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Revealing Character through Setting

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?

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.

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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