When I first started writing fiction, my characters often walked around a blank landscape. Imagine two cartoon characters, say Calvin and Hobbes (my favorites), centered on a white page with nothing to play with, nothing to break or throw or kick or transform. Nothing to do but talk to each other. That’s where my characters used to live, in that boring, blank universe. And guess what? Nothing much happened.
Then in graduate school I took several workshops with Ethan Canin, who is a champion of the deeply held third person point of view. (For a point of view exercise, see this post.) Because of Ethan, I began to see that my characters needed to move around in a world as vivid and vital and alive as they were, that setting is essential to creating a deeply held point of view. That setting isn’t just there to create the geography for your story’s world; it’s also a vehicle to help convey your characters’ perceptions of that world.
Bottom line: Setting is more than the place where your characters live. It’s the place through which they define themselves, their losses, their loves, their desires.
So you want to use setting to help convey your characters’ emotions. But how?
You do it by filtering setting details through your character’s point of view so that each detail evokes the emotions that the place inspires in the character. You do it by carefully choosing only the most telling setting details, those that best reflect your character’s perceptions and emotions.
Our relation to place, time, and weather, like our relation to clothes and other objects, is charged with emotion more or less subtle, more or less profound. It is filled with judgment mellow or harsh. And it alters according to what happens to us…. Imagine experiencing a thunderstorm when in the throes of a new love: the rain might seem to glitter, the lightning to sizzle, the thunder to rumble with anticipation. The downpour would refresh and exhilarate, nourishing the newly budding violets. Then imagine how the very same storm would feel in the midst of a lousy romantic breakup: the raindrops would be thick and cold, almost greasy; the lightning would slash at the clouds; the thunder would growl. Torrents of rain would beat the delicate tulips to the ground.
So consider your character’s state of mind when writing about place. Consider how her desires, her emotions, impact her perceptions of the world. Then use her emotional landscape to color the geographical landscape around her. That way, readers can experience your character’s emotions along with her rather than simply be told how she’s feeling.
Also, don’t overload setting details. Doing so risks creating a lot of meaningless white noise that confuses the reader’s sense of both setting and emotion. Less really is more. Trust that the reader will take the few essential details that you supply and sketch in the rest of the scene in a way that is vivid and real and true to your character’s well-conveyed motivations and intentions.
This exercise will take about 40 minutes since it’s got 2 steps. So be ready to set your timer for 2 periods of 20 minutes each.
Scroll down for the rest of the exercise.
Consider the picture above, the sultry heat it conveys. Is this the end of a hot, smoggy afternoon or the haze of an early morning sure to be saturated with heat? Or something else?
Then imagine the character viewing this landscape. Is she out on a run, energized to sweat out her last mile and then get to her new job that was awarded to her instead of the miserable bastard who’s been harassing her all year at work? Or is your character a guy gripping the steering wheel as he drives home at the end of a long, bad day, furious about the woman who just stole his heart and his job and has just about ensured he’ll be canned for some harmless, well-intentioned admiration he threw her way?
Or someone else altogether?
Using the character and his/her conflict that you devised, write 2 passages (20 minutes per passage) that include the line, “It was one of those sweltering nights when nothing good could happen.” Change “nights” to “days” or “afternoons” or “mornings, etc., if necessary.
In each passage, avoid telling us how the character feels. Instead, use setting details to evoke your character’s emotional state.
Start your timer. Ready, set, write!
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