Setting as a Character

Setting as a Character

Places in some of the best fiction are as memorable as the characters. Think Manderley in Rebecca or Wuthering Heights, or Lilliput, or Pemberley. They can also be used to set the tone of a piece or a scene e.g. a clifftop,  cemetery, a small town, or London.

Information on setting can be revealed slowly like a character. Descriptions can include metaphors, factual information, emotional or historical associations, to make them more vivid.

Think about the function that your setting is trying to play in your story. Is it to induce wonder, remind you of the familiar, provide danger or mystery, or hint at or foreshadow what is to come? How can the setting for a particular scene enhance what you want the reader to feel? Think of the emotions you are trying to evoke and how setting can help with this?

Setting is more than just a building. It is the accents, the inhabitants, the history, the thieves, the crooks, the police, the management, the servants, the rich, the poor, the traders etc. Give your settings life.

It is also not created in a vacuum. What does it smell like? Sound like? Feel like? How is it lit? How does this change based on the time of day? Sensory description will bring the setting to life.

When is your Place being revealed i.e. when is your story set? Is it pre-electricity, pre-Siri, or post-apocalyptic? Use historical events or details to enhance your setting. The 1970s geometric brown wallpaper, the dark Victorian mahogany furniture, the spindly Georgian chair legs, and Adams fireplaces.

If you don’t know the answers to these questions how can your reader fully imagine the place? However if it is somewhere that everyone knows or the details aren’t relevant to the plot, keep it generic – the high street, school, the theatre – just mention the setting and move on – your readers will join up the dots.

Zoom in and out from the place to show how it fits into your world. Think of the panoramic shot at the start of a film and how it moves closer to the action to reveal more detail. Use this technique in your writing.

Is it a place and time remembered by your character, in which case you can be vague and wrong as long as you make it obvious that the detail is being misremembered. But if you are setting your story during a particular time you need to be certain of sufficient detail to convince the reluctant reader that you know your stuff and not prevent them from suspending their disbelief.

The setting should be experienced aurally – the character hears the sounds of the place – then visually – they see the sights – then emotionally – what do they feel? – then via action – what they do and how this is influenced by the setting.
You should create your world or reflect the settings in your book as if they are characters. Only use a fraction of the information you have to give a sketch and let the reader fill in the gaps.

But world building should cover:

  • Place
  • The elements. Weather. Light. Seasons. Time of day. Temperature. Sounds. Smells.
  • The physical. Buildings. Landscape. Location. Details e.g. post boxes, street names, litter, shops, the people, animals, fashion etc
  • Time. The Music. Fashion. Politics. Food. Design.
  • People: who are the passers-by, police, etc. How do they talk – dialect, slang, accents?
  • What is it really like for your characters? Fresh clean air, smoky fires,
Tools for Developing your Setting

If you are writing fantasy or sci-fi, in order to visualise your world try drawing pictures e.g. a map of the country or a full floor plan of the city. Include two obstacles the traveller might face. Include the location of two creatures or characters. Include a place where the character feels safe or a place where a secret may be found.
Imagine a seasoned traveller visiting this continent or country or city or a repeat visitor to the house. Use this as the basis for exploring your environments and draw inspiration from some of the features in your map to advise of dangers and delights in your fantasy world.