Setting as Character

Make your setting vital to your story.

We’ve all heard that bit of advice but I’m never sure if I’ve pulled it off or not.  At least I wasn’t sure until this weekend when one of my critique partners pointed out that I had succeeded in making the cave a character. Now picture me doing the Happy Dance.

The dance party only lasted for a moment until I realized something.  I wasn’t sure how to repeat this success.  Obviously I needed to do a little research. Here are the tips I found about making your setting a character in your story.

  1.  As you carefully choose the details that you use to portray your setting, look for details that can be linked to emotion.  Perhaps your setting is a happy place or it might be pensive or suspicious.  Whichever emotion you choose to portray, select details that support this emotion.  Think about the Wicked Witch’s castle in the Wizard of Oz.  What was it that made it feel evil and foreboding?
  2. Your setting can interact with the characters.  It responds to their actions.  They respond to it.  You see this when a story is set on a space ship of some kind.
  3. We are used to characters changing in the course of the story.  Show how the setting changes. It could be the change of seasons or it could be a place that is modernizing, being gentrified, or even going into decline.
  4. Make the setting personal as one character experiences it.  In part this means seeing the setting through that characters eyes such as when readers see Huck Finn’s take on the river.  This isn’t just any river and it isn’t just any person experiencing it.  It is a singular location and experience.

Obviously, you probably would not use all four techniques in any given story.  I used change and the passage of time.  It’s important that I understand what worked because I’m launching a massive rewrite.  There are a lot of things in the manuscript that need to change. My living setting is not one of them.  Fortunately now I think I can hang onto it as I make other essential changes.