Setting as Character: How to Make Your Setting Speak
Places have personalities just like people. The misty green hills of Ireland have a very different feel than the glistening snow-like hills of White Sands national park. Boulder, Colorado is known for its mountains and unique brand of liberals while Texas is known for its heat, size, and Southern drawl conservatives. Your setting should feel alive to your readers and can become a full character.
Specific Details Show Your Setting’s Personality
Writers are told to get specific with their descriptions, but that doesn’t mean you need to describe every nuance of your setting. Instead, focus on the details that impact your story and are unique. In the beginning of The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman describes the setting with the lines:
You could see the abandoned funeral chapel, iron doors padlocked, ivy on the sides of the spire, a small tree growing out of the guttering at roof level. You could see tombs and vaults and memorial plaques. You could see the occasional dash or scuttle of a rabbit or vole or weasel as it slipped out of the undergrowth and across the path (12).
Notice how Gaiman goes into detail about the funeral chapel but does not describe the tombs at all. He focused on the chapel because that space is about to host a meeting. He didn’t focus on the tombstones in this scene because they don’t impact the current scene and he could trust his readers to be able to imagine them. The chapel being reclaimed by nature creates a feeling of abandonment, but the animal scurrying lets the reader know there are still living creatures present. This gives the graveyard a feeling of mystery and secrets, yet it doesn’t seem ominous.
Another way to think about your setting’s details is to think of describing a person. If you were to describe your best friend, would you only give a physical description? I bet you’d also share their nonphysical traits. The same goes for your setting. Think about qualities other than the physical. Is your setting the equivalent of a bubbly teenage girl looking with endless optimism or is it a pessimistic old man who has seen too many hardships and betrayals to trust newcomers? Try describing your setting’s personality the same way you would a person you know and use that to guide which details your choose to focus on.
Feel the Emotion of Your Setting
Similar to your setting’s personality, your readers should also be able to feel the emotion of a place. Is your setting a cold, harsh, unforgiving place that will inspire a sense of loneliness and hopelessness in your reader? Or is it Tolkien’s shire: lush, vibrant, filled with friendly people and making readers feel welcome and peaceful? A hospital room can feel sterile, clinical, and unsympathetic or bright, warm, and caring.
Denis L. McKiernan shows the emotion of a cursed section of a winter woodland with the description:
. . . ahead stood a tangled, twisted wood, with barren, stark trees clawing at a drab, overcast sky. All was black and white and grey, no color whatsoever in the land (34).
The characters have clearly entered a dangerous place. The words tangled, twisted, barren, drab, and overcast combine to reveal the dark nature of this space and build suspense. These are emotionally impactful words.
One way to explore the emotion of your setting is through the eyes of your characters. Their opinion might be a bit biased, but your reader will know how much they can trust their descriptions. J.K. Rowling does this in her famous Harry Potter series. Because Harry is new to the wizarding world, he looks at everything with a joyous wonder, making the reader feel similar emotions. How does your protagonist view their setting?
Your Setting Should Change Over Time
Your setting can become a character in different degrees. Sometimes the setting isn’t a major player, so you might treat it more like a minor character. Other times your setting is truly a complete character. Stephen King is know for making his settings, especially small towns, full characters. The hotel in The Shinning is definitely a character. So is the town in Carrie, which on the first page says:
Nobody was really surprised when it happened, not really, not at the subconscious level where savage things grow. On the surface, all the girls in the shower room were shocked, thrilled, ashamed, or simply glad that the White bitch had taken it in the mouth again (3-4).
In passages like these the town – or setting – speaks directly to the reader, but that isn’t enough to become a character. The main reason King’s settings are characters is because they change.
Like other characters, your setting should change over time. There should be some sort of arc or goals for the place. In Carrie’s case the town is destroyed in the end. Your setting’s change doesn’t have to be that drastic. It could be as simple as new furniture, another headstone, or a new season. When your setting changes, it shows the passage of time and reinforces the changes in your other characters. Sometimes the setting remains the same, but your characters see it differently. Either way, your reader needs to see change by the end of your story.
Why an Editor Recommends Thinking of Your Setting as a Character
When you treat your setting as a character by revealing its personality, feeling, and changes as well as a standard description, that setting lingers with your readers. It becomes the type of place people want to write fan fiction about and continue to explore. Thinking of your setting as a character, even if just for a moment when describing it, will help you think deeper about what it feels like to be there. This can lead to fuller descriptions of your setting and more ways your setting can become an obstacle for your characters. Use your setting’s personality, emotion, and arc to make it feel alive and Ignite Your Ink.
How do you make your settings a character? Share your approach in the comments below. For more articles on setting and other aspects of writing and a free Guide to Developing Strong Settings, subscribe to Ignite Your Ink.
Ignite Your Ink is written by editor and author Caitlin Berve. She holds a MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics, actively participates in multiple writers’ organizations, and is dedicated to helping writers produce content that leaves an impression on readers.