The first time I thought about how characters interact with setting was when I was reading Donald Maass’ The Breakout Novel. He points out that setting is a character and that breakout novels use this to their maximum advantage.
I already had intuited this, having a work background in science and engineering and a literary background in science fiction. Sometimes the setting (or story world) was such a dominant part of the story that it literally was the story. Think about The Hunger Games … the worldbuilding there is impeccable, but it has to be: it’s what the story is all about.
Even if you don’t have a sweeping historical novel, or a futuristic science fiction set piece that your story plays out on, you need to be conscious of how your character interacts with the setting.
Setting as POV
I’m a big fan of deep POV, really getting inside a character’s head and seeing the world literally through their eyes. Everything from the kitchen table to the high tech mobile implants under their skin should impact the character in some way and flavor their view of their surroundings. We are not just cerebral creatures – we touch, smell, balance, and emote our way through the world. Seeing the world through character-colored glasses not only brings the reader deeper into the story, but it also allows something as simple as walking into a room to define character – and thus bonds the reader even more strongly to the character.
I walked into the kitchen, complete with stainless steel appliances, marble countertops and shiny imported Italian tiles. My mom was there, washing the delicate china dinner dishes, like they were her most treasured possessions. I picked up the nubbly red dishtowel and, without a word, plucked up a dish that had already started to drip dry on the counter and ran the towel over it.
My toes caught on the threshold, the slippery floor tiles Mom insisted on importing from Italy making the act of entering the kitchen hazardous on the best of days. The marble countertops were already spotless, but Mom was still wiping the dinner dishes, careful of the gold-trim that shouted high-maintenance from the edges of the plates. The red dishtowel was probably too rough for their delicate nature, so I picked it up and scrubbed it over the gravy boat that had been drip drying on the counter.
Not an entirely fair comparison, because there’s a lot more voice in the second example. But that’s what happens when you draw your character deep into the scene, forcing them to interpret their environment and show their mother-conflict in the ferocity with which they dry plates.
Setting as Antagonist
If setting is a character, then it should have some kind of conflict with your POV character, just like any other player in your story. And that conflict should evolve as you go through the story. It can be something as simple as your character feeling uncomfortable in their environment at the beginning of the story (their sweaters are scratchy, the air conditioning is turned up too high), and then after their character arc helps them to feel peaceful in their own skin, they find themselves comfortable in the world as well (slipping into a pair of comfortable old jeans, or flopping in a bale of hay).
Even better when you can have the setting actively prod your character into action. Not just a tripping over obstacles (as above, to show how hazardous her relationship has become), but a push/pull interaction, where the character tries to shape her world, while at the same time, the world is trying to shape her. This can be “setting” in a more generic sense, where the collective society, or worldbuilding rules, put pressure on your character, forcing them along their character arc.
There’s a scene in Closed Hearts that has this push/pull of the world put into a visceral sense – my main character is fleeing through the city, unwillingly leaving loved ones behind. She’s leaving one hazardous situation for another, which we see as she works her way through a labyrinth of decay during her escape:
He threaded us between businesses, finding tiny, jagged passageways that bypassed the streets. Jackertown was a maze of brick and concrete buildings held together by a web of side alleys jumbled with decades of debris. We dodged couches with ripped cushions, rusty cans of paint hazardously stacked, and abandoned bicycles missing tires and seats. The labyrinth was dotted with teetering fortresses of trash, as if the demens had carved cubbyholes into the city. Their homes were built from overturned benches fortified by crates and stuffed with blankets, as well as the occasional discarded boost canister of hydrogen for cars that had long since fled the city. Now the demens had left as well, run out by the jackers moving in.
Setting as Image System
The act of my main character fighting her way into this darker world is also rich with symbolism about her place in the world, her inherent conflict with it. This is another thing that setting can do for you: bring in imagery systems that echo your themes throughout the story. Often times, we create great set pieces (think of the visual systems used in theatre or the movies to telegraph the underlying tone of a place) without ever consciously thinking about it – our subconscious dredges up these images that reflect the mood of our story. But when you go back and consciously create image systems in your setting, you can really enhance the deeper emotional connection your story has with readers.
Don’t Be Cliche
“It was a dark and stormy night.” Avoid the temptation to use weather to telegraph mood. Or if you’re going to do this, turn it upside down and make it ironic.
What ways do you use setting in your stories?
p.s. Hop over to Adam Heine’s post for more opportunities for critiquing (esp. queries)!