Late post today!
So last week I left off with the question: how 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?
Then I started writing an answer and it got really long (happens sometimes)…and I’m like, “Screw this. Let’s keep things short.”
So here’s the short answer:
Draw From Elements of Setting to Demonstrate Aspects of Character
That’s basically what it comes down to.
Now for the explanation.
Imagine there’s this character…
…a young woman. She’s having a moment of calm but it could be ruined at any moment because she’s avoiding some task that needs to be done but refuses to do it because it only confirms some truth she doesn’t want to acknowledge. The reason she’s focusing on being calm is not only to avoid this thing but also because she believes she’s in a hopeless situation that’s only getting worse, and she’s doing her best to ignore this and wants to believe there is some hope left for her. Even if she’s not sure how this is possible yet.
So we have a set up. Vague as it might be. (Feel free to fill in the particulars with your imagination.)
We also already have some strong emotions and states of mind we can play off of: calmness, peace, fear, guilt, denial, hopelessness, maybe even some paranoia. In order to contribute to the overall mood of this situation, then, it would make sense (to me, anyway) to choose words and focus on things that inherently evoke or hint at these emotions, even when it comes down to painting the picture of the setting.
Maybe our protagonist finds gentle breezes to be soothing. Maybe she equates being still with being at peace, so she isn’t really doing anything at the moment except for sitting in her kitchen, at a table perhaps, and listening to the curtains rustle in the wind at an open window.
Introducing the emotional elements through the setting can help the reader feel the quality of calmness and serenity that the protagonist longs to experience herself.
So let’s say now she closes her eyes, enjoying the moment…
But things are too laid-back now. We need some contrast here.
To bring in the guilt, our protagonist needs to be reminded of what she’s been putting off, so maybe she becomes aware of a clock ticking off in the distance now. The notion of time is unwantedly drilled into her mind, reminding her of that-thing-left-to-do and making her paranoid. Yet she denies this by picking up the newspaper, perhaps, focusing on it instead. Though, even this holds reminders of hopelessness: stories of the unfortunate and tragic accidents. Lurid, sensational news.
She tosses the paper aside, frustrated.
Again, she listens to the clock and is paralyzed by its incessant, unchanging rhythm.
Eventually she’s able to fix her gaze onto some tulips sitting in a vase upon the table, just beginning to bloom. They remind her of pleasant, happy things. A symbol of new life and new beginnings…something she may never have.
Then someone pounds on the front door, giving her a start. Her body tenses because suddenly she realizes it’s too late to do the thing she’s been avoiding, and now she could definitely be in trouble for it.
Obviously the protagonist has got to face the thing she’s avoiding sometime. Though, by providing atmospheric context that supports the character’s situation, you can make connections between character and setting in a way that builds tension and enhances the moment, leading up to the point where a dramatic shift takes place.
Not always ideal for handling every situation in a story, but it’s one way of doing things. I’m sure there are plenty of other methods.
What are some of the ways you connect characters with settings in your stories?