Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Tuesday's Teaser: Create a Setting That's "In Character":Part One

What does the setting of your story say about the story itself, and more importantly, about your main character? Do you give much thought to the setting, or is it something that just "happens" as you go along?

Every character in your story lives, works, plays, cries, laughs, and thinks someplace. They don't just drift in and out of the story from out of the blue. Your MC doesn't live in some vague dimension where there is no sense of time, of space, atmosphere, or weather. She doesn't walk on air; she doesn't sit on nothing, and her five senses are not totally inactive for the length of your story.

Let's talk about those five senses first. As writers, we all rely heavily on sight, as that is our own human nature. When you use sight, what kind of description to you give? Let's say the MC is lost in the desert. Is that the end of it?  Perhaps you give the desert a name, talk about her dragging through the heavy sand. For example:

She stood on top of the dune and scanned the desert. She was lost, and she had no idea what to do next. All around her was sand, nothing but hot, deep sand. She brushed at the tears on her cheeks, and stepped resolutely forward.

That give us sight, but nothing more. We don't see or hear or smell or feel the desert. What about this next example:

 She stood on top of the dune and scanned the desert. There was nothing as far as she could see but the hot sand creating one mirage after another on the horizon. Overhead, the raucous cries of the turkey buzzards drifted down to her as they glided on the thermals in search of carrion. The slight breeze gifted her face with the red grit from the sand, and the unique odor of the creosote bushes was not one she could identify. A single tear crept down her cheek and kissed her lips with salt, before she brushed it away, and resolutely stepped forward into the deep sand.

Does this setting do more for the character? Do you get a sense of what SHE is feeling, seeing, hearing, smelling, and touching? Can you picture this location in your mind, and do so better than with the first example? If so, it is because this description uses all five senses, and it gives the reader two things: one is a true picture of the desert itself, and the other is a better understanding of  the character. She is no longer one dimensional, but she hears and smells and feels and tastes as well as sees...just like we do.

Using all five senses is very important to your story and to your characters. All five don't have to be used in every scene, and shouldn't be or that would be a real "sensory overload," but they should be interspersed, one or two at a time, as your characters go along in their lives, just as they are in our lives.

There are other elements to setting besides the five senses. Time, place, location, weather, atmosphere, housing, transportation, life style, culture, art, even food and clothing are all a part of the setting. Not all of these are going to play a part in every story, of course, but you need to pick and choose which elements are going to be important enough for you to write about.

In fantasy and science fiction, writers seem to spend a great deal of time writing about their make-believe worlds. They go to great lengths to describe physical locations, castles, rocket ships, weird animals, electronic weapons and gadgetry...anything to make the reader "see" this new world the characters are romping around in. 

Think about the Harry Potter novels. Weren't you able to "see" Hogwarts, and all of the characters in that first book long before the first movie came out? It was only because JK Rowlings spent a considerable amount of time in detailing the settings.

This should hold true for writers of contemporary fiction, too, but seldom does.  Yet setting is one of the most important elements of any story, regardless of genre or time era. How do you react to your environment? Do you act differently, feel differently, when you are in a familiar place versus somewhere strange you've never been before? Are you more observant of the places you are unfamiliar with than the ones you've grown up in? That is human nature, so it should be "in character" for our stories, too.

We'll talk about characters and settings in Part 2 of this theme. Stay tuned, hopefully I will be bringing you something new to think about!

Until next time,
That's a wrap.


  1. I agree, Mikki. The five senses are very important. People do tend to focus on sight most of all, but I like to get taste in there--sometimes in gross ways, but it works. And what's more powerful than the sense of touch. You can't forget that.

  2. Kelly, for younger children especially, "gross" works fine! I think it's important for PBs to use the 5 senses a lot..sometimes,PBs teach these things in a fun way that little kids don't always get at home, especially with so many working mothers today. But I've read a lot of MGs and YAs that don't offer much descriptive narration concerning touch, taste,smell, or sound...it's mostly sight. All stories need more than that!

  3. You're so right, Mikki. Sensory details can make a big impact. I have a little sticky note on my computer monitor with the five senses listed - as an ever-present reminder to use them all in my stories.