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Setting Reflects Character Reflects Setting (Part II)

14 Sep

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?


Setting Reflects Character Reflects Setting

7 Sep

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?

Worldbuilding: Setting & Maps

15 Mar

>This is part of an ongoing series about worldbuilding.

*     *     *

Last time I gave you my personal definition of worldbuilding and mentioned that next I’d be talking about settings (among other things) and processes I’ve used to develop them.

All right, then so here it goes.


Before, I’ve talked about The Importance of Setting in a story.  Where do you get setting ideas?  Largely from the real world, I imagine.

I started off being inspired by how American and European cities might have looked and functioned during the mid-1930s/pre-WWII era, actually.  (I don’t think this is an era that gets explored much in fantasy.)  I’m not writing about an alternate history, though, so this era only serves as an aesthetic and practical guide.  I was really inspired by artwork and photographs of actual places, as well.

Then I came up with some names for countries, brainstormed some general ideas about them and just flew off from there.  (Real helpful, huh?)  I’ll explain more.


It has helped me immensely to keep track of locations by creating a map, so this might work best if I showed you a couple:

This one basically shows important geographical regions–deserts, rivers, mountain ranges, oceans, etc.–in my WIP.  I used Adobe Photoshop to create most of it, though I used AutoCAD, a computer-aided drafting program, to do the little scale.  (CAD is good for exact measurements ‘n stuff.  I often use it to draft floor plans and other similar drawings.)

The compass, however, is not mine.  Honestly, I don’t remember where I got it from.  (Does that make me a bad person?)  I could have made one in CAD, though.  Hm, guess I was just being lazy!

Same story for this one, only it focuses more on the city names and more clearly delineates the nations with color.  I separated these things from the geographical regions to keep it from getting too cluttered (though, this isn’t all that necessary).

To tell you the truth, neither of these drawings is complete.  I really need to go back and update them with new references I’ve made in the story.  (I tend to keep a lot of info up in my noggin ’cause I don’t wanna have to keep making corrections to everything when I change my mind.)  But still, it was a good starting point.  I know where everything is located and if I need to I can measure approximate distances.  This helps for calculating realistic traveling times, which is important, I think, when you’re writing about an aviatrix–or train travel, or any other kind of travel, really.

(That’s another thing I’ve had to do is research typical car and train speeds in the 20s and 30s.  Usually I just pick one car and train model, look up the specs and use those as a starting point.  Of course, it’s all approximated.  I don’t want to get too anal about that stuff.)

Gosh, I wish I could find that link that got me started on these maps!  Suffice it to say, it’s a fairly detailed process that would not fit very well into a little blog post…


So there ya go.  I would like to go back and try some new things I learned, to make the mountains pop out more, for example (that person’s map on the link has way better mountains than I do), but that’s something for another day.

What else can you use to draw maps if you don’t have Adobe Photoshop?

Well, you can always draw it by hand.  Do a couple of drafts in pencil, trace over the final one with marker on vellum, trace or marker paper for the final version; splash some color on it here or there… (You cand do that on the back side of the paper so it won’t bleed/smear with the marker, unless you do the marker last and just use pencil first.)  For color, I have these really awesome (though pricey) art markers by Chartpak that work a little like watercolors, the way the colors kind of spread.  Though, they smell really strong.  You can get a little high off of them.

I’m kidding, but they are very strong-smelling.

You could also leave it in black-and-white, which can make for a very graphic effect.  Using different line weights really adds dimension–if you’re interested in the more artsy aspects, that is.

If not, that’s cool, too.

Ultimately, though, I think maps should be used to help the writer visualize where everything in his story is taking place.  Doesn’t matter if they’re pretty or not, especially if they’re only for you.

Setting As Character

As it has often been said, setting can become a kind of character itself in your story.

I’ve found this to be the case in Element 7.  The geographical features actually have a direct relationship to historical events which were initiated by certain characters way back when.  These events have effected the present-day geography.  For example, why do you think the deserts seem to fan out from Daemon’s Pass, just southwest of the Great Sea where floats a collection of scattered islands?  And why is that region called “Daemon’s Pass” anyway?

Hm… The world may never know.  (Especially if I don’t finish editing this beast, heh.)

Finding Inspiration

I find that artwork provides a lot of inspiration for settings in my story.  They even give me some scene ideas.  Here’s one that inspired my vision for Chandra City, Apexia (which is only labeled “Chandra” on my map, so I better fix that, too):

“Autumn’s Glow,” by Alexei Butirskiy

(This artist’s work is so beautiful.  I’m inspired by most of it, actually.)

I imagine that the area my protagonist Voi lives in looks a lot like this.  She stays in a townhouse of yellow brick and light-colored stone in Chandra City on Blithe Street, where an electric trolley runs by.  Also, it’s in the latter half of autumn at the beginning of the novel, so I like the image of there being golden leaves on the trees and sidewalks at this time.  This is exactly where Chapter 1 starts off–someplace peaceful to contrast the psychological horror of Voi’s condition.

Her home is her refuge from the world.

In Chapter 1, she is experiencing…what I will call a “private state of heightened awareness” as she soaks in a clawfoot tub, avoiding her meds…just generally being a naughty emelesiac.  Kind of like this:

Original author unknown.

(But trust me, it’s not what you think.  Though, I certainly want you to believe it is.  I’m hoping that the intent behind this scene thrives off reader assumptions.  I’d like to share it sometime, once I’ve shopped it around a bit.)

Meh, I could mention something about Borellia, too, but you know how I am with words.  I will say, though, that the ancient ruins and antiquity of Italian cities have been a big inspiration for my vision of Borellia, as have French towns with half-timber structures from Medieval times.

And Airships.  You just have to have airships in a 1930s-inspired world.  (This was during the latter years of their Golden Age, after all.)

So that’s kind of how I think about settings.  Next time: languages!  (Oh yes.)

How About You?

Do you like to use maps to aid with fleshing out your story?  If so, do you keep them pretty simple or like to deck them out?  Also, where do you tend to find inspiration for the settings in your storyworld(s)?

The Importance of Setting

9 Mar


From Wikipedia Creative Commons.

Oh look, I’m using an image today–yay!  (Usually I just don’t feel like doing the whole free-image-search-attribution deal.  Indolence!)

Okay, so here’s a thing I could probably lose entire months getting lost in: worldbuilding.

But first, let’s talk about setting.  (Aaaaaawww…)

Setting is important.  It is where your story takes place. (Really?!) It also refers to the time frame during which the story unfolds.  Without setting, your characters, and your readers, have no frame of reference, no context from which a “story” may even be derived.  No grounds for constructing a meaningful experience upon.

Place.  Time.  Context.  Together, they help to create story orientation.  (I just got this image of a Captain Planet-like team putting their superpowered rings of storytelling together in a big circle, declaring, “Concept, plot, character, setting, theme…Story!” [Insert bubbly, make-believe theme song here.])

Setting can be as ordinary as a barber shop somewhere in a post-WWII American town or as outlandish as an alien planet where gargantuan, mobile, carnivorous plant species coexist with the indigenous lavender-skinned humanoids with sweat glands that secrete a natural repellent, making them inherently “unappetizing” to their feisty plant denizens.

Of course, perhaps for your protagonist that little barber shop doesn’t seem so ordinary anymore after he inadvertently (it seems) discovers a small, odd-looking chest hidden beneath some floor boards, locked by a key of unknown whereabouts and origins; and perhaps those flesh-eating plants and that lavender skin are just as commonplace as the next pebble on the ground, though not so common as that new, benevolent yellow plant species that suddenly popped up in the forest this morning and seems to respond, out of tentative interest, to only one humanoid native in particular.  It all depends on the perspective of the characters you choose and the plot they’re involved in.  All these things are dependent upon one another.

And that is the beauty of story.

However usual or unusual your setting may be, I firmly believe that it must be unique to the story being told.  If it doesn’t make a hill-of-beans difference whether Mary discovers herself in Plano, Texas or on the Moon, then perhaps that writer has got a bit of story-soul-searching to do.  A setting that does not participate with its characters, plots and themes, or has no connection to the other elements of the story, is just an inconsequential place setting at which the writer may be left alone to dine.  And maybe you don’t believe this to be true in real life, but wouldn’t you say that in every great story all things happen for a reason?  That nothing–no detail of setting or plot or character or anything else–is ever left to chance?

Think about it.  Would Jane Eyre’s story be the same if it were set in modern-day England?  Would the tales of Jedi Knights be nearly as epic were they placed on a single planet during a time in which space travel was not yet possible?  I should think not.

It’s All In the Details

In my current WIP the elements of earth, metal, wood, water, fire, air and aether/void play a tremendous role in the overall color and flavor of the story.  Not only are they the categories for elemental powers used by some of my characters but also personality types.  I’ll use word associations that are evocative of the elements to describe my characters, according to whichever element I’ve linked them to.

For example, my protagonist Voi is linked to the element of air.  Her entire way of being, even some of her thought processes, mimic or relate to the characteristics of air–a passion for air travel, for example, and a tendency towards flightiness, even a fickle and child-like nature.  Now, not everything she does is filtered through this one element, however, because people in real life aren’t one dimensional like that, but I do make it a point to carry out the personification of the elements through my character’s actions.

(I definitely think this has the potential to get pretty hokey and cliché, depending on how it’s done, but that’s something I’ve had to work out in my own writing style.  The popular axiom of “show, don’t tell” is probably the easiest way, I think, to avoid this trap.  Showing Voi fleeing from situations rather than conveniently narrating the fact that she is, in fact, a sylph-like creature prone to capriciousness.  And so on and so forth…)

If God is in the details, and the author is virtually a story’s god, then why would he leave the setting (or any other story element, for that matter) to chance when ultimately he is in control?  Though, you also know what they say about the Devil fitting somewhere in there, too, so the moral of that story is: It’s not easy playing God for a day, or 365 of them, or however many days it takes you to write a novel (because let’s face it, this is what writers essentially do when they write, isn’t it?), though if you care about writing a quality story, then you’ll give every ounce of it its due amount of attention to detail.

Perhaps you are thinking now, “That’s some high talk…coming from an amateur.”

Look, I’m not saying I’m some master at all of this, ’cause I’m not.  Like any other art form, I think learning to tell a story with attention to detail is a continual practice, though I think it is important to do so and it is something I am actively pursuing to the best of my ability–barring the fact that I am not (yet) published.

[Obligatory Hiatus]

All right, all right, so by now you’ve probably realized that I like to write loooong-ish posts.  I’ve already written like a three-part series and just decided to chop it into pieces.  (Did I tell you that my manuscript at this moment is sitting at just under 200K words?  Um, yeah…I am seriously considering labeling it as an “epic fantasy,” at this point, though I’m not 100% sure if it belongs there.)  I’m verbose like that, and I really can’t help it.  Apparently, I’ve got a lot of freakin’ stuff to say.

I understand that people generally need to eat large beasts in small bites, though, so tomorrow I’m gonna post the rest of my thoughts.  (I don’t really want to get into the habit of posting in Parts I, II, III, etc. like I have already, twice, ’cause oddly I don’t really feel I have that kind of privilege.  Couldn’t exactly tell you why.)

But since we’ve come to this hiatus now…I’ve got some questions for you!

How important is the setting in your current work(s) of storytelling art?  How is it connected to the other elements of story–your characters, themes and the plot itself?  Is it something that’s more of a background element, or is it one of those things you want to showcase?  (Neither is it necessarily good or bad, I don’t think, though I am curious.  It probably depends a lot on your genre, too.)