Friday, May 25, 2012

Setting As Character

What I'm Reading Now: Insurgent, by Veronica Roth

At the conference in April, I had the privilege of listening to agent/author Donald Maass speak on strong point-of-view characterization with setting. I've already bragged up and down about Donald Maass and how much his book The Breakout Novelist has helped me, so I'll spare you my fangirl raving. But I will tell you the man can speak, and his workshop at the conference was one of the most powerful. This is what I took away from his lecture.

What is setting as character?
Authors spend hours, days, years developing characters and bringing them to life. Everyone's process is different (I'm one of those 'WHO NEEDS A MAP? DRIVE!' writers), but when all's said and done, you've got a character with experiences and feelings that make them unique from everyone else. Why should setting be any different? A setting is just as alive as the people within it, as the memories surrounding it. As Mr. Maass says (and I love this): the silence in a sleeping child's bedroom is much different than the silence in a deserted subway at 2 AM.

Generic description is what readers skim most. Makes sense--I don't really care how many candles are in the chandelier or if the carpet's blue or purple. I do care if the chandelier once fell and lit the building on fire. I care even more if the character knew someone who died in the accident.

Let's put it to practice. How many words do you read of this before you start skimming?

It was a bright room, with a domed ceiling and little holes set at intervals where the sunlight filtered in. A wooden table stood in the center. A few trinkets glistened upon the red tablecloth, forks and plates and a gold chalice. A turkey steamed on the one side. A man sat in a chair at the other.

"Aren't you going to eat?" he asked.


Sunlight burned through holes in the dome's ceiling like a hundred prying eyes. The room was too open. Too bare. It held nothing but a table, and even the scarlet tablecloth (red, of course it's red, because if it were anything else I could leave) didn't drop far enough to hide beneath. The place settings glistened like surgeon's tools. I ignored the steaming turkey and stared at the man in the chair, whose scent wafted more tempting than anything set for the feast.

"Aren't you going to eat?" he asked.

Quite a different feel to the same room, no? And maybe that's not a great example. I'm still learning myself, of course, but hopefully I've conveyed a general idea of what Mr. Maass is talking about. The first paragraph could have been written by any character, could appear in any book. It's generic. Detached. But I could rewrite any number of second paragraph examples using different characters. Imagine how much it would change if the person was an interior decorator, or she knew the man, or had an obsession with turkey, or ... you get the point. Strong point-of-view description tells you about the character as much as it does the environment.

Now, is it always appropriate? Mr. Maass says, not always. Sometimes the setting is interesting enough on its own, and for anything with action in it--a chase scene, say--the last thing you want is your character pausing to think about that empty Coke bottle. Then again, a rushed description of what's flying by could still be considered part of setting as character. Maybe your character -does- notice little details even on the run, or maybe he just barrels through and trips on things because he's so oblivious.

This isn't easy. It's still something I'm working on in my current manuscript, and it eats a lot of brain cells. But it adds a whole new dimension to your characters and can shift the mood for a scene from 'eh' to 'MORE PLS.' If you've got generic description, customize it for your point-of-view character. I think you'll like where it takes you.


  1. Remember how I was saying this to you about Anne Rice? She would spend so much time talking about a staircase that I didn't remember why we were going up it in the first place.

    1. It's easy to get carried away :) It took writing this book for me to realize, holy cow, the finished product might look easy... but it's really hard to do!



Popular Posts