A long time ago a friend and I took a writing class with a well-known author. She asked us to write the first page of a story, which my friend and I did. Then she asked us to change the tense — if it was past, make it present, or vice versa. No problem. Then she had us change the point of view.
I sat there, stumped. My friend — who had been in a critique group with me for my first book — looked up, saw me just sitting there, and knew exactly what the problem was. “You don’t have a single character in there, do you?” he asked.
Well, no. Not a living one, anyhow.
But I did have a great old house, in a magical location, and I thought I should get points for that. For me, setting is a kind of character all its own. When I think of my favorite childhood books — The Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit, Anne of Green Gables — where the stories took place is equally as important in my memory as who was in them.
So how can you create a setting that stays with readers? Create it with the same care and thought that you use to craft your characters, and then make them work together — or, depending on your story line, against each other. Here are a few things to consider:
Season. What time of year is it, and why? How does setting your story during this time influence your characters? For example, does your character get depressed in fall, as the days grow shorter, or is she energized by the colder weather? Does she look forward to the holidays, or dread them? How does that extra bit of excitement — or pressure — influence her mood toward whatever else is going on in your story? Can it tip her over the edge, make her lose control a little sooner, keep her from biting back that comment she knows she’ll regret?
Senses. Whether we’re aware of it or not, we’re all influenced by our environment as we move through our day. We feel the sun on our face after a long winter and unconsciously turn our bodies toward it. We hunch into the wind as we walk from our car to the office. We listen to the birds sing in the morning, look up when their music suddenly stops because a hawk is flying overhead. We smell the salt air or the crisp scent of leaves in the fall or the stale dusty odor of a house that’s been closed up for too long. We’ve tasted the acridness of smoke at the back of our throats. Any of these are details that can root your character into the setting and make it more real.
By considering the physical environment where your story takes place, you add an extra element.
Temperature. Ever step out of the airport in Orlando? It’s a wet, liquid air. After the cold of New England, my shoulders immediately relax – they’ve been fighting the freezing temperatures without my even realizing it. Orlando air feels different on my skin, tastes different when I breathe it in, than the sharp dryness of New England in winter. My whole body feels happier, and that’s reflected in the way that I walk, the way that I move.
You don’t have to write pages and pages of description to make your setting real. But by considering the physical environment where your story takes place, you add an extra element. A character who is dumped in the dark days of November, for example, may respond a little differently than if he’d been jilted on a beautiful spring morning. A character battling not only her archenemy but also the howling winds of winter may have a harder go of it than if the fight was taking place in summer. Conversely, a character who receives devastating news on a beautiful sunshiny day when everything is perfect gives you a chance to play with that juxtaposition.
Make your setting work for your character, or against her. Whatever you choose, the important part is that it carries some of the load of your story. Don’t let your setting be just pretty scenery.
What techniques do you use to intensify your setting and make it more alive?