We did it! This is officially the last post in the Building Setting series. I hope you all have enjoyed the information I've shared and had as much fun as I've been having helping you to build your settings. I also want to thank you all for following along on this amazing writing journey of mine. It really means a lot. If this is your first time visiting this blog, don't forget to click here and discover all the amazing writing tips and motivation that Writing It Wells has for you.
As the last topic for March's series, I've decided to show you how to make your setting as relevant as any of your characters. When a setting becomes memorable it's usually because it has taken on a life of its own, contributing to the overall story to the same extent as the characters themselves. Settings can lend power to your story, bring about dynamic change, and can impact your characters both positively and negatively. In some cases they even act metaphorically or enhance the drama of the story overall. Making your setting into a character is a common piece of advice given to writers, yet there isn't a lot of information available to show you exactly how it is achieved.
Making your setting a character:
When we sit down to write, we all want to put something down on the page that's going to enthrall our readers from the minute they read the first sentence. It's not enough to tell our stories, rather we must transport our readers to another place entirely. To do that we must enact a level of cunning that goes beyond mere mortal abilities. While signs of a good story are usually said to be finding a fresh setting and a unique "spin" on your plotline, you need to do a bit more to elevate your story to the next level.
While elements of description, dialogue, and cultural aspects can make your setting interesting, they will not be what ultimately ties everything together for your character. You have to look deeper in order to make a lasting impression. Rather than discovering what makes your setting intriguing to you, you need to discover what makes your setting special to your protagonist. This is tricky because it requires you to adopt a deeper lens from which to view their perspective, but doing so can be beneficial. It is this mindset that will help you see what the true potential of your setting is, and how to craft it so your readers can see it too.
Let me show you what I mean:
Link details and emotions
A picture of my grandparents at their wedding.
Close your eyes and imagine your favorite childhood place. Perhaps it was your grandmother's kitchen, a lake where your family vacationed, or your favorite ice cream parlor. What details come to you in your recollection? What has made a lasting impression on you?
For me it's my grandmother's home. Grandma Rose's house in Columbus, Ohio was my favorite summertime retreat. She had a house in a quaint and tidy suburban neighborhood filled with lush green lawns, well-trimmed pines, and classic dark brick homes. It presented itself with an air of quiet dignity and pride that reminded me of the European background from which my grandparents were raised. I still remember the way the grass felt under my bare feet- soft and scratchy- like a wool blanket. The crisp, fresh crunch that came with biting into one of my grandpa's homegrown peppers. The way my grandma would lean against the white kitchen counter and peacefully fold her hands while she watched us eat sugar in our cheerios first thing in the morning.
In the afternoon my sister and I would go outside to rough-house on the grass. While we waited for dinner we would come inside, lay out on the carpet, and watch Cartoon Network or Animal Planet on TV, a luxury we didn't have at home. We would brush out the hair on my mother's vintage Barbies or play "house" down in the cold, dimly-lit basement where numerous items of interest sat idle on the shelves.
At supper we would all gather at the fine wood table in the parlor (of which we were never allowed in otherwise), give our thanks to the Lord, and pass the plates around for helpings of hearty pot roast, potatoes, salad, and bread. I remember my grandpa never ate his supper without a stiff piece of bread with butter. My mother said it was a European thing.
I recall one Thanksgiving when grandma refused to let anyone help her cook. There were lots of squabbles with family members that day who wanted to contribute, but grandma was stubborn. I picked up a dirty plate and asked her what she wanted me to do with it. She didn't mind bossing me around so long as I didn't make her feel weak and feeble.
Now, without looking back on what you just read, what details stick out the strongest in your mind's eye? Was it the crisp, fresh crunch of the peppers, the vintage Barbie's, or my grandmother's stubbornness? What about in your own memories? Which details are the strongest?
We can recall these details above all others because of two things: 1) vivid description and 2) emotional connection. You need both in order to leave a lasting impression on your readers. You want them to remember because they are connecting with the feelings associated with your descriptions, so that when they close their eyes, they too can recall how it felt to be there with you in that moment.
Measure change over time
Over time places evolve and change, both on their own, and because of our perspective. As we grow older we tend to view the world around us differently, as our understanding of underlying implications and knowledge of our situation becomes more astute. The most profound of these realizations for me was realizing how dated my grandparents' home was in the later years of my adolescence. It had lost some of it's shiny zeal through which all my earlier youth was viewed. It changed from a home of magical summer mysticism to a place that seemed steeped in heavy tradition and outdated appliances.
Think of a situation where this has happened to you. Perhaps it was a place that you used to live, of which you haven't returned to or thought of as "home" in years. You may have experienced the surreal feeling of familiarity mixed with strangeness. It was the same, yet it wasn't. Sometimes change is an emotional or mental one rather than physical.
Seasonal differences and the nuanced changes they bring help add character to your setting. A protagonist who is a local living within an area would understand these minutiae details- enough to describe the "why's" behind them- even if they had left and were coming back after a long time away. A protagonist who was not local would view this setting completely different, and may commit a social faux pas because they don't understand the local customs.
For instance, as a Floridian I know that there are "seasons" here that don't exist anywhere else. When a local Floridian refers to seasons, they are not referring to the weather, as the weather almost never changes. What we are discussing is the change between snow birds clogging up our highways and the time when hurricanes show up and disrupt our day-to-day productivity. But, a stranger from up north probably wouldn't have the same interpretation. Just like how when we went to my grandmother's house for our first snowfall, my parents forgot that we were supposed to wear dark colored coats. We walked off the plane in neon-colored jackets and were stared at our entire stroll through the airport. We stuck out like flamingos on ice. I don't think there had ever been a time where I'd felt more "Floridian".
You can apply this to your settings by keeping in mind how your protagonist sees things. What changes do they notice? What has stayed the same? What do they see that a local or tourist might or might not? Use those details in your story to bring in the "flavor" of your location.
Remember: history is personal
It's easy to think of history as being far-removed from today. When events taking place in your novel happened in Victorian-era London, you're probably spending the majority of your writing time planning and researching the differences between technology, society, architecture, etc. Doing so can be a lot of fun, but when you sit down to write, remember that "the past" to your protagonist has a very different connotation. When you start crafting your vintage setting, keep in mind the underlying problems and emotions currently taking place within that time period.
For example, the pre-Civil war South is not the same South that emerged after the war. If you've ever read Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell or were born and raised in the Bible Belt, you'll know exactly what I'm referring to. Before the war the South was presented as an elegant society cultivated by picturesque landscapes and cold glasses of sweet tea underneath a scorching sun. Time was slower, actions lazier, and attitudes heavily restricted by tradition, religion, and racism. Once the war ended, this was no longer the case. Gone were the days of idealism and beauty, replaced by feelings of displacement, disillusionment, and the loss of a society that had never known any other way of living. It was replaced with a new ruthless lawlessness that changed the very fabric of society. What once was would never be again; a tapestry of desperation, death, sickness, and famine weaved society together again piece by splintered piece.
It's glaringly obvious how attitudes and feelings change throughout Scarlett's experiences, not just her own, but those of her society at large. The setting of the South undergoes such a drastic upheaval that it feels as though it is a person rather than a place. It's as though the "perfect" landscape is screaming in anguish during the war, and mourning the loss of it's beauty afterwards- not unlike Scarlett herself who despairs over the loss of her society, youth, family, vanity, and love interests during. Combined it creates a potent cocktail of contrast between protagonist and setting so that the two work in tandem, creating a story so vivid it goes down in history as one of the greatest works of fiction.
Questions to ask your setting
While the three points above are the best way for me to describe how to turn your setting into a character, this may not help you if you require a little more structure. Below is a compiled list of questions for you to use to "interview" your setting. They are originally from K.M. Weiland's blog Helping Writers Become Authors. By answering them you can gain insight into your setting that otherwise you may take for granted. For a more detailed description of each, check out Weiland's original post here.
Your setting's backstory
1. What people have been influential in shaping this setting’s past?
2. How cultured is this setting?
3. What educational opportunities are available?
4. What jobs are there?
5. What epochs have shaped this setting’s sense of identity?
6. What secrets is this place hiding?
Setting & Plot
1. How has the setting contributed to the inciting event?
2. How will the setting be altered by the first plot point?
1. What is this person’s outlook on life?
2. Does this person like living here?
3. Does this person plan to leave or stay?
4. What will be this person’s likely trajectory—from childhood to death?
5. Is your protagonist a representative of this typical resident—or not? Why?
Settings cannot exist without characters and your story cannot survive without having both. Utilizing the tips above can help you craft a setting that is brilliant in it's own right, able to support or challenge your protagonist almost as if it were a person itself.