Thursday, January 10, 2013

Setting as Character

Jill Elizabeth Nelson here, Dear Readers.

As readers, you may not always notice how important setting is to our stories. In fact, we hope you aren’t always aware of the techniques we use to make our settings as much a character in the story as our human characters. We just want you to settle in and enjoy the tale. But here on this blog, you have the opportunity to peek behind the curtain, so to speak, as I reveal a few of our secrets and techniques.

Setting is crucial to our storytelling. It is not a flat, static backdrop against which our characters move and speak; it is a living, fluid element with which our characters interact much like another character in the story. Setting can and should provide conflict and obstacles and challenges to the characters, as well as orienting the reader to a place and time. Setting must integrate with the action of a story, not pause it. Setting should stimulate reader emotions just as do characters and situations.

Just for fun, let’s break down these elements and look at them more closely.

Setting as Conflict/Obstacle/Challenge

The most obvious examples of this purpose for setting are stories that focus on man vs. nature. Entire novels and screen plays have been devoted to characters battling the sea and/or creatures in it (Moby Dick) or characters pitted against a storm (the movie Twister) or an earthquake and/or series of natural disasters (the movie 2012).  

To a lesser but as vital degree, all settings should contain elements of conflict, obstacle, or challenge to the characters. Otherwise, why set the story in that place and time?

For example, a historical novel may present unique obstacles to characters in the form of the mores, values, and expectations of that time period. Or a novel set in a certain country must take into account the culture of that country, which will aid or hinder the progress of the characters toward their goals.

Setting Integrated with Action

Setting description should never stop the forward flow of the story. We don’t want to have a character walk in and case the joint, giving an item-by-item description of what he or she sees, smells, hears, etc. This stops the story dead in its tracks for a glob of details that will have little or no interest value for your reader until these details become integral to the action.

We want to describe the setting as the character experiences their surroundings for him or herself. Characters should interact with the setting (like a stage actor using props).  We don’t want to explain what something is by telling the reader the definition. We strive to show the reader what something is by putting the item into context as the character uses it or views it or smells it or tastes it or hears it or feels it.

Setting That Stimulates Reader Emotions

The “Dark and Stormy Night” principal can be used to great effect in our novels. While avoiding clich├ęs, the location and setting conditions (such as weather) of our scenes should be used to best advantage to set the mood for that scene.

Setting descriptions should also stimulate the senses—all five of them. It’s important that we don’t confine ourselves to the Big Two: hearing and sight. Some of the richest sensory stimulations come from smell, touch, or taste.

Finally, we give attention to ways that setting details can spark emotions unique to the character and situation. Does looking at a certain color of sky evoke a poignant memory? Does an object in the room draw loathing or dread from your character’s heart? Does a smell evoke longing? If the emotional reaction of the character is believable and warranted in the story, it will stimulate our readers’ emotions in similar ways.

All of these functions fit within four basic purposes for setting in our stories:

  1. To orient the reader
  2. Set mood
  3. Provide a platform for action
  4. Provide opportunities for character development

Which of these functions do you think is the LEAST important?

If you said number one—to orient the reader—you would be correct. Notice, I didn’t say that reader orientation is unimportant. It is basic and essential, but unless the function of reader orientation is combined with at least one of the other elements, then setting has become sterile. It will bore readers, which is a cardinal sin for a writer. ;-)

Feel free to share with us titles of books that have been particularly memorable to you because of the settings and tell us why that is. I'm eager to hear about it.

Adieu for now, Faithful Readers!


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I removed my first comment because it wasn't complete and there was a word spelled wrong! *Gasp*
    The Bible is the perfect book to go to for every aspect of writing. I can envision (With an e not i) the place, time, action, and characters as the drama unfolds and I never tire of reading it. The Bible is the only book whose author never makes mistakes. :)