In all my favorite stories, setting is as much of a character as the main protagonists. It speaks to readers, revealing secrets and emotions and feelings in ways the living characters may not be able to share. And it carries a double load, rooting the protagonist in place and giving readers a glimpse at their internal landscape. Think of The Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit, Outlander. Where these stories take place is equally as important and memorable as who is in them.
So how can you create a setting that stays with readers? Use the same care and thought that goes into crafting your characters, and then make setting and character work together—or, depending on your story line, against each other. Here are a few things to consider:
Make a strong first impression.
For me, writing almost always starts with the setting—there’s a natural place my stories are drawn to and want to settle. Characters and plot points may change, but the setting tends to be something that stays rock-solid in my head.
My latest book, Darling Girl, is a Peter Pan retelling, so London was an obvious location, but when telling the story to myself, I knew New York and Cornwall would also come into play. If you can see the backdrop to your story, by all means, go with it.
Select a specific season.
What time of year is it, and why? How does setting your story during this time influence your characters? Is your character different in different seasons? And does that change as your story unfolds?
For example, does your character get depressed in fall, as the days grow shorter, or is she energized by the colder weather? And how does her reaction change as your story progresses?
Maybe she hates the long dark nights of winter because she’s single and home alone watching television, but later in the story she’s met someone, and the same activity she used to complain about last year becomes something she loves now because she’s with her person.
Use your senses.
Whether we’re aware of it or not, we’re all influenced by our environment as we move through our day. We feel the sun on our face after a long winter and unconsciously turn our bodies toward it. We hunch into the wind as we walk from our car to the office. We listen to the birds sing in the morning, look up when their music suddenly stops because a hawk is flying overhead. We smell the salt air or the crisp scent of leaves in the fall or the stale dusty odor of a house that’s been closed up for too long. We’ve tasted the acridness of smoke at the back of our throats.
Any of these details can root your character into the setting and make it more real, and they can also help open up your storyline. The scent of new-cut grass may be a natural segue to a childhood memory for your character. The sound of heavy footsteps in the apartment overhead may trigger anxiety in a protagonist who has recently escaped an abusive relationship, the menace of which is a sharp contrast to the sunny home she’s built for herself. Every sense detail you include is a chance to be purposeful and shape how the reader experiences your story.
Turn up (or down) the temperature.
Ever step out of the airport in Orlando? It’s a wet, liquid air. After the cold of New England, my shoulders immediately relax—they’ve been fighting the freezing temperatures without my even realizing it. Orlando air feels different on my skin, tastes different when I breathe it in, than the sharp dryness of New England in winter does. My whole body feels happier, and that’s reflected in the way that I walk, the way that I move.
How does temperature impact your character? Do they wake tangled in damp sheets, salt on their lips? Does the heat of the sun drive them inside, and what—or who—do they find there? Or is their environment colder? Do they bundle themselves in layers, hiding who they really are? Do they move more slowly, with more aches and pains? Do they long for sunnier days? And can you use the description of what they’re experiencing to create a metaphor for their life? It’s a nice one-two punch—your reader gets both a description of your character’s physical world and a look at what’s happening inside them.
Share site-specific details.
When your character walks outside, what do they experience, and how does that make them feel? A character who walks outside in the city on a sunny day, with tall buildings casting shadows, has a very different experience than a character who goes for a walk in the woods under towering trees. The shadows may still be there, but there’s a different sense to them entirely.
The Outlander novels by Diana Gabaldon are wonderful examples of this. As most know by now, the main character Claire Randall time travels from 1945 to 1743, and while the physical location remains the same, walking the woods is a completely different experience across the two different eras. Gabaldon is a master of using the minor details—brambles and cockleburs and darkest night—to set her scene.
You don’t have to write pages and pages of description to make your setting real. But by considering the physical environment where your story takes place, you add an extra element. A character who is dumped in the dark days of November, for example, may respond a little differently than if he’d been jilted on a beautiful spring morning. A character battling not only her archenemy but also the howling winds of winter may have a harder go of it than if the fight was taking place in summer. Conversely, a character who receives devastating news on a beautiful sunshiny day when everything is perfect gives you a chance to play with that juxtaposition.
Make your setting work for your character, or against her. Whatever you choose, the important part is that it carries some of the load of your story. Don’t let your setting be just pretty scenery.