“The setting was like another character.” Have you ever heard someone describe a story this way? What is it that makes some settings feel alive, as if they were a person and not just a landscape? It takes more than just writing vivid description. Today, I’m sharing three ways to give your settings personality.
Setting is Responsive
My favorite instruction on writing setting comes from The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House. In her essay, “Place” Dorothy Allison, author of Bastard Out of Caroline, shares what makes setting come alive for her.
I cannot abide a story told to me by a numb, empty voice that never responds to anything that’s happening, that doesn’t express some feeling in response to what it sees. Place is not just what your feet are crossing to get to somewhere. Place is feeling, and feeling is something a character expresses. More, it is something the writer puts on the page–articulates with deliberate purpose. If you keep giving me these eyes that note all the details–if you keep telling me the lawn is manicured but you don’t tell me that it makes your character both deeply happy and slightly anxious–then I’m a bit frustrated with you. I want a story that’ll pull me in. I want a story that makes me drunk. I want a story that feeds me glory. And most of all, I want a story that I can trust. I want a story that is happening in a real place, which means a place that has meaning and that evokes emotions in the person who’s telling me the story. Place is emotion.Dorothy Allison, “Place”
In other words, in order for a place to feel like a character, the other characters should display an interactive relationship with it.
Allison goes on to say, “Place is where the ‘I’ goes. Place is what that ‘I’ looks at, what it doesn’t look at. Is it happy? Is it sad? Is it afraid? Is it curious?”
You have to know your main character’s personality well. This is especially important if you have a first-person narrator, since everything is being filtered through that character’s opinions.
In Allison’s essay, she makes a list of single lines of description that summarize her feelings toward various cities she’s visited. They are as follows:
- Central Florida is despair.
- New York City is sex.
- California is smug.
- Boston has never gotten over Henry James.
- Seattle and Portland lie about their weather.
- Iowa City is one hotel room and a chlorine stink away from the suburbs of hell.
Using Dorothy Allison’s sentences as a model, write single sentence descriptions that sum up the feelings you have about each of the cities and neighborhood where you have lived.
These lines make great opening sentences for stories or essays. Vladimir Nabokov began one of his short stories, “Spring in Fialta is cloudy and dull.”
Setting is Personified
So far we’ve talked about how characters react to settings, but sometimes settings have an agency of their own. In the following passage, Jeanette Winterson introduces the setting in the first chapter of her novel The Daylight Gate.
The Forest of Pendle used to be a hunting ground, but some say that the hill is the hunter—alive in its black-and-green coat cropped like an animal pelt. […]
There is still a tradition, or a superstition, that a girl-child born in Pendle Forest should be twice baptized; once in church and once in a black pool at the foot of the hill. The hill will know her then. She will be its trophy and its sacrifice. She must make her peace with her birthright, whatever that means.Jeanette Winterson, The Daylight Gate
Notice how she describes the hill like a creature, wearing a coat cropped like an animal pelt. Then as we go on, the hill begins to act, not just look, like a living creature. It knows the girl, as much as she knows it.
When nonliving things are described as if they had the qualities of something alive, this is called personification.
In this particular novel, we might suspect that there is something supernatural or uncanny about this setting that is giving it its agency. But even if your setting’s personification is a mere metaphor, it can still be effective in making it more evocative to the reader.
Your setting is alive. Write a scene where the setting has a message that it wants to communicate to a human character. How does it get its message across? Also think about your human character’s emotional response to the situation.
Setting is Defamiliarized
There’s an old saying that it’s the job of a writer to make the ordinary feel strange and new. This is called defamiliarization. The passage below describes a place that many of you should be familiar with, but does it feel comfortable and ordinary?
If there is a river within a thousand miles of Riverside Drive, I saw no signs of it. It’s like every place else out there: endless scorched boulevards lined with one-story stores, shops, bowling alleys, skating rinks, taco drive-ins, all of them shaped not like rectangles but like trapezoids, from the way the roofs slant up from the back and the plateglass fronts slant out as if they’re going to pitch forwards on the sidewalk and throw up.Tom Wolfe, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby
Here we have the suburban sprawl typical of southern California, but the description makes it feel anything but typical. Everything is slanted and irregularly shaped. The buildings are ready to vomit.
It is described in a way that makes the readers feel like they’re dizzy themselves. This isn’t just because of the word choice; the long run-on sentence is used intentionally to make the reader feel overwhelmed.
Whether or not the reader feels comfortable with your setting has nothing to with whether they know the place in real life. It’s all up to your words and sentence structure.
Write a scene where an alien visits a setting that is familiar to people living in the West in the 21st Century. It might be a supermarket, a highway, or a school. How does this setting feel outlandish, strange or unfamiliar to your character? What words and sentence structures capture this feeling?
The character doesn’t literally have to be a space alien. They could be an escaped circus animal, time traveler or anyone else you can imagine.
Now that we’ve learned about ways to give our setting personality, it’s time to think about how you might want to apply this information to your work in progress. You might want to double-check descriptions you’ve already written in your novel or memoir. Is it doing at least one of the following?
- Showing something about your main character’s personality and how they relate to the world around them.
- Creating a sense that the landscape is alive through its interactions with the human characters.
- Disorienting readers with surprising word choices and sentence structures, giving them a sense of newness.
If it’s a “no” to all of the above, it may be that your setting is, pardon the pun, fading into the background. Revising with what you know now will make your setting an active character in its own right.