May 25 2013

Setting as a Character

Published by at 11:12 pm under Guest Articles,Setting

New writers have a tendency to focus so much on their character development that they forget that the right setting can be just as important. Setting provides a picture for a reader, without which your characters are flying through nothingness. Action and drama mean very little without interaction between the characters and their environment so, in the right circumstances, a well-established setting can become a character in its own right. Think of Hogwarts, where the staircases are just as likely to move as the people walking on them, a flying car that saves the protagonist from his enemies and the hidden caverns and passages which not only help move plot along but which often interface with the characters too. It is this intelligent use of setting that sets your work apart from average writers and makes your work truly readable and re-readable.

Magic

“I don’t believe in the kind of magic in my books. But I do believe something very magical can happen when you read a good book.”

–J K Rowling

 

Setting can be magical without the presence of magic though. If you’ve ever visited the ancient ruins of a castle, you will know that age brings with it a sense of history and stories unknown. So as your character stumbles across a castle in the night, a hundred feet tall all around, its harsh grey stone covered in green and gold lichen which reflects the moonlight and all but one window dark, you are able to bring about a sense of age and vastness, a sense of mystery and majesty. Similarly, if you’ve ever found yourself in an exotic plant store, there is something about the bizarre, unknown vegetation that demonstrates you don’t need a tree that takes a swing at you as you pass to give a fantastical element to the setting. In the shade of leaning palms, your character finds escape from the arid heat. Winding your way along an isolated trail in the Amazon rainforest, the flora and fauna hold a great deal of surprises, distractions, obstacles and dangers which can be relevant to the progress of your story. Familiarity is what causes something to become clichéd. As long as you stay fresh and thoughtful about your setting then you won’t fall into this trap.

 

Emotion

“Your intellect may be confused, but your emotions will never lie to you.”

–Roger Ebert

 

Setting is also emotive which allows a writer to convey information subconsciously without explicitly saying it: an antagonistic setting filled with conflict is threatening, hindering, even blinding to a character and her goals, whereas a tranquil meadow or waterfall is a place for recuperation, reflection and even romance in the right scenario. Think of a situation where your character and their love interest are swimming in a pool at the base of a picturesque waterfall, somewhere warm even in the peak of winter. Water glistens from their hair and bodies and they embrace in the luscious green water. They gaze at each other, that invisible tether called love pulling them toward one another. They kiss under the rushing water falling from above and they make love in front of the campfire. How romantic would this have been in a busy public swimming pool or in the bath at your Nan’s house? The isolation of the setting, the beauty of their surroundings and the romance that has blossomed between them so far in the story are the aspects that demonstrate how setting can be used to make a reader feel a certain way in combination with circumstance. I tend to feel that it is your characters’ role to move your story along but, in the periods when your story is stationary or runs at a slower pace, it is the role of the setting to dictate drama.

 

In the opposite way, the presence of a lot of people, loud noises, discomfort and stress can result in frustration and anger for individual characters or the cast of characters as a whole. For example, imagine somebody who your character cares about deeply has died. He has attended the funeral and, grieving, he finds himself drowning his sorrows at a local bar. The slightest thing could make him flip out so if a tertiary character says the wrong thing or breaks the tension in the wrong way, somebody could get hurt. The same can be said for somebody bumping into him in the street, spilling his drink, crashing into his car, running over his cat, drinking the last of the milk… You get the idea. Humanity is not known for its composure when under stress. So setting can produce the lit match you need for your character to explode in the right way.

 

Symbolism

“Friendship is the shadow of the evening, which increases with the setting sun of life.”

–Jean de la Fontaine

 

The various settings available for you to use are endless, limited only by your imagination. Each setting that you choose says something about the freedom of your characters and provides a reflection of your characters feelings and emotions. The use of metaphor in this way can provide a deeper-seated meaning to your story than pragmatism alone. In this way, the setting can act on your characters just as much as your characters can act on it. No superhero story or comic book is complete without the hero being slammed into a building or plummeting to the ground, creating a superhero-shaped hole in the street, but there are interactions between your setting and characters that will excite, sadden or anger your reader just as much as character development. Consider how Marvel fans feel about Avengers Mansion, Stark Tower or the Baxter Building and think about how they would feel about one of these locations being taken over or destroyed (as they have been numerous times!). Alternatively, at the top of a very tall building, one is subject to interference from helicopters, aeroplanes (think King Kong!), inter-dimensional portals, re-entry from rockets, flying pigs, acid rain which melts humans to their bones… Possibilities = endless!

 

The nuanced subtlety of metaphor in your setting delivers an even bigger hit though. Think of a toy shop – it communicates youth, innocence and fun. But when all the toys come to life and start attacking residents, it is more shocking. This reversal of a reader’s expectations is where you, as a writer, are most able to create and manipulate emotion, showing how the relationship between your characters, your plot and your setting is vital.

 

Setting affects characters. When you elect to use a perfectly ordinary setting, your readers are likely familiar with such a setting and will have certain expectations that you will need to meet for your story to have any continuing believability. That doesn’t mean you have to name every shop as they exist if your character walks down Fifth Avenue in New York City, but you have to give a good reason for that stray elephant or if the sky starts falling.

 

If you decide to stray into the wild and unexplored, the unknown settings like foreign planets, different dimensions or the hollow Earth, make sure you understand the implications of this. You will need to ensure that you follow the rules of sense and sensibility when considering the actions of your characters – if your story is set on Mars in the far future, your characters likely won’t sit down for a hearty portion of steak and chips. In fact, if they’ve never lived on Earth, they might not have ever had meals that we would consider ‘normal’, might not travel around the same way, might not even breathe the same way we do. Build up from the basics to ensure your story is full of the finest details. My advice is: don’t take anything for granted as your setting provides you the amazing opportunity to be free to create your own world.

 

Character

“Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.”

–Ray Bradbury

 

Like a character, your setting can have a change of climate, degrade and die, shape-shift, tell lies, disguise horrors underneath or all of the above. This empowers you as a writer/demi-god because you are able to make great use of your settings while your characters live out their experiences at the whim of your pen. And, in so doing, your settings take on a character of their own who can be best friends with your characters or their worst enemies. An ocean tide with thirty foot waves crashing into shore. Your characters are trapped in a small fishing vessel, fighting their way toward the port. Water erupts over the bow of the ship and the men hold onto anything they can lay their hands on to hold them upright. Forcefully, one of the deck hands is thrown against the portside wall of the cabin, the impact of his head shattering the glass and the windstorm blowing through the hole left behind. Suddenly, a thump on the deck panics the crew. The captain doesn’t turn toward the threat; he combats the pull of his boat with the current, desperate to move the vessel into a haven of safety.

 

When your setting is your characters’ enemy, it makes for great action but is exhausting and becomes tedious if it remains this way for too long. It is why a lot of writers tend to skip from setting to setting, keeping it fresh while keeping the action relentless. Robert Ludlum, for example, can easily utilise ten settings in as many pages, with different characters. Other writers, like Matthew Reilly, break up the action with flashbacks or description. By establishing changes in your setting, your character can follow your narrative easily, allowing them to sit back and enjoy the action like a good movie.

 

A passive setting which is pleasant for the characters is used to give a break from action as well, however, it is often where the characters find themselves most threatened as they feel secure and let their guard down before… POW! The floor disappears beneath them, the roof is ripped off the place or bullets start flying. Keep this in mind for plot twists as unexpected action is often more effective than serving action up whenever you feel like it. Remember, if you don’t expect it as a writer, then it will shock the hell out of your readers!

 

Conclusion

“Never write about a place until you’re away from it, because that gives you perspective.”

–Ernest Hemingway

 

By manipulating your setting to make your characters feel a certain way, to create a deeper metaphor for their attitudes or feelings, or to directly interact with your characters, a reader is able to put their feet on the ground using their imagination and experience what you right and fill in the rest. So every time your character feels the raindrops hit their face or trips over that tree root, your readers are able to more easily relate to your character and the events that are unfolding. The most enjoyable experience of reading is a story’s relationship to us, the way it links with our lives, our dreams, our nightmares. If you are able to achieve this and genuinely incorporate your setting into each stage of your story, your story writing will grow along with it.

 

Nathan James-Turner is an aspiring fantasy fiction and comic book writer. Please feel free to contact Nathan with your comments or questions at njamesturner@gmail.com or on Twitter @NJamesTurner.

7 responses so far

7 Responses to “Setting as a Character”

  1. Elecon 26 May 2013 at 12:40 am

    This is really in depth 🙂
    I do think this is excellent advice, and I’ll be sure to integrate it as best as I can into my story, although I’ll probably have to wait for the second draft (At 71 000 words, so not much to go :))

  2. NJamesTurneron 26 May 2013 at 2:31 am

    Hi Elec, thanks for your feedback on the article. Congratulations, it sounds like you’re a significant way through your novel now at 71k. Make sure you stay with it. –NJT

  3. Yuuki12on 27 May 2013 at 10:36 am

    A very insightful article. This is very helpful for me, given that my story (which is about how a series of high tech elves arrive on earth, bent on wanting to take it over), is settled in the United States, utilizing different settings, such as forests, prairies, deserts etc. are crucial because I want to convey all those notions you have brought forth.

    Plus, I want to emphasize the fact that it is a Dungeons and Dragons style adventure in the real world.

  4. R.O.S IIIon 27 May 2013 at 8:57 pm

    I’ve actually been waiting for a good setting article for a LONG while. Not from you specifically, just in general, but I really enjoyed this one.

  5. NJamesTurneron 03 Jun 2013 at 7:12 am

    Yuuki12: Thank you, I’m glad you find it helpful. I think setting is so useful to bring across the experiences of your characters and the US is home to every topography you could ask for. Obviously D&D is known for its diverse settings, with different realms, deadly monsters, and magic so hopefully you can really go to town with your setting to compliment exactly what your characters are feeling and their development as they go about their adventure(/s).

    R.O.S III: Again, I’m really glad you enjoyed the article. Hopefully you can take something from what I’ve said to use in your writing.

    – NJT

  6. mildredon 19 Aug 2014 at 3:17 pm

    Thanks so much for this! Very helpful information that will come in handy as I write my scifi novel.

  7. Cat-vacuumer Supremeon 11 Oct 2016 at 8:41 am

    This article is great! It really gives me more to think about for one of my projects. Dream settings, especially fit this article.

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