I’ve critiqued novel manuscripts and found myself asking again and again, “Where are the characters?” Often writers have good dialogue and interesting problems, but I can’t place myself with the characters. There’s no sense of place or setting.
By contrast, I think back to the first novelist I fell in love with—Mary Stewart. She made me see the flowers glow under the streetlights, hear the swish of the tires on pavement, taste what her character was eating. The locations were all very real. I’ve had similar experiences with fantasy authors whose writing made a place so tangible I wanted to visit places that didn’t even exist! Hogwarts anyone? We want our writing to feel that true.
One fellow writer explained it this way, “Don’t have your characters standing in front of a white board.” Specific details of what’s around the characters help ground the reader. But it’s not simply telling.
So, how do we add these details of setting in in a meaningful way?
Start the scene in a place. It can be simple or complex, familiar or strange.
“Before you agree to have Joseph come live with you,” Mrs. Stroud said, “there are one or two things you ought to understand.” She took out a state of Maine Department of Health and Human Services folder and laid it on the kitchen table.” – from Gary D. Schmidt’s Orbiting Jupiter:
“I pushed the world’s oldest vacuum around the shaggy speckled carpet from the Stone Ages, taking care to make straight, even lines. The first time I vacuumed Larry’s trailer…” – Coyote Queen by Jessica Vitalis.
“In my fifteen years, I have stuck my arm in a vat of slithering eels, climbed all the major hills of San Francisco, and tiptoed over the graves of a hundred souls.” – Outrun the Moon, Stacey Lee.
“Sophronia intended to pull the dumbwaiter up from the kitchen to outside the front parlor on the ground floor, where Mrs. Barnaclegoose was taking tea.” – Etiquette & Espionage, by Gail Carriger.
Introduce when the scene is taking place. It may be stated out right or be more subtle. It may be prosaic or fantastic.
“Earth year 2041
“Lunar day 188
“Smack in the middle of the night
“Let’s get something straight, right off the bat: Everything the movies have ever taught you about space travel is garbage.” – Space Case, Stuart Gibbs
“It was 5:42 a.m. on May Day, 1983 in the West of England, and a sliver of the sun had edged above the ridge.” – The Left-Handed Booksellers of London, Garth Nix.
“When I left my office that beautiful spring day, I had no idea what was in store for me.” – Where the Red Fern Grows, Wilson Rawls.
Mix setting in with conversation, and a reader won’t have to guess at where characters are. It doesn’t have to be complex.
Straightening his basketball jersey, Aaron slipped into the gym behind his teammates.
“Where were you?” Michael whispered.
“Had to stay after in math class.” He rolled his eyes. “I thought I was going to miss practice.”
Think about how your character(s) react to the setting. That’s much more interesting than simply stating a fact. For example, a flat statement: It was a windy day. Including the character in a distancing way with saw, heard, watched, etc. isn’t an improvement: Lila looked out and saw it was a windy day. How does the wind affect Lila?
Lila stepped out the front door of the apartment building. The wind tossed her long black hair around her face and she shivered.
See how there’s a bit more setting now? Plus, we have one small action. We’ve also learned two new things. It’s cold enough for her to shiver and we have a description of her hair. Combine such details with her dialogue and she’ll feel more real.
Whenever your character is outside or even checking the temperature on her phone, she’ll probably react to the weather in some way. A bright sunny day makes me feel cheerful, but a character might prefer cloudy days that remind him of home. A gardener might be grateful for the rain falling on the freshly planted garden—even if it means he gets wet dashing to the mailbox. A skier might be glad for predicted snow, while someone preparing for a long trip could be disappointed, and go dig out the tire chains. A house might be unappealing in a rainstorm but look like a picture for a postcard when surrounded by bright sunshine.
Details of weather and temperature can help with the overall mood of the story as well. I remember a writer talking about how her character’s story was set during a drought. The dry empty landscape helped emphasize the lack in the character’s personal life.
Don’t forget the indoors. Where does he live? Where does she sleep? Is it a messy bedroom that smells of unwashed clothing scattered on the floor, a shared bedroom with tape on the floor to separate the two sides, the musty basement bedroom with concrete walls and a window well that only allows a glimpse of the sky? Does her home feel welcoming or is it a place he escapes as quickly as possible? Does it smell like dogs or cats or good cooking or burnt food? Is it loud or quiet? The reader doesn’t need to know all this—especially all at once—but working bits in will make the setting more real.
Andy Maslen says, “Sense of place is the feeling your readers get as they read your novel that they have left their place behind and entered yours. It’s a transporting feeling that makes the world of the book they hold in their hands as real, if not more so, than their own.”
I hope you’ll dig in and ground your characters in their setting. I think you’ll find it helps your story bloom.