Guest Post by Jessica Lee Parsons
I’m Jessica, and I can’t decide what I want to be when I grow up, so I’m a mom, a piano teacher, an off-duty nurse, and a writer. I also dream of being a time traveler so I’m studying up with daily Instagram #timetraveltips @jessicaleeparsons.
Sound writing advice says to use all five senses when describing a setting. I agree, except that you shouldn’t necessarily try to work taste into every setting if it doesn’t fit. Your character doesn’t need to go around tasting the air or licking things just to use all five senses. Unless your character is a dog, in which case, carry on. Use taste when it fits and don’t forget smell, and of course use sight and sound and touch. But it’s a sixth sense that takes a setting to the next level. How does the setting make your character feel?
Not because they’re the only or best exampes of great settings, but because a lot of people have read them, lets look at Anne of Green Gables, Harry Potter and The Hunger Games.
Green Gables is a nice enough place, but in the first chapter it’s described as too clean and not all that welcoming. It’s Anne’s reaction to her new home that makes us love it, and Anne’s presence that makes it the kind of place you wish was real. The character and the setting are directly connected, enough to share the title of the book.
I love Harry Potter, but I would have loved Hogwarts if the story had been written from Hermione’s or Ron’s perspective, too. Because those characters love the setting, we love it. A character’s reaction to the setting also helps define the character. We don’t like Malfoy for a lot of reasons, but one of them is because he puts down Hogwarts and it’s staff, and that’s just wrong. Once again, the setting is directly connected to the characters.
What about the Capital, from The Hunger Games? It’s an amazing place full of prosperity, outlandish fashion, and fascinating technology. But because we see the Capital through the eyes of Katniss, who knows starvation, exploitation and slavery, the Capital becomes disgusting and we hate everything about it.
Setting and character are not only linked, the setting itself can become a character. Here’s a rather literal example I read with my kids the other night, from Wilson Rawl’s Summer of the Monkeys:
“Papa said that as long as he lived, he would never forget that night. It seemed to him that they were being welcomed by every living thing in those Cherokee bottoms. Whippoorwills were calling, and night hawks were crying as they dipped and darted through the starlit sky. Bullfrogs and hoot owls were jarring the ground with their deep voices. Even the little speckled tree frogs, the katydids and the crickets were chipping in with their nickel’s worth of welcome music.
A big grinning Ozark moon crawled up out of nowhere and seemed to say, ‘Hi, neighbor! I’ve been looking for you. It gets kind of lonesome out here. Welcome to the land of the Cherokee.’
Papa said Mama was so taken in by all of that beauty, she seemed to be hypnotized. She just stood there in the moonlight with a warm little smile on her face, staring out over the river, her black eyes glowing like black haws in the morning dew. Finally, she gave a deep sigh, just as if she had dropped something heavy from her shoulders. Then spreading her arms out wide, she said in a low voice, ‘It’s the work of the Lord—that’s what it is. Just think—all of this is ours—sixty acres of it.’”
The first two paragraphs definitely gave the setting character of it’s own. The setting actually got it’s own dialog in this story. But it was the third paragraph—Mama’s feelings about the place—that made me feel something about it as well, that made me love it for her, that made it more than just sight, sound, smell, taste or touch. Later in the story, parts of their property scare her to death and make her worry for her son, which makes the reader worry for him too, adding tension to the plot. Setting, and the way it connects to characters, is powerful.
(By the way, I looked it up and “black haws” are shrubs from the eastern US that have blue-black berries.)
If you know of a book that has a great example of the relationship between character and setting, feel free to share in the comments. The best way to be a better writer is to read good writing.
Here are a few good articles I found about character and setting that were helpful, too. Happy writing to you, and thanks for reading!