Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Is Your Setting Just a Place or a Character?

As writers, we all have our favorite setting in which to tell stories, and we also have our favorite passages that establish those setting. As a reader I've seen the masters at work, from the arid tone and sparseness of Capote's In Cold Blood...

"The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call 'out there.'"

...to the rambling, darkly poetic tour of Manderly in DuMarrier's Rebecca...

"Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate to the drive, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me. There was a padlock and a chain upon the gate."

But let's make it personal. How do YOU establish setting in your fiction?

On a range of "the setting is another character" to "a few words about the weather and the name of the town is more than enough," how important is setting to your stories?

Gordon Dymowski: For me, the setting is one of the key elements of making a story work. Even if I'm just writing a modern-day tale, providing an appropriate atmosphere is critical. I'm strictly in the "setting-as-character" camp since it provides a backdrop for the flesh-and-blood characters. Providing that atmosphere enhances both my writing and the reader's experience.

Elizabeth Donald: When I first began writing fiction, my stories were like the Star Trek original series episode “The Empath.” You’ll remember that one - they ran out of money for sets and the whole thing takes place on an empty sound stage with a square block for the characters to occasionally sit. It’s actually a pretty good episode, but I was always struck by how it seemed to be taking place in nowhere.

That’s what my writing was like. People did things, said things, died horribly, but it might as well have been in that nowhere space for all the description I put into place and setting. As I grew and developed my craft, I realized that setting can absolutely be a character, and knowing a place can really inform your story. I’ve infested Memphis with vampires and rusalka and a number of other critters, because I lived there for several years and I know the city will. I’ve often used settings like Illinois river towns, because it is territory I know, having lived and reported in Illinois river towns for more than 25 years. 

In the micro sense, where you place a story can greatly influence the reader’s opinion. For example, a recent story I submitted to my MFA workshop was set in a cheap, kind of slimy motel. My colleagues said that having this moment take place in that kind of setting led them to expect it would be a tawdry moment, something illicit - cheating, drug-fueled, perhaps people on the edge of homelessness - none of which I intended form the story. Setting matters to the characters, influences the readers, and thus it needs to matter to the writer.

Vonnie Winslow Crist: For me, setting is almost another character. I choose a setting for my fiction that has an impact on the story. Sensory language is the most important tool in my toolbox for creating a strong sense of location. That said, the sensory details need to carefully selected for maximum impact. No one wants to read pages of sensory observations. Sometimes, one well-chosen detail can define the location, set the mood, and start the action in motion.

Anna Grace Carpenter: I am very fond of setting as character, but fluctuate as setting as a reflection of the central characters, and setting as a contrast to my central characters. (For example, The Gear'd Heart is all rainy and dark and cold as the characters fight otherworldly, serial killers. But the current work-in-progress is a desert setting but with characters who are desperate to live.

Selah Janel: It depends on the story, but setting matters in a lot of my work. I gravitate towards forests and small towns, and both can be portrayed to convey tone and characters. In one form, they can be romantic and comforting, in another they can be suffocating and foreboding. For me, setting can be an extension of my characters or a character in itself, yet another antagonist working against the characters like in Candles or Mooner, or something that’s more supportive like a quiet best friend in a story like Holly or Ivy. Even in my short stories, I use setting to echo the tone and feel quite a bit.

HC Playa: Setting sets tone. It is both little more than background and yet absolutely integral to the story. In genre fiction it can outline the realities and rules of the world, whether there's magic or aliens or we are reading by candlelight.

I sketch it out through my character's eyes and senses, dropping things in as they go. IF I am using a real place I may put in less description, but still want to paint an image in the reader's mind because not everyone has been to the same places.

Herika Raymer: As setting is when and where the story takes place, I agree with HC that it sets tone. Usually setting through a character's eyes helps, but there is the added measure of setting through a character who had not been in your setting before. That way, not only the character but also the reader are exploring a new area. It allows the reader to (hopefully) connect with characters as well as get the background and events of the Setting to help understand what is happening.

Bill Craig: In my Marlow books, Key West is every bit a character as well as setting.

Bobby Nash: The vast majority of the time, setting is very important to me and my work, especially in a series where the setting is visited and revisited often. Sommersville is a fictional city and county I created that has become an important location in multiple books fronted by different characters. I think it’s a very important character in the stories. I want the reader to have a feel for the settings.

Murky Master: So it depends. In the last two short stories I wrote, they were short so going verbose on the setting wasn't an option. In my novel, it's set in San Antonio and I didn't really think much about establishing setting in that one. But, when I write my fantasy stories, I like to think of it this way.

Ian Totten: Setting is extremely important to me. When I write I see everything in my mind and try to convey that to the readers. Generally speaking, my settings either serve to create a sense of dread (such as the place where a killer is going to strike), a false sense of safety, or an actual area where the characters don’t need to have their guards up.

What is your most effective tool in your writer's toolbox for creating a strong sense of setting in your work?

Bobby Nash: The setting you create has to feel real, not just to the reader, but to me as the writer. I need to be able to imagine walking down the streets of that location, recognize the smells, the colors, the things that make that place unique. If I believe it’s real, that translates into the story.

Herika Raymer: Using the senses, but trying not to be too descriptive. I do not want to be a writer who uses two pages to explain what one thing looks like or tastes like. However, a reader experiencing their surroundings through the senses of the character can definitely be instrumental to setting the scene.

John L. Taylor: Depending on the story. If the setting is fairly fantastic, I'll go more detailed and emphasize the contrast between it and the known. If more down-to-earth, I'll write it as a metaphor for the POV character's mood/personality. 

Selah Janel: I really like to lean into details, and if I don’t have the space for that, I try to use setting just enough to induce a mood in the characters, and by extension my readers. Little things matter, though, and knowing a place or type of place well can give you so much to work with in terms of story.

Bill Craig: The places where I set a lot of the action are real places where I have been. I try to make descriptions of places as vivid as I can in order to make readers feel as if they are visiting the island. For Key West, the sights and sounds are well known by many people, so it is easy to incorporate them, from wild chickens running all over town to iguanas coming out of the trees to swim in hotel swimming pools. Island music is everywhere as there is some sort of musician playing nearly 24 hours a day, giving a flavor from salsa to calypso, to Jimmy Buffet. 

Gordon Dymowski: Details, details, details. It's amazing how some writers will point to obvious landmarks (like the Empire State Building) as if to say "We're in New York". Writing places that are out-of-the-way or suggesting a deeper history can do a lot for setting place, tone, and mood.

For example, when I write about Chicago, most of my action tends to take place on the city's south side. Part of it is that there's a historic tension between the North Side and South Side (due to both class and racial factors that are too lengthy to go into here), but part of it is...I know Sears Tower exists (and nobody calls it Willis Tower, just like nobody calls where the White Sox play Guaranteed Rate Park -- it's Sox Park or, if you're older, Comiskey Park). Anything that suggests that the setting has a history improves your ability to tell a story.

Elizabeth Donald: Live your life. I know that’s not the craft response, and certainly addressing metaphor and descriptive passages and details are all very important, but the reader can tell if you’re making up a setting from what you’ve seen in a movie or TV show rather than real-life experience. I learned to shoot guns because I was writing a lot of shoot-em-ups and it was blindingly apparent I’d never shot a gun in my life. I wrote an early novel in New York City that was fairly terrible, as I had never been to New York and I didn’t realize a lot of aspects you only realize once you’ve walked around on its streets. 

If you want to create a place, first visit it or something similar. Pay attention. Take notes. Engage all five senses and experience a place if you want to recreate it in fiction. And then send in the zombies. It livens everything up. 

Davide Mana: I started writing my "Buscafusco" stories, about an unlicensed PI working in the wine hills of southern Piedmont where I live, as a collaboration with the local Chamber of Commerce and Tourism. The idea was to use my stories to promote tourism in the area. The place had therefore to be really another character in the stories, and I used a mix of historical details and contemporary color to give the readers as strong an impression as possible. I had to be as close as possible to the authentic places I described and tried to use as much true detail as possible in setting up action scenes and plot elements. I used real people whenever possible.

The result was highly satisfying for me as a writer and (based on feedback) for the readers and paid back the extra research and effort needed.

Ef Deal: I like to focus on texture and sensory details like scent and taste. I also will describe a general layout as it affects the plot or action. For example, an opening of a second chapter describes the history of the chateau only to highlight the engineering genius of my heroine in bringing it up to date (1843), since those changes will play a part in the action later in the book.

Anna Grace Carpenter: I focus on those visceral details. The chill and misery of a rainy setting, the exhaustion and thirst of a desert setting. If the characters have injuries I focus on how the environment affects those wounds.

HC Playa: Invoking the senses. I do admit that this is something I feel is a work-in-progress skill. I joke that a reader might accurately guess without knowing me that my sense of smell is not very good. My characters tend not to smell much unless it's really strong and generally ick 😂. Yay allergies.

How important are sensory details when establishing setting? Internal monologue to establish "connection"? Omniscient telling for all the facts?

Robert Waters: Internal dialogue is important to me. But it's something you have to balance and not have it dominate the story. I've seen stories with whole paragraphs of internal dialogue, to the point of annoyance. IMO, not a good way to go. What I often do is have the character thinking / brooding / contemplating over something as part of the main narrative, and then, he/she will say a few words to him or herself to cap off the thought. That to me is a better way to handle internal dialogue. 

Selah Janel: It depends on word count and what’s going on in the story. I love sensory details, because they help build a world and immerse readers, as well as giving characters so much to work with externally and internally. Sometimes, though, showing their own thoughts about a place is enough with less emphasis on external description. It really depends on what the goal is for the scene.

Bobby Nash: It all goes to set the stage. I like to have the narrator let us know not only details about the place but how they connect to the POV character in that chapter. I can drop details about Sommersville, and they work, but when I tie those details to Tom Myers’ life, they take on greater meaning.

Bill Craig: Sensory details are hooks to put the reader into the story and setting. 

Anna Grace Carpenter: I only write 1st or close 3rd person. So the voice is always immediate and tied to the centralized character. (Even in third, everything is very close to the character who is the focus of the chapter. So those details are personal.)

Elizabeth Donald: I struggle with interiority in my writing, and it’s something I’ve been focusing on in my craft. Internal monologue comes more from character than setting, in my humble opinion, but both of these help develop a rich narrative that draws your reader into that total immersion for which we strive when we’re writing. Those sensory details go much further in terms of setting, as far as I’m concerned: when you’re standing in an open-air market in San Antonio, hearing mariachi music, smelling the street corn and tamales, watching the brightly-colored flags flutter against the blue sky, feeling an overly-warm breeze on your face… that puts you in a place, at a time, and you have established a place. 

HC Playa: I avoid omniscient telling in my writing. As a reader, nothing makes me skip ahead quicker than a setting info dump from an invisible omniscient narrator. If I skip it and don't enjoy it, I don't write it. While I do occasionally use internal dialogue, I rely mostly on the character's POV to relate setting. It gives the reader a more immersive experience.

Gordon Dymowski: Sometimes the way to "dot the I" when crafting a setting is ensuring that every sense is involved. For example, my high school years were spent commuting through Chicago's Maxell Street market. I could discuss how I took the Number 8 Halsted bus, but the reader would be more intrigued by describing the storefronts along the street (with metal covers for the windows), the vendors hawking wares on the sidewalk (including hubcaps), and the strong odor of grilled onions and Polish sausage wafting through the air.

I've just painted a picture for you of that experience. The Market has since moved (and the street is now covered by amenities for college students), but that sense memory still lingers.

As far as internal monologue/omniscient narrator, it depends on the type of story. Leaving out details can be critical in setting the scene (just read Poe's short stories), and having the "innocent bystander" narrate can drive insight into actions and behaviors (paging Dr. Watson). All of these are tools that any writer can and should use.

Vonnie Winslow Crist: Used judicially, internal monologue can let the reader see into a character and their motivations, goals, etc. Again, a little goes a long way. Too much internal monologue slows the pace of the story. I'm not a fan of omniscient telling -- it usually feels like "telling" and not like a story unfolding. The setting doesn't work in my fiction when I "force" a story to be set in a place. When I allow the narrative to settle comfortably in a location rather than force it to fit into an environment, it's easier to write and the resulting tale works better for readers (and editors). 

I'm a fan of George Martin's term "gardener" for a writer. One organically selects details, adjusts the narrative, and makes decisions about location, internal monologues, pov, etc. much like one gardens -- well, much like I garden. For me, it's less about straight rows and perfect flowers, and more about the beauty that comes from discovery and adapting to the unexpected.

Herika Raymer: Sensory details are important because we all (unless otherwise incapacitated) experience our reality through our senses, makes sense we would want a bit of sensory in the stories we real.

Internal monologue can help establish "connection" with a character because it helps the reader either comprehend, understand, or even approve/disapprove of a character's motives and actions.

Omniscient telling for all the facts can be fun, but it depends on the presentation. For instance, I am watching an anime right now based of a manga series. Though a different presentation, the author's way of presenting omniscient facts is to have a narrator make hilarious remarks on what is happening. It adds spice to an otherwise pretty cut and paste story. This may not be feasible in a traditional written format, but I have read some authors who have ways to bring in omniscience without it being too much of a data dump and thus taking away from the lure of the written word.

What have you read or written that absolutely didn't work in regard to making the setting feel real or important to the work? Why didn't it work?

Bill Craig: Longmire did a great job in character and setting. The only book I have read that failed in this respect is a book about a pulp character by a "Name" mystery writer. Sadly, it was so poorly written that I could not finish it and returned it. It ignored the history of the character and turned him into a secondary character rather than being the titular hero.

Elizabeth Donald: I will be generous and pick on TV, because they make a lot of money and won’t care. I always had myself a huge giggle at Smallville, as the teens of Smallville High would go swimming in the lovely alpine lakes shrouded with evergreens in… Kansas. Seriously, folks, at least try to hide that you’re shooting in Vancouver. Shows like Supernatural were equally ridiculous about this - claiming to be in St. Louis and an establishing shot of the Arch really doesn’t qualify as establishing a setting. At least when Doctor Who lands on Earth, he’s honest enough to admit he mostly toodles around London because budget. 

How can we apply this to the written word? Know the territory. If you can’t physically visit a place, use your Google-fu and explore. Try to find someone who lives there or has visited there and interview them. I did this when I set a Blackfire adventure in the Philippines, and before I even ventured close to that one, I interviewed a friend of a friend who grew up there. I see it as no different than interviewing experts in advance of writing something technically different, like asking an arson investigator how you can most efficiently kill someone with fire and get away with it. (Just be sure they know you’re a writer; it’s far less likely to result in a search warrant for your apartment.)

Murky Master: Setting is only the combined sensory input going into a character's mind. The details that are important to the character are important to the story, so they will rise to the top.

A missionary about to face Elder gods in the Vietnamese jungle would see the following

"The dark of the night gave every biting insect an echo. The vines strangled like tentacles, their origins in the pitch black of the tree forks, like they were dropping out of the unknowable night..."

But, an adventuring doctor rushing to get medicine through that same jungle would see this

"Every branch, every vine clawed and tugged at Dr. Nguyen, grasped and clawed at his sweat-soaked pant legs. Even the air dragged on him as he swam through the humidity, every leaping stride through wet, leaves feeling like a backhand. Like the one that mother would deal him if that girl drowned in her own pneumatic lungs).

Bobby Nash: Sure. Probably. I can’t think of an example off the top of my head and wouldn’t want to throw another writer under the bus. As a writer, if the author isn’t giving me those details, my brain fills them in, which could hurt the scene the author is trying to convey. If I don’t connect to the location, it becomes a generic location in my imagination.

Anna Grace Carpenter: I can't say I have written anything that was disconnected from setting. I write a lot of suspension of disbelief stuff, but setting is rarely a part of that. But, I did stop reading "The Lies of Locke Lamora" after a particular scene that was particularly brutal but also ignored some general physics.

Herika Raymer: The most glaring example that comes to mind was reading a sample chapter in Amazon from a highly recommended book (though not so much later on once more facts were discovered about the author). Her description of the scene was fair, setting the tone of tension and the fear of being chased. However, when it came time for the main character to act -- that is when it did not work. She had her character running on a broken ankle. Yes, broken. Readers can suspend belief for some things, but unless the author establishes right away that the main character is in some way supernatural, I have yet to meet someone who could run on a broken ankle with no problem. It was not the only problem with the story, but it was the first of many.

HC Playa: I can't think of any specific examples off the top of my head, but plenty of romance-type stories and contemporary fiction really have no connection to the setting. You could pick up the entire story, plop it in another city and it wouldn't matter.

Davide Mana: There is a notorious thriller novel, published a few years back by an Italian writer, and set in London. It was so successful Amazon did an English translation - that was pretty popular with the American public and got the British readers rabid (we talk a few dozens one-star reviews).

The author did not do any research, and what she produced was a story in which the London police carried guns, in which Scotland Yard is closed for business on weekends (!!), and the big set piece is a car chase and shootout on the streets of London (but the geography is all wrong). The plot was OK, but all the setting details that should have propped it up were wrong, and a lot of people noticed. It was an absolute failure on the worldbuilding side, caused by an obvious lack of research.

So, the bottom line: using actual places as setting can be a disaster if you don't do the minimum of research needed to establish an authentic sense of place. Sometimes Google Maps is enough.

Also, sometimes researching the worldbuilding changes the direction of your story: while writing my first novel (historical adventure), I spent a weekend working with my brother (who studied Chinese), browsing Chinese-language websites in search of the actual location of the Italian consulate in Shanghai in 1936. I could have played it fast and loose, but the time spent on research revealed the consulate was across the street from the British police barracks - which changed the whole dynamic of the action in the first third of my story. I had to do a lot of rewrite, but it was well worth the effort.

Gordon Dymowski: As part of my review duties for I Hear of Sherlock, I read one pastiche which read more like a cliche screenplay than an actual Holmes work. (I'm not going to name it here). By the end, it was more concerned with being clever than setting a great mood or driving strong characters. Let's end on a positive note: some great examples of authors who use setting well are Robert B. Parker's early Spenser novels, Sara Paretsky's VI Warshawski novels, and Jim Thompson's novels (which, yes, are unsettling but that's half the reason why I enjoy them).

John L. Taylor: Best example, again from an in-progress book of mine is introducing main characters who can travel in dreams by cornering their target in a dream of an abandoned decaying mansion meeting them at a chessboard with a game in progress. Both characters are damaged people, past their prime, but still intelligent and elegant in their ways, and ruthless hunters of their quarry. The visuals are symbolic of that.


  1. I should add that I despise ANY story set in New Jersey that gets it wrong. Harold and Kumar and White Castle come to mind, as does XFiles' Jersey Devil story where they run through a rockbed creek and fern forest, and Point Pleasant, where a Catholic church is in Ocean Grove, a known Methodist enclave.