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More Than Time or Place —
Characters Experience Setting

2007 Anna Furtado


Anna Furtado

Setting can become the stepchild of fiction writers. Strong drive to get on with the story action and character development pushes us on without taking time to draw an environment in which our characters live and move. Writers who may be uncertain about what to do with setting fall into the trap of adding environmental description that consists merely of a laundry list of surroundings, objects, sounds and color. To say that puffy white clouds drifted slowly across the powder blue sky while sparrows chirped and crickets played their tune doesn't lend much to the story. The element missing is what this setting means to the character at this moment in the tale.

It may not be enough to demonstrate setting simply with a time and place statement (Later that night, Mary crept down the basement stairs). This tells us that Mary is stealthily moving down to the basement as opposed to some time earlier in the day. However, it tells us nothing of how Mary felt about going down to the basement. The addition of a third component in setting can completely change the nature of a scene and tell us so much more about a character. This new component is the situation.

Consider the following setting:
Later that night, Mary crept down the basement stairs. The familiar musty smell met her nose reminding her of childhood games played in the semi-darkness among old treasures that belonged to her parents. She often chose to play dress-up, not in her mother's feminine things, but in her father's old suits and fedora. As her hand broke through the delicate strands of a spider web, she thought about her favorite childhood book Charlotte's Web. From her first hearing of the story at four years old, she considered these arachnids her friends.

As she reached the bottom step, she glanced around in the light of the single, bare bulb hanging from the ceiling by a thin wire. Brown boxes stacked against the wall read "Extra Dishes" and "Donations." An old soccer ball sat at the top of the stack. She wasn't sure she'd be able to find what she was looking for, but her heart skipped as she recognized the old wooden box inlaid with mother-of-pearl. As she leaped toward the box, she pushed on the cover with her thumb, hoping it wasn't locked. To her delight, it opened without resistance. Inside, she found the treasure—her mother's old love letters tied with a faded pink ribbon.

However, in the following setting, Mary has a very different reaction:

Later that night, Mary crept down the basement stairs. She wrinkled her nose at the musty smell that made her heart pound with fear and dread. This was where they punished her when she misbehaved. She felt a phantom pain across the backs of her legs that made her tremble. Stepping carefully, she tried to dismiss the visions of beatings and time spent whimpering in the dark afterward. Blocking these feelings by sheer force of will, she focused on the box she hoped she would find. A shiver ran through her body as her hand broke through a thin wisp of spider web. When they locked her in here, they told her the spiders would eat at her flesh in the dark. She took a deep breath, trying to calm herself.

As she reached the bottom step and glanced around by the light of the single, bare bulb hanging from the ceiling by a thin wire, she shuddered. Was that a body propped up in the corner? She squinted, and with some measure of relief realized that it was nothing more than a soccer ball atop a stack of boxes. She wasn't sure she'd be able to find what she was looking for, but her heart jumped as she recognized the old wooden box inlaid with mother-of-pearl. She put out a tentative hand and pushed on the cover with her thumb, hoping it wasn't locked. It opened without resistance. She lifted out a tattered piece of paper that she hoped would tell her who she really was. The faded lettering read: Birth Certificate.

These paragraphs depict the same time and place, but very different reactions to the circumstances. The first setting gives us warm, happy feelings. The second depicts fear and dread. Characters need an environment to help tell the story. In this case, the trek to the basement could be used in either case. Create appropriate settings to reveal more about your characters by having them react to their environment.

Setting can reveal a character's past as well as what they experience in the present. A wealthy frat-girl, put onto the streets of Calcutta to fend for herself, will not react the same way that the young woman who grew up scouring the garbage dumps of Tijuana in order to live would.

A great deal of Mary's past is revealed because of this setting. In the first illustration, we learn that Mary had a happy, normal childhood. Her present search is an exciting adventure for her. The basement holds delightful memories, and she has no fear of the setting. However, the second example is filled with trepidation. In the second story, Mary's childhood was both unhappy and filled with terror. Her present search is filled with the same apprehension that surrounded the experiences of her youth.

The sci-fi setting of San Francisco in 2065 can be described as an exciting place, filled with wonderful inventions and technology. Robots assist humankind, giving them more leisure and more time to devote to altruistic endeavors. Or it can be portrayed as a city under siege for lack of resources, where robots rule and humans are subjugated. It is the circumstances of the time and the place that give the reader the essence of the characters. Your characters will react to each of these settings in different ways.

Time can also affect setting. A hike in the Sierra Nevada Mountains will not be the same on a beautiful spring day as it is on a threatening winter one. Likewise, place also affects setting.

Paint your setting with broad-strokes. I could have gone into much greater detail about either of the Marys' lives in my examples. Instead, I hope I revealed just enough from within the setting to make the reader want to know more in both cases. The sights, smells, sounds, sense of touch that the character experiences within the setting can be used to convey a great deal about the character herself.

A word of caution, however: when incorporating historical information about a particular setting—or when instructing the reader in the geography of a particular area—include only enough detail to clearly describe the setting, but not so much that the reader can become bored and lose interest. Always question whether or not the setting details help to advance the story. If not, it's time to break out the red pen. Don't work your way through a line of trees at Gettysburg describing each one in detail. By the time you have Mr. Lincoln standing to give his speech, your audience may be fast asleep.

Setting tells us where the character is in the present scene and how much time has passed since the last scene. It can also be the vehicle by which we learn so much more about the character as she experiences the setting itself. Think of it as an extension of the story, and let your character encounter and react to it.
2007 Anna Furtado — Author of The Heart's Desire
Book One of The Briarcrest Chronicles

Finalist—Golden Crown Literary Society "Goldie" Awards 2005
Distributed by: Starcrossed Productions
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