Setting, or, Do You Know Where Your Characters Are?


The September 2011 issue of The Writer has given me such a boost!  How did they know I now work on revising my novel?  Three articles in this issue address the element of setting in fiction.  Now, some readers think of setting as boring description, but without setting, characters exist in a netherworld with no reference to life.  Of course, if your characters live in a sci fi netherworld, then you’re obligated to describe that, too, in order to give your readers some idea of where your characters exist and operate.

I liked especially Elaine Fowler Palencia’s article “Draw the Connection between Character & Setting.”  Characters not only need to perceive their location but also interact with it, comment on it, like or dislike it.  How a character reacts to a location might reveal his personality or worldview.

We have relationships with the places we inhabit, where we work, our cities, countries and the earth.  Locations have importance in our lives and in a character’s life, too.  It’s fun to see a place through a character’s eyes.  In Perceval’s Secret, I write a scene in a cafe first from Evan’s POV and then from an observer’s POV later.  What each noticed, heard, smelled, etc. makes that setting unique to each of them and reveals their relationship to the place and their characters.  It also firmly anchors a reader in a physical location and cuts down the amount of “boring” description.

Palencia provides eleven questions for writers to answer as a guide to connecting character and setting.  For her full discussion, check the magazine’s website under “articles — fiction.”  Here are Palencia’s eleven questions:

  1. What is the most important kind of setting in your novel, the one that most expresses the story’s worldview?  I would already connect this to the main character — it should be his most important setting expressing his worldview.  For Evan, it’s a psychological setting.
  2. Could your novel have happened anywhere else?  For me this is also connected to the main character.  The only way to change the setting is to change the main character, for example.  (Sometimes literary agents or editors might suggest doing this.  Don’t.)
  3. What is unique about your setting?  This is where research enters the picture.  If you’re not familiar with the place, you’ll need to either visit it, or do extensive research to learn about it, including talking with people who live there.  If your setting is fictional, then you have total freedom to make it what you will.
  4. Where is your protagonist from?  This location determines a lot of character elements.  For example, Evan is from Minnesota in America and these places have shaped his attitudes and beliefs as well as his speaking accent.
  5. What is your protagonist’s relationship to the setting?  Evan’s relationship to Vienna is as an outsider.  He must learn about the city, culture, customs and in the process, the reader learns, too.
  6. How does your protagonist define “home”?  Does he have a home already or is seeking one?  Or maybe he doesn’t want a home, as such.  Home to Evan means oppression so he’s looking for a new home that means freedom.
  7. Can your principal setting function like a character?  This expands the use of setting in a way that can be either enriching or intrusive.  Let your characters choose.
  8. How does your setting contribute to — or even control — tone?  A story set in a slum has a different tone than one set in a palace.  My favorite way to use this is when introducing danger into a scene.
  9. How does your setting support your theme?  I honestly have not thought at all about this one.  Something to look at as I’m revising.
  10. What happens when you limit the setting?  Like setting a story in a prison, for example.  I actually explore this option in the third novel in the Perceval series.
  11. What about psychic space?  I’m struggling with this one for my current revision.  I need to bring this into the foreground more.

As for all the “boring” description?  I look for one or two specific details, usually noticed by the POV character in the scene, to bring the location into focus for the reader.  But I can also get carried away with description, as I’m discovering with this revision….

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