Do You Enjoy Settings?

Character. Plot. Setting.
Of those three, which do you enjoy writing the most?

For myself (and many writers I know), character usually takes the top spot. Humans connect with other humans, after all, so it’s often easier to invest oneself in characters and their conflicts.

A place, though important, is a bit more difficult and, if you’re one of those writers who struggle with setting (I know I am), I’d like to share an approach that might help.

Treat Your Setting Like a Character
I’ve talked about this before. Memorable fictional characters always have strong characteristics. You need to explore how to assign equally vivid characteristics to your settings, and suggest those characteristics to your readers.

Let’s review some of the questions I’ve suggested you ask yourself when creating characters:

1. What does this character look like?
2. What is this character’s backstory?
3. What does this character want?
4. What secrets does this character hold?
5. What is this character’s conflict?

Now that we’ve reviewed the questions, let’s answer them … only this time not for the characters … for the setting.

1. Appearance
Most writers begin describing setting with question one, using a few sentences to set the scene. It’s the most basic aspect of setting and likely the most obvious. Consider this, from my award-winning novel, Reichold Street:

The day started as a humid, hurt-your-lungs-on-a-deep-breath morning. A blistering sun was rising over the railroad switching yard at the far end of the street. Its red-orange glare filtered through exhausted-looking trees, while sinuous heat ribbons shimmered over motionless freight cars, their rusty shapes defined like so many slumbering beasts.

2. Backstory
Like many great characters, the best settings have detailed histories such as this, again from Reichold Street:

He was looking at the old Cantwell Place. It was funny how no one back then thought of that old house as anything else. Cecil Cantwell, the only son of one of Brickdale’s founders, had built it. He had lived in it with his wife for more than seventy years. The house was there even before the railroad tracks were laid.

“Meet you by Cantwell’s.” Everyone in Brickdale, and in several other communities around it, knew that meant the east end of Reichold Street. People used it as a landmark.

Cecil had died the previous fall, about the time leaves started to turn. The maple in front of Mrs. Murphy’s house was a beautiful golden color the day I heard about his passing. I never knew exactly why he died. He was ninety-seven and I presumed he just wore out. His wife, a frail old stick, followed him a few days before Christmas.

The house had been empty since then. Someone came by and mowed the lawn each week, but no one tended the flowers, pulled weeds, or repainted the shutters from the old can of Leaf Green #502 on the shelf in the garage. Then the Toothpick Man showed up.

3. Motive
How can a setting have a motive? How can it want anything? You might be wondering, why should I care? Well, if you treat the setting as a character and consider what it wants, you add depth.

4. Secrets
This one may or may not apply to your setting but it’s a potent addition when it works. A setting with a secret is just as compelling as any secretive character. For example, take Stephen King’s spooky novel, The Shining. At the beginning of the novel, the Overlook seems to be an ordinary (although creepy) hotel. As the story progresses, we discover that the hotel has its own agenda and its own secrets.

5. Conflict
Great characters have conflicts, and so do great settings. listen to the implications of this excerpt from my novel, Blood Lake:

“Why did Luther call this Blood Lake?” I said. “I always thought this was the Watts Barr.”

“It is Watts Barr Lake,” Harold said. “You’d have known about the family name for it, if your father had done what he was supposed to.”

“Oh…” was all I could think of to say.

Harold pointed out into the lake from where we sat. “The stockade where Tsali was shot used to sit on the banks of the Tennessee River,” he said. “The natural flow of the river was right over there. At least it was until the TVA built the dam.”

“That doesn’t explain…” I started to say, still unable to complete my thought.

“There’s a lot of Burnett blood already in that water,” Harold said. “A lot of Cherokee blood, too.”

He went silent after that.

Suggesting a Setting’s Characteristics
I know you’ve heard me talk about show, don’t tell. It’s a fine rule of thumb. The same goes for describing a setting.

Show your setting’s traits through action. Cormac McCarthy didn’t just tell us the world was dangerous in The Road. He showed it by populating that world with marauders and cannibals. If your setting is trying to kill your protagonists, it’ll feel more like a character.

Developing the Arc of Your Setting
Characters have arcs. So, like characters, great settings often have arcs as well. This might sound like an odd concept at first, but it really can make a difference in your writing.

To build your setting’s arc, consider what your setting is like at the beginning of the story, what it becomes by the end, and what happens in the middle to make it so.

Maybe you start with an idyllic, pastoral country which ends up ravaged by war. Or your post-apocalyptic wasteland might be restored to beauty by the heroics of your protagonist. Or perhaps your setting stays just the way it always was despite what happened in the middle.

Whatever arc you choose, just knowing about it as you write should improve your setting.

Use these tips to make your settings feel like characters. You’ll be amazed by the results!

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I’ll be at Lev Raphael’s Master Class at Oakland University tomorrow. Then I’ll be joining other authors signing books at Detroit Festival of Books at Eastern Market on July 21 and at SterlingFest in Sterling Heights, Michigan on July 27.

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Gentle Readers, my books have all garnered some terrific reviews. You can see all of them by using the Amazon link below. Check them out. Better yet, buy one and read it. You just might like it.

buy now;

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You’re invited to visit my author’s website, BROKEN GLASS to hear the remarkable radio interview about my novel “Blood Lake” on The Authors Show. You can also like my Book of Face page, find me on Goodreads, or follow my shorter ramblings on The Twitter.

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Comments posted below will be read, greatly appreciated and perhaps even answered.

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