Setting is an important component of fiction. Graham Greene’s seedy tropical bars, John Steinbeck’s Oklahoma dust bowl, Candace Bushnell’s trendy, young New York are all so visually realized that they practically become characters in their own right, contributing vivid imagery and affecting the plot. But the right setting can do even more. It can build characterization.
Two types of settings are useful in helping us understand your character: the place he lives now and the place he grew up.
WHERE A CHARACTER LIVES NOW
If your character chose his current setting, that tells us something about his tastes and values. The man who chooses the energetic grittiness of Manhattan is a different person from the man who chooses life in a small Midwestern town. The New Yorker may be ambitious, want more anonymity or seek greater sophistication. The choice of the city life won’t, by itself, tell us which of these is truebut it’ll give us a start on understanding him.
The same is true of the more intimate setting of a character’s home. What kind of neighborhood has he selected? With what has he chosen to furnish and decorate his dwelling place? Walls of bookshelves? Expensive antiques? Salvation Army left-overs? Nothing except what was already there? Such choices are revealing of basic personality.
Of course, many people don’t choose their city or apartment. They live in New York or Houston because that’s where their jobs are and in their current dwellings because that’s what they can afford. Here’s where a character’s attitude becomes important.
Does your protagonist like New York? His apartment? Why or why not? A great deal of characterization can be conveyed by a character’s response to setting. For example, Gustave Flaubert’s character Emma Bovary in Madame Bovary laments her life in the stifling provincial town of Tostes:
But it was above all the meal times that were unbearable to her, in this small room on the ground floor, with its smoking stove, its creaking door, its walls that sweated, the damp pavement; all the bitterness of life seemed served up on her plate, and with the smoke of the boiled beef there rose from her secret soul waves of nauseous disgust.
This tells us at least as much about Emma as about Tostes.
WHERE A CHARACTER LIVED THEN
Although not chosen directly by any of us, a childhood home can still convey a great deal about a character. This is most usable if your character still lives at, or near, wherever he grew up, as is true of the three sisters of Jane Smiley’s prize-winning novel A Thousand Acres. Ginny, the narrator, is shaped by, warped by and ultimately destroyed by the farms of the Midwest. Without this setting, nothing in the novel could’ve happened at all.
A second way to use a childhood setting is to have your character revisit it as an adult. This allows you to both demonstrate what shaped her values and show us how she feels about that place now. Two contemporary novels that have used this structure with great success are Rebecca Wells’ Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and John Grisham’s The Summons. In both, childhood settings become the means to resolve the conflicts of the past.
To decide which setting is best for your story, ask yourself these questions:
Will my plot allow my character to choose his home and locale?
If so, what kind of place would he choose to live?
Where did he come from? Do I want to use that place as a setting?
How does he feel about his current setting, regardless of whether he chose it or has been forced into it? Pleased? Restless? Resigned? Bitter?
DESCRIBING YOUR SETTING
Once you’ve chosen your setting, you need to describe it for your readers. Simply naming the place”He moved to New York last year”won’t do the job. You need to let us experience New York as the character experiences it.
The key is to find the right details. More important than accuracy is individual perception. What does your partic-ular character notice about New York? How does he react to what he notices? Some possibilities:
He moves in rich social circles, noticing details of East Side apartmentsand admires their taste and beauty.
He moves in rich social circles, noticing details of East Side apartmentsand despises them for what he considers ostentatious parasitism.
She frequents a tiny Greek restaurant on the upper West Sideand loves its boisterous exoticism.
She frequents a tiny Greek restaurant on the upper West Sideand dislikes its greasy smell and bland food, but it’s convenient and cheap, and she’s broke.
He walks in Central Park, fearful of getting mugged.
He walks in Central Park, loving the rich tapestry of passing strangers.
You get the idea. Pick specific, concrete details of setting and let us know how your protagonist interprets them. Look again at that brief excerpt from Madame Bovary. Flaubert doesn’t write, “Emma hated the drab poverty of her setting.” No, Flaubert uses tangible details: smoking stove, creaking door, walls that sweat, smoke from boiled beef. The details are drabat least as perceived by Emma. To her husband, Charles, in contrast, they’re cozy.
Where you describe your setting is almost as important as how. Long, detailed descriptions of place in a book’s opening pages worked in the 19th century, but today’s readers may be less patient. Modern novelists should consider dumping long, descriptive openings.
You do, however, need to get to your particular slant on the character’s chosen setting fairly early. Otherwise the reader may substitute whatever impressions or stereotypes she already possesses about the city. That can make it harder to allow her to see it through your character’s eyes.
The solution is to break up your description into short burstsa paragraph here, a sentence there, a phrase combined with a small action: “She crossed Broadway at the light, ignoring the beggar crouched patiently on the sidewalk.” Intersperse these bits of description throughout an opening scene in which characters are interacting, or are trying to accomplish something. You’ll gain all the advantages of a well-chosen setting without slowing down the action.
Setting matters. Make yours work for your story by including details that show us, rather than tell us, what key characters are like. Create the perfect setting, and you’re halfway to effective characterization.