Lesson #81 – Setting: Strong Enough to Be a Character

Is your setting strong enough to be a main character?

I ask this question every time I teach at writing conferences about setting. While you think about your answer, I’m just going to dive right in…

Can you imagine The Chronicles of Narnia taking place in oh, say… Pittsburgh rather than Narnia? What about A Time to Kill taking place in Canada? Wouldn’t work, would it?

It’s hard to even envision because… drumroll… the setting is strong enough to be a character all on its own in each of those stories.

You see in Narnia, we have the White Witch and her constant winter, the lamppost beyond the wardrobe inside the spare room, and talking beavers. In A Time to Kill, you have Southern heat—intense southern heat, where everyone is dripping with sweat allllllllllll the time—racial tensions that escalate beyond our imaginations, and don’t forget the church services, the food, and the Southern accents. (I’m southern so I know what I’m talking about. <grin>)

To create memorable stories, it’s vitally important to think about our settings. If you could take your story and take it out of its present setting and plop it into another setting altogether and the story works just fine? Well then, your setting isn’t all that strong.

Setting is what grounds us into the world around our characters, it’s the place where everything becomes real in our minds and the story comes alive. If you have great characters—awesome. If you have an incredible plot—kudos! If you have a masterfully written setting on top of those? You have a brilliant story.

So how do you do it? Here’s five simple steps to start with:

Do your research. If you aren’t familiar with the place, you better go visit or do a LOT of research. Talk to the local people. Visit the areas you will write about and take pictures. If you are making up your setting, then you still have to research and make maps and copious notes for yourself—if you can’t picture the world, then your reader can’t either.

Use your senses. Becca just wrote a great post about using the five senses in your writing in our last lesson. Setting can incorporate ALL of the senses—so use them to the best of your ability. For instance, what is unique about the landscape of the setting (what you see? Mountains, ocean, wheat fields, etc.) What is unique about the sounds in your setting (what you hear?—is there a train that runs through every thirty minutes? A tornado siren that goes off? Pheasants calling in the distance?) What is unique about the smell of your setting (what you smell?—for instance if it takes place in the country across from a hog farm, THAT is a smell you will never forget. Or the smell of city life—gas and diesel fumes, rotting trash, the unwashed bodies of homeless people encamped in the alley, a delightfully yummy five-star restaurant across the street.) What is unique about how the place ‘feels’ (what you touch? Perhaps the velvety feel of freshly mown grass underneath your bare feet. A crash off a bicycle sends you skidding across the endless waves of pavement. Or the constant wind in your face in the cold of the Aleutian Islands.) To be simple: paint the picture for your readers.

Don’t skimp. The less is more analogy doesn’t always work well with setting. (This is especially important for those of you creating your own world or writing historical where the setting and time period could be unfamiliar to the reader.)

Don’t overwrite. Yes, I know, I just said not to skimp on it, but on the other hand that also means we don’t need twenty-five pages of description for the setting before we ever get to any action.

Find something unique. In each and every setting, we need at least one thing that’s unique to that setting that is brought to the attention of the reader several times within the story to cement it into their minds.

It’s not all that difficult to master creating settings your readers will remember. Take some time to try the above steps and think it all through.

Remember your setting needs to be just as strong as one of your main characters, so take the time to develop it, just like you would take the time to develop a character.

Now get to it… go check your setting in your current WIP and make it strong.

With pen to paper,


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