Setting Reflects Character Reflects Setting

Last week Sue Healy wrote a post about the connection between character and setting, which I thought was interesting.  To demonstrate how settings can reveal different aspects of people’s characters, she put up two chair portraits painted by Vincent Van Gogh portraying fellow artist Paul Gauguin and also himself then asked readers to imagine the character of the users of the chairs in the paintings based off their observations.  It makes for an interesting study.

I liken this to interior design (which was my field of study, for those who don’t know).  I think a good designer or decorator will have a knack for being able to study their clients and intuit what sort of things they like by using tools such as interviews or the observation of their existing spaces (if possible).  Emily Henderson is especially good at this, imo.  On her HGTV show Secrets From a Stylist she interviews her clients, in part, by placing an array of various objects before them and asking them to choose some.  She then asks them to explain why they chose those objects.  (Usually she is doing this with two people who live together and are trying to find a happy balance between their differing styles.)  Emily can then use this information to help her determine their unique style, which she even gives names for; some of her most recent style prescriptions have been titles like “Graphic Antique,” “Retro Polynesian Kitsch,” or “Untamed Modern Funk.”  (It never ceases to amaze me what crazy names she manages to come up with each week.)

Spaces As They Pertain to Characters

When it comes to writing about our characters and getting to know them, I think writers can take a similar approach.  In a way, we are the designers of not just our characters’ surroundings but their entire lives; what tremendous freedom (and responsibility)!  When getting to know your characters, I think it can be fun, and useful, to try different things like interviewing them (really) and seeing what kind of answers they give back.  Who knows, you might even discover some of their quirks in the process!  (As an example, by using another method mentioned below, I learned that my protagonist dislikes certain rigid, cold and metallic objects–which actually affects her character beyond issues of setting but also in her interactions with certain personality types.)

A Room with a View, by Alexei Butirskiy. I wonder what kind of person might live in this space?

Some questions to consider of your main character(s), especially, might be:

  • What kinds of things are in your bedroom?
  • What are some of your favorite objects in your house, and why?
  • What things don’t you like about your home?
  • Can you alter those things to better suit your tastes?
  • If you can, why haven’t you?

People in real life have the power to shape their surroundings; so do your characters.  Put another way, settings can reflect the character of their users.

One thing to keep in mind, and I’m sure you can relate to, is that sometimes people just get stuck with things they don’t like in their surroundings and are forced live with, given the circumstances; we can’t control everything.  (Therein lies an opportunity to create tension or conflict, however big or small.)  In this way, settings have the power to shape the habits and attitudes of their users, or characters.  (Maybe a homeowner or tenant has to jerk some of their doors in special ways for them to open during especially humid and/or hot parts of the year, when a material like wood can swell.)  In other words, characters can sometimes reflect or respond to certain aspects of their settings.

Setting reflects character reflects setting; it’s a two-way street!

If your story doesn’t actually ever take place in any of your character’s homes, however, you could always use this approach for the important public or nonresidential spaces in you story’s world.  Consider the function and look of the space but also the nature of the users.  You can ponder on or ask questions such as:

  • Who uses this space?
  • How do they use it and for what purpose?
  • Does the space work well for them?
  • If it doesn’t, how does this effect the user(s)?

Ever been to a public space that just bugs you for some reason, even if you’re not quite sure why that is?  (Maybe the lights are too bright or too dim, or the colors are too exciting for the purpose of that particular setting; maybe there isn’t really any color in the space to begin with and you find this depressing.  Perhaps it is even the people who maintain this space that bug you–poor customer service, sparsity of available personnel, etc.)  I bet you people who design spaces for a living think about these things all the time!  It’s their job to improve spaces, after all, and to do this they need to understand why they don’t work in the first place.

Problematic spaces can create obstacles and negative experiences.  In the story world this translates as possible sources for tension and conflict.  These can be used in just about any setting, provided there is a need for environmental conflict to begin with.  Otherwise it might not make sense to draw attention to the nonfunctional or negative features of a space.  Though, maybe your protagonist is rummaging around at nighttime looking for clues in an old attic and the lights aren’t always working properly or the structure itself is unsound.  You never know if or when that subfloor might give out!

The interviewing approach isn’t the only way to get these answers out of your characters.  You could also just take the  “discovery writing” approach and become the observer in the sense that you’re learning to “see” what it is your characters surround themselves with or are surrounded by.  (Personally, this is my preferred method because I feel I get more natural results.)  Stick ’em in a particular room or space and let them roam and idle about, just to see what details pop out at you most or come naturally to you.  You could get a potential scene, or at least a scene idea, out of this exercise.  I know I certainly have!  (Granted, this isn’t exactly observing, as you are continuously filling in details arbitrarily and “designing” the space as you go, but the focus is on learning to envision the spaces your characters use.)

Don’t Just Stop There!

Okay, so you’ve figured out your characters’ settings, but how do they matter in the actual story?  Designers can rely on tools such as paint, fabric and other materials as well as structural components to give life to their concepts and ideas; writers simply have words.  How, then, can the words you choose to describe your characters and their surroundings work to your advantage so that the setting becomes not just a prop but a tool for complementing, amplifying or providing contrast to your characters?  I have some more thoughts on this, so I’ll save them for next week.

How important is setting in relation to your characters?

Is it something you consciously consider as you write about them?  Also, what kinds of exercises have you done in the past to better get in touch with the settings in your stories?


5 thoughts on “Setting Reflects Character Reflects Setting

  1. Ahh excellent and timely post for 2 reasons. 1) I’ve been doing late spring cleaning around my house and there are tons of things I don’t like, but I can’t change. *le sigh* 2) I’m starting revisions again, and setting is one of those problematic areas for me.

    I never really thought of it, but there are spaces that bother me. There’s a park nearby my work that’s completely paved in rough tiny cobbles, and it undulates up and down. I imagine the designers didn’t plant grass because of maintenance, but the big wide space doesn’t attract people. People don’t sit there for lunch, because there are no (non bumpy) places to sit. I’ve also entered buildings that make me feel ill because the design (Vegas is one of those places that always makes me uncomfortable). I need to remember that kind of thing when I go through the novel.

    Always surprises me just how much different areas of study can influence one another!


    • That’s an interesting story, about the park. I guess they didn’t have any tables and benches to sit at either, then? :/

      And Vegas–oh man; that is a myriad of so many different styles… Some of the places there are visually more stimulating (and overwhelming) than the others, that’s for sure. Though, some people really love that “high energy” kind of atmosphere! (Personally, I think it’s draining after so long, but seeing it for the first time was pretty cool.)


  2. Interesting. I’ve never really thought about setting space as a dimension or extension or expression of character, at least not directly, before. Something, perhaps, that I’ll need to give some thought some time.

    Hmmm…. I realize… I’m not sure my Project Bible has a place in it for this level of detail… which is a failing I shall have to correct.

    On a related note, have you read “Plinth Without Figure” (published in the Nov/Dec 2010 Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction)? If not, you might really enjoy it. It’s a ghost story involving public Urban Space design.


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