Setting in fiction hooks in a reader, letting them sink into a world of the author’s making. It has been my abiding fascination in my own writing–how setting can become part of the plot, and how the way characters interpret setting gives us a clue into who they are, their state of mind, and their evolution through the character arc.
I’m no expert, however, so I asked my friend, author Bonnar Spring, who is. She writes eclectic and stylish mystery-suspense novels with an international flavor. An inveterate traveler, she hitchhiked across Europe at sixteen and joined the Peace Corps after college. For twenty-five years, Bonnar has been teaching ESL—English as a Second Language—at a community college. She currently divides her time between tiny houses on a New Hampshire salt marsh and by the Sea of Abaco.
I recently read her book Disappeared, and if you haven’t already picked it up, I highly recommend it. Take it away, Bonnar!
We’ve created interesting characters and given them a compelling problem to solve—but they can’t bounce around in a featureless room for three hundred pages, so we study Google Maps and dog-ear our thesauri for descriptive words. While useful for visualizing realistic settings, we need to look beneath the surface because places have personalities just like people. We need to go beyond the “use all five senses” descriptions, beyond dialect, beyond name-dropping local foods or monuments to discover what is unique about our setting for our characters so we can integrate setting into the story in a way that connects it with their experiences. That way we can integrate setting into the story in a way that connects it with their experiences.
Let’s talk about how we might do that:
- If we describe a character, we often begin with a physical description— old guy with a limp, tall red-head. We’d make it distinctive without resorting to a boring laundry list of minutiae. Remember, less is more. The reader doesn’t need to know about the butterfly tattoo on the red-head’s shoulder . . . unless, of course, the tattoo is how her body gets recognized. (Sorry, I write crime fiction!)
Introducing a setting works the same way. First, what are its salient features? Then what essential details do we need to advance the plot or flesh out the theme? Imagine a woman walking along a wooded mountain trail. We could start by describing the trees—color and texture—or the condition of the path—muddy, steep—focusing on images that make our storyscape vivid and relatable. And mix in details that impact the story: Is someone following her? (we need to hear the crunch of dry leaves) Will she fall? (contours of the land, obstacles)
- Then make the setting come alive by sharing its nonphysical traits—just like human characters. (old guy with a limp who played professional football for twenty years/tall red-head who’s the life of every party)
We could include backstory—how its history affects a location. Think about post-WWII Europe: the backdrop of the demolished continent healing its wounds as it returns to life is a rich foil for character interactions, whether in a romance or horror or police procedural.
Personality is another non-physical attribute. Put your characters in Paris, for example. The dynamism and charm of the City of Light will give rise to a different book than one set in a dusty frontier town. Or on the moon.
Note: If you are writing sci-fi or fantasy—or if you’re simply inventing a quasi real-world locale—all of my points still apply. To come alive, setting needs identifiable physical and emotional characteristics. The difference is that you get to make them up!
- Readers should also be able to feel the emotion of a place. Is your setting a harsh, unforgiving place that will inspire a sense of loneliness and hopelessness in your reader? Or is it lush, vibrant, filled with friendly people and making readers feel welcome and peaceful? You can suggest emotion by careful choice of descriptive words.
An brief example from the book I’m reading, Zadie Smith’s White Teeth:
“The first spring of 1946, he had stumbled out of the darkness of war and into a Florentine coffee house, where he was served by a waitress truly like the sun: Ophelia Diagilo, dressed all in yellow, spreading warmth and the promise of sex as she passed him a frothy cappuccino.”
Also, is the setting’s mood in sync with that of the characters? Or does it run counter to the plot, i.e., is there conflict between the human characters and the setting?
A hospital room, for example, can be described as sterile, clinical, and unsympathetic or bright, warm, and caring. How does the patient lying in bed experience it? How does that alter the emotion?
- Developing a main character using observations by people they interact with is an essential tool in the writer’s toolbox. Setting seen through the eyes of different characters works the same way.
One often-used example is Harry Potter’s arrival at Hogwarts, the wizard school. To Harry, the setting is unfamiliar and eye-popping. His reactions and descriptions chronicle his amazement for the reader. But to his friend, Ron, who grew up with wizards and magic, it’s old hat.
In my newly-released thriller, Disappeared, Julie, the main character, hires Ahmed to guide her into the Sahara Desert. Through her confusion and fear, we first see the desert as hostile, but Ahmed calms her with his knowledge and observations.
- Have you considered that, like characters, setting might change over time? Some settings fall more into the category of minor character. Like human characters, however, if setting plays a significant role, it might have its own story arc because, when setting changes, it shows the passage of time and reinforces the changes in other characters. Sometimes the setting remains the same, but a character sees it differently. In Disappeared, for example, what Julie learns from Ahmed about the desert, leads her to adapt—and saves her life.
- This brings up my last point: Setting relates to time as well as place. Historical novelists research what makes the period of their novels different from present day. They need to know the ‘facts’ but it takes more to create a sense of the times on the page. Setting comes alive partly in its details and partly in the way that the story’s characters experience it.
The best tip I ever got for hooking a story into a specific time is to vary the characters’ reactions to their environment: Listen to different news channels or read different newspapers, and you quickly get the idea that not everyone sees our times in the same way. Outlooks vary. That should also be true for fictional characters, past and present. As in so many aspects of novel construction, creating a sense of the times first requires filtering the world through your characters.
Just as a writer selects salient details in introducing a person, we can highlight aspects of the landscape’s personality that are unique or that impact the story. And, similar to its personality, readers should also feel the emotion of a place—inviting, hostile, confusing, boring. Creating an authentic environment adds extra richness to the interplay between it and our human characters. In fact, just imagining our setting as character helps us feel more nuance about what it’s like to be there.
If you’re a writer, what do you think of Bonnar’s tips? If you’re a reader, which books drew you in with their atmospheric setting? For similar guest posts about other aspects of writing craft and publication, click here.
Morocco is on my bucket list of places to visit, so I when I started on Disappeared, I was excited, and definitely looking forward to the experience. Bonnar does not disappoint. The story of two sisters out on vacation where one goes missing starts off like many others, but takes an unusual turn and the suspense builds from there.
The writing at the sentence level is stunning, and I would have read the book for that alone, but Spring also weaves an engaging tale of mystery, high tension, political intrigue, and family relationships. I could feel the heat of the desert, the sand on my skin, hear the sounds of Moroccan streets. I was there for the celebrations of religious holidays, the clothes and the delicious food.
Bonnar’s advice above is clearly based on her own experience as a writer, and I can’t wait to hear what you all think of her work!
My own lit crime novel, The Blue Bar will be out this October with Thomas & Mercer. It is already available for preorders. Add it to Goodreads or pre-order it to make my day.
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Hi Damyanti – I can see why ‘Disappeared’ enticed you … I too would love to visit Morocco … while Bonnar’s ideas really opened my eyes to ideas. Cheers Hilary
Disappeared is a fab read, I absolutely recommend it, Hilary.
A very interesting read
I often toy with the idea of setting as a character. It adds a nuanced feeling that you maybe can’t get to with a real person. What an interesting life Ms. Spring has had. The book sounds awesome.
When I speak to a group of writers, I almost always get the chicken-and-egg question: Which comes first—your characters or your plot? My reply: “neither.” For me, inspiration comes first with the setting. It’s the canvas on which I paint my story.
As a reader who has come to identify place as a character, I found this extremely interesting. If the setting is a real place I need to check its location on a map and look at some images to add to my mental image as I absorb the protagonist’s response to it. Having visited the place can be either helpful or disconcerting.
That’s an intriguing observation, thanks for commenting.
Thank you both.
Settings often change my mood/perspective so it makes a heap of sense to me when the setting of a novel becomes a powerful character.
Yes! That’s exactly right.
I was dealing with these very setting questions just this morning!
Hope my comments were helpful.
Those are good! Really gets into the depth of a setting.
Thanks, Alex. Glad you enjoyed it. I love a well-written book with a dynamite plot AND a vivid and believable setting.
Hope my comments were helpful.
I absolutely agree. I love authors who bring a setting alive–as you discuss. Matthiessen does that so well. Thanks for the discussion. I’ll check out this book!
Peter Matthiessen is one of my favorite writers! Other authors you might consider are William Kent Krueger and Peter Heller. Both create immersive settings that intricately mesh with their plots.