Wednesday, January 15, 2014

How Your Setting Can Affect Your Characters

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Setting is an often underused tool. We all create one, usually more than one, but we don't always take advantage of what the right setting can do for our novels--the setting is just a place where the novel takes place, not something crafted to serve the story.

This is a missed opportunity, because setting can bring out subtleties in the story and deepen an entire scene. It can permeate a story and evoke both character and reader emotions.

Let's say you have scene where you want your protagonist to feel uncomfortable, because she's confronting a co-worker who just stabbed her in the back at work.

Where would you set it?

The most obvious choice is at work, since that's where she interacts with this person. She'd likely do it somewhere familiar to her, because she'll want a position of strength for this confrontation. But that means she'll be in familiar and safe territory. It'll help keep her calm and lessen her apprehension of this meeting. Calm and safe are not the emotions we want for this scene, so the setting is doing nothing to help us.

So let's move this meeting to a location that puts the protagonist at a disadvantage, so the stakes go up and the tensions are raised. Instead of work, let's choose a place that makes her uncomfortable as well so the setting reflects the emotions we want both the character and the reader to feel.

If she wants to do this in private, we'll force her to confront her coworker in a public place where anyone might overhear. If she's a recovering alcoholic, we'll send her into a bar where drinks are flowing heavily. If she dislikes kids, we'll make her attend a birthday party for twenty-five ten year olds.

If we use the setting to push the emotions of the protagonist to new heights, we'll also make her goals harder to accomplish. It'll add more conflict, and raise the tensions since it's far more likely something will go wrong.

Look at the settings in your scenes and ask:
  • Does the setting reflect the emotion of the character?
  • What emotion would make the protagonist's goal harder to accomplish? Is there a setting that evokes this emotion in the character?
  • What emotion would add more conflict?
  • How would the opposite emotion affect the scene?
  • What is the worst setting for a scene to take place in? What happens if you move the scene there?
  • What setting would push the protagonist out of her comfort zone?
  • What setting would give the antagonist of the scene the advantage?
  • What setting would put the protagonist at a disadvantage?
Take advantage of what your setting can do to affect the mood and tone of the scene. The right sense of place can layer in emotions and create conflict to deepen a scene and make a character really have to work to resolve her goal.

What settings have affected you emotionally? Why?

18 comments:

  1. I don't do this nearly often enough. It's a very solid tip. Thanks for the reminder.

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    1. Most welcome. It does make writing description and setting more fun.

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  2. This is an awesome post and comes at the perfect time for me! I'm about to write a pivotal scene and now I have a way to make it way more intense. Thank you! I'm a huge fan of your blog.
    -Dana

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    1. Thanks! Glad it found you just when you needed it. Hope the scene goes well!

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  3. Posted this blog on two of my teaching writing wikis. Thanks!

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    1. Aw, thanks! I appreciate all the links you post for me and the blog :)

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  4. Thank you so much for sharing this. I didn't really think about setting this way but you are exactly right. You have so many wonderful tips on this blog, you are really helping me a lot :)

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    1. My pleasure, and I'm so glad the blog is helpful. The different perspective really helps know what to do with your setting and how it can be more than just descriptive details. everything has meaning so it ties the whole scene together better.

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  5. You just solved a problem in my WiP! Thank you! Changing the setting will help a lot.

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    1. Oh good! Love when an article helps someone. Good luck with the new setting!

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  6. Hi Janice
    Excellent point, thanks.
    One of the things I love about writing fantasy is the freedom to create entire worlds that add layers to key scenes.
    I think you can use scenes in conjunction with memories, also. Taking the protagonist somewhere that carries emotional baggage, due to what might have happened there previously, can help to heighten the emotional stakes within a scene.
    cheers
    Mike

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    1. I love that about fantasy as well. The world is often what comes first for me. Memories are huge. I did that with Shifter a lot, actually. Thanks for bringing it up!

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  7. Thought you made some great points and I agree that a setting brings out subtleties in a story and can deepen the scene. Great post.

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  8. Here's an idea: what if things about to go haywire due to the MC's hubris? In that case, would it be better to put him in a setting that calms him and gives him the illusion of control?

    It's first-person, so I'm struggling with not pulling this setback out of left-field, but not making it too obvious, either. If it's obvious, he's an idiot for not realizing he's about to get captured.

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    1. If that's what you want from the setting, sure, go for it. There are no "rules" for this, just different ways to use your setting to your advantage. If he thinks all is well, you could make things seems that all in indeed well, and then have things go haywire.


      I'd suspect that dramatic irony or some solid foreshadowing would help you here. If there are clues for readers to know things are not as in control as the MC thinks, then they'll be waiting for things to go wrong and that can keep the tension high.

      Or if you wanted it as a surprise, you could make the hints more subtle so they only become clear after the event has happened and readers suddenly see that old information in a new light.

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  9. Hmmm...I'll go reread your posts on dramatic irony and foreshadowing. I trust my group to help quite a bit, too, so that's a good boost!

    I like the idea of more subtle--I loved "The Thief", which hinged on subtlety--but I'm not sure if I could pull that off. You've given me some food for thought; thanks, Janice!

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    1. Hope you find the answer in one of those articles. And if you like the subtly, go for it. Worst case it doesn't work, but you might surprise yourself and pull it off.

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