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Setting as Character

In great fiction, the setting lives from the very first pages. Such places not only feel extremely real, they are dynamic. They change. They affect the characters in the story. They become metaphors, possibly even actors in the drama.


Powerfully portrayed settings seem to have a life of their own, but how is that effect achieved? Make your setting a character is a common piece of advice given to fiction writers, yet beyond invoking all five senses when describing the scenery, there’s not a lot of info out there about exactly how to do it.


—By Donald Maass, agent and author of The Breakout Novelist


A setting can be a huge draw for your audience and can set the tone for your whole book. A forest containing leafless trees in the middle of a cloudy winter night sets a tone for a story or scene the same way a sunny beach in the middle of the Pacific can.

The way you design a setting for your book is done the same way you design any other character: by matching it to your book’s tone, theme, and practical considerations. Think about how you’re using word choice, and what role the setting will play in the story. But most importantly you want to focus on the combination of setting details and the emotions attached to them.


Tone


The tone of your setting is very important. When I wrote Hearts Unleashed I knew I wanted to set it in Montana. But I needed to go beyond that. I needed to get into the season. What season would flow with the character journey. So, I began in fall and when my characters were at their lowest it was winter. I made sure on the good days the details matched the feelings and heightened them. The bright sunshine with the smell of lavender floating through the window. While on bad days the sun was too bright, the air too cold, and whatever smell so overpowering it made a character queezy.


It was also a place that could be magical, could be unforgiving and tough, and could also breath in life and new beginnings. I planned the setting and tone for each scene so that it was a character that either enhanced my other characters or challenged them.


Theme


When you’re thinking about your next book, consider how a small town might provide a great container for the quirky cast of side characters you have in mind. Or how a big city bodega could provide the same gathering place, with a little more urban sophistication. How an old-fashioned couple might fit well on a horse ranch, or perhaps caretaking a string of cozy lakeside cottages somewhere with heaps of trees and flowers.


As part of the tone, underline and enhance the impact of your setting by the word choices you use in your descriptions.


You build your scenes with multisensory imagery: with what your character sees and picks up and plugs her nose to avoid and pretends not to hear. But even more than using the five senses, you need to think about the atmosphere you’re building with word choice. Just think of how a cabin in the woods can be chainsaw-massacre creepy, or cozy and romantic with a flickering fire and a fuzzy throw blanket.


Practical Considerations


In most cases, practical considerations dictate where you can or can’t set a book. For example, if you are writing a hockey series you have to consider where to set that. The middle of Wyoming wouldn’t work as applications such as the rink, bringing in fans, and how to make money to pay not just the team but all the other business aspects like hotels for opposing teams to stay at are practical considerations you need to consider. But sometimes practical considerations of the setting can become part of the conflict. Never more so than when the couple has to decide where they wanted to live, since their homes and families are thousands of miles apart. And that can be lots of fun as well.


In Conclusion


So, you’ve chosen a setting that matches your book’s tone and themes, and you’ve worked through the practical considerations. What else do you need in order to write your setting as a character?


You want to link the setting to emotion.


As a child, did you have a special summer place? A beach house, or a lake cabin? One that’s been in the family for years, rich in history, stocked with croquet mallets, special iced tea glasses, and a rusty rotary lawn mower?


For me, it was our summer house in Greece. Well, actually it was a family member’s place we went to every summer. My grandmother did things differently that at first I found gross like dunking bread into milk. Who does that? But it was also the only time throughout the year we got to drink Tang (does that even exist anymore). And let’s not talk about the fact you didn’t need an alarm clock because the cicadas were so damn loud. But I also loved to sit on the balcony and read while breathing the cool salty air that would while eating Arcor strawberry hard candies and listening to chirping bright yellow canary.


Now, let me ask you this: Without looking back over what you just read, what do you remember best about what I wrote? Was it a detail? Or was a feeling? Whatever your answer, I would argue that you remember what you remember not because of the details themselves or the emotions they invoke in me, but because both those details and personal feelings are present. In other words, the combination of setting details and the emotions attached to them that, together, make a place a living thing.


My advice is mainly to think about this and plan ahead, so you’re mindfully using the setting to support your creative vision instead of just having it as an afterthought. Mary Buckham has some great books on how to use setting and I find them to be an excellent resource.

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