Yesterday, I was reading Natalie Whipple’s post on World Building where she discusses how to write about setting in a novel. She suggests focusing on the most important details, those that have immediate relevancy, that matter most to the character, what stands out to them, or what might foreshadow later events. I think her approach is right on the money, but I also think she left out an important factor: Emotion.
Setting in a novel is more than just the physical surroundings. It is the social and cultural aspects of the period, the fashions people wear and why they wear them, the ideas the characters draw upon, and the historical and spiritual perspective or lens through which they view the world.
Most importantly, setting not just the place or even the time, it’s how the characters of a novel are affected by it, how they feel about their surroundings. They must have a functioning affiliation with it. The writer should permit the character to both discover those emotions then infuse them into the story. That is what makes the setting important, to have immediate relevancy. It is also what makes the character’s world come alive for the reader.
A writer can spend pages describing what the countryside looks like on a breezy fall afternoon, but unless I know exactly how the character feels about all those details, how those details are affecting them at that moment or relates to their past, it will fall flat. Because while I do want to know where the character lives, I don’t truly care unless I know the character does.
I’m not the greatest writer of setting. In fact, when it comes to description, I’m probably mediocre, at best. The first few drafts of my novel had very little detail in regard to place, and virtually none on time. But as I progressed, I kept adding layers, including details about
, where the majority of story takes place. Yet I never really describe what The City looks like. What I did do was infuse the protagonist’s feelings about the place in which he lives. From that was borne a symbol that repeatedly popped up when the character was frustrated, melancholy, or facing disaster. That symbol is fog. It is a legendary pillar of San Francisco ’s lore. It is also cold and oppressive. San Francisco
My protagonist is a Brit, a native Londoner whose parents transplanted him and his toddler brother to
when he was twelve. As a young adult, he yearns to return to Melbourne, Australia London, but is distracted by a beauty with whom he falls in love while traveling through . He also falls for with The City, whose climate reminds him of San Francisco , where his fondest childhood memories are grounded. London
He revels in his new-found freedom, his emancipation from his family overseas.
becomes a symbol of his liberty. But that independence is curtailed when his brother follows him to the States. He becomes saddled with the chore of caring for his irresponsible sibling. The fog becomes a symbol of his loss of autonomy. And when his brother’s life is jeopardized by poor choices, forcing the protagonist into a life and death struggle to save him, the fog evolves to symbolize his battle. It’s not until the end of the story that fog burns off, allowing the sun to return to his life. San Francisco
The setting in my novel evolved into a character, rich with emotion. This is the only way I know how to write setting. The steep streets, the cable cars, the sparkling Bay, the vibrant cultures, none of that means anything until it means something to the characters.
So what does setting mean to you as a writer? How do you infuse the character of a time and place into your stories?