Setting: Vivid Backdrop or Blurred Canvas?

Monday, January 31, 2011

Today, I want to share some thoughts on making the setting a character in a novel. I’ve included two definitions of 'setting' below.

In fiction, setting includes the time, location and everything in which a story takes place, and initiates the main backdrop and mood for a story.  Setting has been referred to as story world or milieu to include a context (especially society) beyond the immediate surroundings of the story.  Elements of setting may include culture, historical period, geography, and hour.  Along with plot, character, theme, and style, setting is considered one of the fundamental components of fiction. A setting is the time, place and social environment in which a story takes place. 
               ~ Wickipedia

Setting is, of course, the physical universe in which your story is set. But I'd suggest that it's much more than that. It's a reflection of the characters. It acts on the characters. It provides an almost inexhaustible source of details that can help you tell your story more vividly or give you an entirely new set of ideas. In a sense, it's a character in itself. And, generally speaking, books in which the setting is skillfully presented are better books because of it. ~Setting as character by Timothy Hallinan
 Read full article here.

The way in which I view settings is similar to the how Timothy Hallinan does. Over the years, mostly through the prompting of my critique partners, I’ve learned to include the location as a character. In the same way the reader has to care about your characters, they have to be able to visualize the landscape of your novel. Otherwise the action will feel as though it is being played out against a colourless backdrop. 

Since I post my work on a website for reviews, I edit after each chapter.  I can’t edit for everything in one go, so one reading session is dedicated to sensory details.  In this edit, the locale gets dressed up for the reader. Using my five senses, and yes, the sixth too, I make the setting another personality. 

Sight – This is one sense we use all day, every day and so I try to ensure that the reader gets a vivid picture of the landscape I’m working with. Being an islander, I’m somewhat of an armchair expert in creating this type of setting. I created an entire island for my novel Contraband and forgive me for tooting my own trumpet, but I was pleasantly surprised that the reviewers mentioned the fictional island, Xantrope. To quote one book club reviewer, it was ‘described beautifully and vividly’.   I used specific images that readers could see with their mind’s eye. I prefer ‘red roses’ to ‘red flowers’ and ‘rows of royal palms’ to ‘rows of palm trees’. 

Smell – I don’t think we’re too aware that places have identifiable smells. The easiest one is the sea.  That raw/salty smell of fish and water are unmistakable. Near marshy land, you can’t miss the yucky stifling scent of mangroves germinating. Then there’s dunder, a malodorous byproduct that emanates from distilleries when they are making rum. Ooh, and shall I add the nasty smell of one of our local dumps that seems to catch fire every so often?  I think I’ve made my point that the odors common to a town or city adds to its uniqueness. An aside here that has nothing to do with location: for romance, I’m a sucker for musky man aroma and exotic perfume.  

Sound – Living near the sea, the wind is my constant companion, and in nature, there’s a whole lotta rustling going on. In the city, car horns are honking, vendors are hawking their wares, and people hot under the collar are cussing about one thing or another. If the setting is an office, there might be the hum of an air conditioning unit, the clatter of a keyboard, the ringing of phones, the murmur of voices and perhaps the buzzing of doorbells.  My characters are plunked in the middle of all this activity and while it may be background noise, the man or woman in question needs to be remotely aware of what’s going on around him/her. This backdrop also creates  a sense of reality for the reader. 

 Tactile Sensation  - My female characters are usually aware of wind caressing their skin or tousling their hair. In dangerous situations, or at nightfall, that same breeze can provide a fear or chill factor, which is also conveyed to the reader. Sand on the beach, bark on the trees, heat from asphalt, jagged rocks in a river are all part of the environment that my characters may come up against.  I’ve done my job as a writer if the reader can feel all of what I’ve described and accept is as part of my hero’s/heroine’s surroundings. 

Taste factor – In one novel, I had a scene where a character was chasing down the beach in the dark, but could smell the almonds that had been crushed on the sand. It brought back the taste of the fruit that she’d had some time ago.  

Meals and drinks that are indigenous to a location are also a way of making the setting unique. I go for dishes like escoveitched fish and bammies, jerked chicken and jerked pork, which are readily associated with Jamaica.  I try not to forget the potent variety of rum we produce, like the Appleton Brand. 

Foreshadowing  – This is something all writers do. We use setting to hint at things to come. Dark clouds, chilly weather, and approaching storms can act as harbingers of upheaval or doom. A huge, gloomy house provides a good lead-up to a stalker running amok. Bright, cloudless days can mimic our characters’ mood or frame of mind.  And so we use the environment to enhance our story.

I usually don’t get too many details on the location in on my early drafts, but I keep hearing one of my respected critters in my head. He used to ask me regularly ‘Where is Jamaica?’ That has kept me on my toes. Without a vibrant landscape, the most exciting story will be reduced to nothing but a puppet show being played out against a paint splattered drop cloth.   

How do you create vivid settings versus a blurred canvas for your stories?



  1. I love Timothy Hallinan's idea for dealing with setting as a character. I hadn't read that before. Great post!

  2. I KNOW I should include setting as a character, but I'd much rather just deal with the character characters! :-)

    Good points to keep in mind-thanks!

  3. Thank you Joy!! I've been thinking and worrying about this for the novel I'm about to write. I'm also glad you mentioned at the end of this great blog entry that you don't do this in your early drafts, since I'm sure I'd start to bog my writing down by thinking about ways to put all these elements into the novel I'm about to write, since it is going to be very important to do this in my novel.

  4. I've never thought about the setting as a character, but that's a great concept, a way to remind ourselves not to leave those vital details out.

    I've always liked the great descriptions you give of flowers and plants. :)

  5. @ Rula - Yep, good concept. I was encouraged to look at my setting as a character early on out because some people consider it an exotic location.

    @ Cathy - I'm sure you do get in the locale anyway.

    @ Karen - this is why I edit for different things each time around. I can't keep my head on straight if I try to handle too many elements at a time. Thanks for stopping in!

    @ Tina - Happy I gave you something else to think about. I just returned from a visit to your blog where I added my two cents to the weird research items.

  6. You always have such insightful posts; I have a similar approach to the use of setting, with a focus on sensory details as the character experiences them.

    I've actually found a lot of contemporary writing tends to de-emphasize setting -- scenery, weather and so forth -- and I find this makes for very dry reading. The richer the details of the setting, the more immersed I feel as a reader.

    Thanks for another great post.

  7. Thank, Karin,

    I also enjoy reading books where I am taken away from my surroundings and introduced to another world.

  8. Oh yes, it seems to me that the best settings become characters, but this can be tough to accomplish. I think details and symbolism help.

  9. You make a very good point. Setting makes a good story great. It adds flavour.

  10. Well said, Lynda. I'm tempted to say Yum! Yum!

  11. Great post.

    I always leave my sensory descriptions for later.

    This post gave me some good tips as to what I should be adding in.

    Anyway, I clicked over from Lee's blog. I'm glad I did. Your blog is stunning.


  12. Thanks for stopping in, Misha. Glad you found something helpful here.

  13. I've read about this before and it's something I don't always remember to do! Thanks for the reminder! Fantastic post.

  14. I tend to forget too, which is why I make sure the setting is the one of the last things I check in each chapter.


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