Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Setting as character

One of my friends who recently read Project Sparkle told me the setting in my novel is a character. That's good! I'd been hoping it was. But then she told me it needed to be emphasized a lot more.

As a reader and writer, I've heard the phrase "setting as character" numerous times. I've probably used it before. But what exactly does it mean? And how could I emphasize my setting's character?

I started by figuring out what its character was in the first place. I went through my novel and copied all of my descriptions into a new document. I read through these descriptions in order, and then wrote a paragraph describing my setting overall. I included smells and sounds, what people would be doing, how many people would be around, the look of important buildings, homes and shops. I described what a person might see there, people's character, race, and age.

By working through this process, I realized my setting could be considered a character. But it needed some work.

1. My setting needed to be consistent.

Sometimes I emphasized bad parts of the setting, sometimes good, sometimes there were no emotions involved, it was just there. I needed to figure out the key descriptors of my setting, and emphasize those repeatedly, just like I might do with a tall character or a little red-haired girl.

2. I needed to introduce my setting.

My friend was right about emphasis. Especially in the beginning of the story, I hardly mentioned my setting. Just like a character, I needed to introduce my setting. I added several paragraphs, emphasizing important details and really immersing my character in the setting.

3. My setting needed an arc.

Actually, talk about a-ha moments, my setting HAD an arc, much like a character should. Since the story takes place in a period of weeks, the setting doesn't actually change. But my character's feelings about it and what she notices about it changes. I went through my text and emphasized those changes, making sure my descriptions reflected my character's emotional arc.

4. My setting needed to be intrinsic to the plot.

Just like a major character needs to be involved in the climax of a novel, my setting was instrumental to my climax. Depending on your views of pre-destination, cause and effect, and the power of place, my setting may or may not cause the climax. But it's certainly involved.

In the end, I discovered setting as character means exactly what it says. I arranged my setting much as I might any other character in my novel.

Does your writing use setting as character? How have you approached it? What are some of your favorite setting as character novels? I blogged about a few of mine earlier this summer, though I wasn't smart enough then to realize I was talking about setting as character--one of my commenters pointed it out!


  1. Fascinating post, Anne. The best example I can think of, off the top of my head, isn't a book though. It's Woody Allen movies. His protagonist is New York—Manhattan more specifically. The City plays as much a role in his films as his characters do.

    In the project I'm working on now the story is dependent on the setting, on where everything takes place. I need to go back and work on this from the setting's role as character.

  2. Thanks, Andrea. Glad I could help with your thinking on your writing!

    Woody Allen movies are a good example. Actually, now that I think about it, there's a lot of movies and books that use NY as a character!

  3. I think for a setting to be a character it has to be intrinsic to the plot and a fascinating place to be. I love you mention the setting arc and how your character's perceptions of it change.

  4. Wow. I haven't tried this. Thanks for the tips. Also, I agree about Woody Allen movies.

  5. Laura, I was sooo pleased with myself when I discovered my setting had an arc! =)

    I like how you say a setting has to be fascinating, too. Of course it does, if I as a reader am going to be absorbed in it. Just like a character, too!

    Thanks, Medeia. Funny, ever since I posted this I've been seeing all sorts of examples. Today I was thinking about Tara in Gone with the Wind. Unlike my setting, it definitely changes with the War.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.