How much time and effort have you put into your setting? Your secondary and minor characters? How much time and effort have you put into creating your story world?
I hope your answer is that you know every square inch of your setting, every distant star, every fallen leaf, every scrape in the linoleum under the kitchen table. I hope you know those who populate your world well enough to shake hands with their grandpas and hug their grandmas, squiggle kisses in their babies’ bellies and play tug-of-war with their Shelties.
Because this is the stuff that enhances the escapist experience.
Readers want to be fully enveloped in the world you’ve created for them. They want to be transported. They want realistic experiences that carry them away. It’s your job to give them what they want.
It doesn’t take long paragraphs of description and backstory, just artistically placed lines and words that paint pictures and resonate with the reader. Donate some time to this. What perfect word or sentence will plop the reader squarely into your scene’s setting? What perfect quirk will morph a minor or secondary character into a living human?
Where do your main characters fit into your creation? You have developed a realistic story world and realistic people to populate it, so does your POV character interact with them? Or is he under a dome on a flat, barren surface?
Issues to watch for:
- Is your character involved in your setting?
Beautiful fall day. Golden leaves drift from sky-scraping tree limbs, air is crackly crisp, wispy clouds float across an otherwise stunningly blue sky. All that is great, but where is your character? Is he kicking at the leaves or watching his dog play in them? Does he squint at the sky through blood-shot eyes? Does she shiver and shrug on a sweater?
What is your character’s mood? Does it fit the setting’s ambiance? Is he the life of the noisy victory celebration, or the morose mourner in the corner?
As I discussed in “Studying Under Maass, (Part 2),” not only is it smart to put your character in the setting, but it’s also smart to play with the mood of the setting—compare, contrast, engage.
- Can your character maneuver in your setting in a sensible way?
Have you described a day-long drive one way and a one-hour walk to return? Does the pen at the right hand on her desk now require her to stretch to retrieve it? Do chores get done in one minute when any normal person would require all morning?
Space and time matter. Understand the spatial distances in your setting, particularly when your character is required to travel that setting. Keep an eye on the expenditure of time—watch your timeline in general.
- Does your character interact with other characters?
You’ve described your character and his girlfriend enjoying a leisurely dinner at her favorite restaurant. Someone passes by just as he’s about to raise his drink to his lips. He sloshes the liquid, glares at the offender—whom he suddenly recognizes as he watches him weave around tables of diners on his way to the back—reaches for his napkin, and discovers a note has been dropped in his lap. What does he do next?
A. Open the note, read it, and go into a long internal monologue?
B. Go into a long internal monologue about the person who passed by?
C. Respond to his girlfriend’s comment about rudeness and his well-being as he opens the note, reads it, and goes into a short internal monologue about the person who passed by and the meaning of the note?
D. Respond to his girlfriend’s comment about rudeness and his well-being as he opens the note, reads it, then discusses both note and offender with her?
If your answer is A or B, I hope you reconsider. Long internal monologues take the character—and thereby the reader—out of the story world. He’s no longer interacting with the characters and setting around him but centers himself in his own mind.
As an author, stand back and look at the scene. Consider what would most likely happen.
Here’s what I see:
He’s laughing at something she said as he raises his glass.
Someone bumps into him, and he sloshes his drink against his suit coat. He glares at the offender and recognizes him as his informant (or whatever. Pick what you’d like).
“Oh, how rude! Are you okay?” His girlfriend reaches past the centerpiece candle and dabs at the wet spot with her cloth napkin.
“Yeah, I’m fine. Some people have no manners, right?” he responds as he reaches for his napkin and discovers the note. He opens it under the table and reads “meet at the library at 9 p.m.” Joe must have something.
He slips the note into his pocket as he smiles at his girl. “I’m going to need another drink.”
Okay, you say, but what if he needs to mull the note over for a while? Have him receive it at a time when he’s not with someone else. Perhaps the note is dropped in his lap while she’s in the lady’s room or before she arrives or in an entirely different setting.
The point is, when he’s in a setting and mingling with other characters, don’t take him out of the setting to dwell in his thoughts. If you need a period of internalization, allow him to be alone.
Everything interlocks–characters, cast, setting. Everything has an effect on everything else. Keep that in mind as you revise your work. Your readers want and deserve realism.
This is great! This is totally the essence of setting being a “character in its own right.”
Aha! I didn’t think of that. I was just thinking of those authors who forget their characters are in a setting at all or are with other characters. Thanks for the comment!
Excellent. Nothing exists in a vacuum, which we need to remember. I had not thought of setting as a character as Katie suggested. Great way to put it.
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