4 Ways Setting Acts with and As Character

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4 Ways Setting Acts with and As Character

Almost everyone has read a review of a book or a movie where the reviewer says the setting was its own character. This can seem odd. After all, characters are normally people (or at least creatures), but setting is just a place, right? But what does a character do? They change the story. They affect the events on the page. They bring something unique to a scene. And setting can definitely do all of those things, but only if the writer allows the setting to do its job. And that requires both research and imagination.

 4 Ways Setting Acts with and As Character ICL QuoteSetting Affects Character Comfort.

One of the things I’ve been guilty of now and again is forgetting about the physical requirements of comfort. If your character is walking from their car to a building in the middle of winter in upstate New York, that first burst of vicious cold will wipe out every other thought in a character’s head. It is brutal. And a story that disregards that robs the setting of its reality.

Equally, a character who gets out of a car in the middle of summer in Arizona will face a similar physical shock that will absolutely affect how the character thinks and moves. A character who is walking home from school in the pouring rain is going to get wet. Umbrellas help. Raincoats help. Rainboots help. But I’ve walked home from school on chilly days in the rain with all of those and I was wet before I got home. And if I had to share an umbrella, which often directed streams of water down in exactly the right spot to go between my jacket and my shirt, it was even worse. That’s not even counting the number of times cars would hit puddles and throw sheets of water at me—which always ended up inside my rain boots.

Those kinds of moments affect the characters experiencing them. High humidity, fierce cold or heat, and elements like rain, hail, and wind all affect people in the real world. Thus, they should affect the characters in your story too. When they don’t, it makes it harder for the reader to believe in your world and to inhabit the world as they read.

4 Ways Setting Acts with and As Character CANVA Cold NYCThat doesn’t mean you must constantly repeat that blast of cold or heat throughout a story. It doesn’t mean your character’s every moment must reflect that squish of wet socks or the chafing of wet clothes. Stories are still a fanciful copy of reality, so you need only set the scene and sprinkle in details to make it real. But keep in mind you don’t do things that aren’t going to read true, like running for the joy of running when the day is brutally hot, or skipping along the sidewalk when you’re writing a scene in the middle of a Wisconsin winter where sidewalks of often slick with ice.

A well-thought-out setting offers you many opportunities to bring in tiny details that affect your characters and story: Mosquitoes and fireflies in summer. Spring flowers humming with new bees. Native plants and animals and how they change with the seasons. Small things can bring joy and sometimes discomfort to readers. Adding these types of elements will not only deepen the story, but it’ll also make it more fun to write.

Setting Affects Mood.

Mood is an important part of story creation as it affects how readers engage with the story and the emotion the story evokes. Think of mood as the atmosphere or tone of the story. Mood is built through a combination of word choice, dialogue, pacing, and setting, and the mood you choose should work with the theme you intend to illustrate. These elements need to work together to build the mood you want. Setting plays a huge part in the process. In many ways, it does much of the heavy lifting for you.

4 Ways Setting Acts with and As Character CANVA Rundown scary houseWhen choosing the setting in a story, it pays to think of the mood you intend to create in this piece. There is a reason so many horror stories are set during dark and stormy nights. There’s a reason they are often in rundown buildings. The mood simply matches that kind of setting detail so well. Mood does so much to help build reader expectations subtly without telling. A bleak setting such as a wind-swept plane where the main character looks in all directions and never sees a single tree can help render the bleak mood you want to suggest for the character and the story.

To build mood effectively, writers make careful choices when describing setting. For instance, rain in the city can be a welcome softening of the city sounds. It can offer puddles to jump in. Looking out a window at the street below, the people hustling along the sidewalks with their umbrellas open can make it look as if the sidewalk is blooming with colors. Or, rain can be isolating as people lower their heads as they walk hunched against the relentless rain, eliminating the chance of catching someone’s eye and making any human connection. The gray sky can darken the already threatening shadows in the alleys. The apartment where the character lives may have to close all the windows against the driving rain, allowing the stifling heat of summer to build inside, making the main character feel like a panting dog left behind in a car.

Thus, setting affects mood, but only if the writer keeps both in mind when choosing how to write the scenes.

Setting Affects Sensory Detail.

I’ve already mentioned how setting affects character comfort, which is a kind of sensory detail, but there’s much more to setting. Setting affects sound details, scent details, and more. We talked about rain, which adds considerable sound and scent detail. Most of us know the pleasant scent that comes from the new rain. Petrichor is the earthy smell of rain on soil, but fresh rain hitting pavement has its own scent as well.

4 Ways Setting Acts with and As Character CANVA fresh rainMany scents are intensified with water, so a wet setting will be full of different smells. Heat also intensifies scent. The smell of a garbage can in summer is distinctly different from the scent of it in winter. We live across the street from a small cove and the scent of the water changes with the seasons as well. In summer, it’s thick and earthy with an edge of decay. In the middle of winter, there is no smell off the water at all, and it’s frequently frozen over in places. In winter, it offers more sound details with the crack of ice and the solitary sound of the few birds who stayed behind when others migrated.

As a writer, I make a point to stop and sniff the air whenever I’m someplace new. I walk into a used bookstore and try to come up with ways to describe the faintly musty smell tinged, perhaps, with a lingering overly floral plug-in or (in one shop) the smell of floor wax. Making a point to notice scents in places I visit makes me aware of potential sensory details this setting could bring to a story.

One of the things writers need to do is notice the sensory details that surround them. What does the grass feel like when you walk on it in the spring? You don’t have to be barefoot to notice how that springy, padded feeling changed when the summer heat forced the grass into hibernation or when heavy rains made the grass mashed down and sodden under my shoes.

Small details make the setting more real. These details help me convey the mood I want and how I want the character to react to his environment. Your setting may be completely imaginary, but your imagination is informed by every real place you’ve been. One of the easiest ways to become a better writer is to become more present in every place you visit, more attentive, and more aware of the sensory details you encounter.

Setting Provides Its Own Props.

When your characters enter new settings, they have new objects to interact with. A student walking into a restroom may have a conversation with a friend, but they may also wash their hands. Does the sink have knobs that turn or do they press down on them so the water only runs for a set period of time? Does it have rough paper towels or an air dryer that roars into action without doing much drying?

4 Ways Setting Acts with and As Character CANVA school restroomAll of these props offer something for your character to do while conversing. Being aware of the options will help you make the setting feel more real. Keep in mind that these items can be used as tools as well. A character who pumps a pool of soap into their hand is a completely different person from one who merely eyes the soap dispenser while rinsing their hands quickly under water. A character who patiently stands under the air dryer is different from one who wipes both hands dry on the back of their sweatshirt and jeans. A character who tosses a wadded up paper towel at the trash can only to have it bounce off and lie on the floor when the character leaves the bathroom is totally different from one who uses a convenient object to tamp down the trash to make room for more.

Whenever you create a scene, come up with a list of possible “props” available in the scene and ask yourself, how would this character I’ve created interact with these props? It will not only help your reader know the character better, it will help you know your character better if you know what your character would do.

Setting Brings Its Own Challenges.

Setting offers so much to a story, but it also brings challenges. First, treat your setting in a realistic manner. If the day is rainy and cold, be aware that there are things your character won’t be able to do. And that can feel limiting when you want to use that action to reveal more about the character.

Who do you stay true to—setting or character? The answer is “both.”

You must either change the setting (and thus rewrite what you’ve written so far for the setting) or come up with a new revealing action for the character that makes sense in the setting.

Adding a great setting offers all the challenges of adding a new character. The setting will need to be thought of in every scene. But the benefits are worth the effort as it makes your story deeper and more evocative for the reader.

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With over 100 books in publication, Jan Fields writes both chapter books for children and mystery novels for adults. She’s also known for a variety of experiences teaching writing, from one session SCBWI events to lengthier Highlights Foundation workshops to these blog posts for the Institute of Children’s Literature. As a former ICL instructor, Jan enjoys equipping writers for success in whatever way she can.

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