Last Friday I posted about making sure we use analogies appropriate for our characters. Today I’m discussing an often forgotten character. You’re probably thinking I’m crazy. You haven’t forgotten any of your characters. You’ve devoted hours (or days or weeks or months) developing them. You know who they are, what they want, how they’ll grow throughout the story, etc. Each character’s received the attention and development time they deserve.
You may be right. Perhaps I’m the only one out here with a forgotten character, but you might want to read on to be sure.
After months of revising and rewriting, I realized why my novel isn’t quite working for me. I’m missing a character.
Yes, it’s a character, or it should be.
I’m not saying I don’t have some setting details scattered throughout my MS, I’ve several of them. The problem is, I haven’t spent time developing my setting like I have my characters and plot. I know where the story takes place, the time period, the world, the situation, but I haven’t conveyed it properly into the MS. A few details here and there aren’t enough.
But I already know where, when, what . . . there’s nothing left. Is there?
Yeah, there is.
No, really, “why” is it.
Before we get into a “Who’s on first” situation, let me explain. Your characters have a purpose, a why, and your setting needs one too. Ask yourself this:
Why is the setting I’ve chosen the perfect place to tell the story? Why will it work better than any other setting?
Don’t give me any of that “because I said so” or “it just is” nonsense either. Really take a minute to think about it. I’ll wait.
Back? Good. Hopefully you’ve gotten a firm idea of why your setting is THE setting for your story.
Now I want to experiment. Think about your favorite books (I know I’m making you think too much, but bear with me). You’ll likely think of the main character first, next, maybe the plot, but I bet you also think of the setting.
Harry Potter and the (anything) by J.K. Rowling: I think of Harry. Voldemort. Hogwarts! Wizarding world. (setting, people!) What kind of a story would the HP series have been without the setting/world?
The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan: I think of Mary. The village surrounded by fences. The eerie forest full of zombies waiting outside the fences. Setting plays a HUGE role in these books.
The Healing Spell by Kimberley Griffiths Little: I think of Livvie, her family. The Gator (Baby). The Louisiana Bayou. I’ve never been to Louisiana, but I felt like I was there while reading this book.
Shiver series by Maggie Stiefvater: I think of Grace, Sam, Cole, Isabel. Werewolves. Snow. Lots of snow. Cold. So much hinges on the setting (especially the climate) in Maggie’s Shiver series.
Fantasy, Paranormal, Contemporary, Dystopian, Steampunk, etc. no matter the genre, setting plays an important role in ALL of my favorites. I couldn’t think of one single book I LOVED that didn’t have a strong setting. Can you?
Just as your characters interact with other characters in the novel, they need to interact and react with/to the setting. We experience the world around us on a daily basis. If we’ve spent hours fixing our hair and step outside into a windy day, we’re upset. If we planned an outing and it’s raining like mad, we have to adjust. If we’re melting from heat, we’d sell our mothers on the street for a fan (you know you would). We need this same interaction/reaction between our characters and their setting.
Let’s say your character needs to climb a up a mountain (or down a cliff) and rescue his/her best friend. If it’s a clear day and your character is afraid of heights, that’s tension with some setting details. It’s okay, but if you changed that clear day into one with pouring rain or snow, the tension is heightened (pun intended). Now you have a setting as a character forcing your main character to interact/react.
Let me explain it in another way:
Think about portraits . . . like the school photos you got when you were a kid. You sat on a little stool with a colored (or maybe gray) backdrop behind you. It was staged, lifeless. Now think about a picture (no, they’re not the same thing). Pictures are taken on impulse. They aren’t staged. They’re natural. Trees are in the background, snow is falling, people are laughing, throwing things, smiling, but not in a staged kind of way. They have life. They are interacting/reacting to/with the world around them.
Have you ever heard anyone say writers paint a portrait with words? NO! They say writers paint a picture with words. We don’t want our setting to be a backdrop for a portrait, we want it to be a part of a picture; a strong setting full of life that lives and breathes with our characters. It enhances them, challenges them, changes them.
If our setting isn’t a character, our story is without a place, and it probably won’t earn a place in readers’ hearts either.