The leather banquettes arranged in semi-circles would be impossible to get out of quickly. They sat in a space too open, with no walls to put at my back. The floor to ceiling windows curving around the dining room made the whole space vulnerable.
- The elegant white linens were too easy to stain and the crystal stemware was a disaster waiting to happen. Lots of space between the tables would make it easy to set up the high chair, if a place this nice even had one, and the passersby and birds outside the floor to ceiling windows might provide some distraction.
- The smooth leather seating of the banquets could be disinfected easily, and the linoleum on the floor made much more sense in an eating establishment than carpet. The pillows, though—the wait staff would have to remove them; unless they got replaced daily they were undoubtedly crawling with microbes. The curved floor to ceiling windows were fingerprint free and I caught a whiff of ammonia which made me smile.
You gain a lot of knowledge about each character through the way they react to the same setting. They’re describing the same space, but it comes across a bit differently in each version. That’s okay! That’s the point. The “facts” of the setting—number of tables, color of tablecloths, type of flooring—are essentially irrelevant, except as to how they impact the character. That was a useful epiphany for me, and I hope you it is helpful to you as you go about constructing characters and settings.
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