Characters in stories must be located somewhere in time and space because readers need to feel situated and fairly quickly. The famous five W’s and H of journalism apply here; stories should make clear not only their who and what but also their where and when although their why and how can be left on the more opaque side.
In Portable Literature, Kirszner & Mandell describe three types of settings writers may want to consider: Historical, Geographical, and Physical. These aspects of story impact the way readers react. Historical settings include the era, the decade, or the year in which a story takes place. Knowing details of the customs and technology of a particular time period can help readers understand the possibilities and constraints characters may face.
Geographical points to the need to set the story in a specific location, due to the wide variation of acceptable and beyond-the-norm behaviors in various locales. Even places close to one another such as the northern or southern part of a state or a city can dramatically impact the meanings of actions and reactions. Writers can place characters in imagined environments, but even then, readers need to have a “world of the story” set up.
Physical settings can include elements such as time of day, day of the week, indoors/outdoors, weather, and so on to convey a story’s mood or atmosphere. Many cultural elements, as well, can be key in this regard. For example, a story set in a mosque would likely set up different expectations in readers from a story set in an igloo or in a cave. Readers will bring a different mindset to a story happening in a men’s clothing store than they will to one taking place in an elementary school.
All three types of settings can impact characters mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and physically—and thus can impact readers, as well. Failing to build environments that characters operate in can leave readers confused. Characters are impacted deeply by their place and culture; their stories are part of the larger narrative they spring from. Even if they are in outer space or under the deepest sea, they must be somewhere.
But how to create settings?
The essential tool for creating setting is use of concrete details, stretching out to appeal to all five senses. Characters emotional reactions to particular settings reveal much about their personal inner workings. Settings also convey tone of the story by showing elements such as darkness, dampness, desolation vis a vis searing light, dry air and packed urban crowds. As Brian Kiteley notes in Crafting Novels & Short Stories, William Faulkner’s Mississippi is “humid, subtropical, and dark green with red dirt…[scarred with] slavery and a lost war.” Readers have a world for Faulkner’s characters to live in.
Being in particular places during specific times can make characters feel free, trapped, anxious, terrified and any number of other emotions. One of the best ways to set the stage for a character is to create a word picture of a room of personal importance such as bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, the interior of a truck, etc.
For example Donna Tartt in The Secret History supplies details to convey the main character’s urge to get away from home:
“I grew up in Plano, a small silicon village…. My father ran a gas station…. Plano. The word conjures up drive-ins, tract homes, waves of heat rising from the blacktop…. a sad jumble of objects: the sneakers I wore year-round; coloring books and comics from the supermarket…. I watched television lying on the carpet of our empty living room in the long dull afternoons after school.”
Along with specific details, another tool for building settings is the use of simile and metaphor to create imaginary sights, smells and sounds in a reader’s mind. In Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour,” the main character—shocked by news that forces her to reconsider her life—sits in her own room, in front of an open window through which she can “see in the open square before her house the tops of trees that were all aquiver with the new spring life. The delicious breath of rain was in the air. In the street below a peddler was crying his wares…. countless sparrows were twittering in the eaves.”
Creating places in space and time can make writing feel akin to working in the building trades!
ONE: Use both of the approaches noted above (specific details and metaphors/similes) to sketch in words at least two different settings that the characters you created for the Character Exercises could inhabit. If you can, include Historical, Geographical, and Physical elements of the settings, as described in the blog.
TWO: Research into your favorite published writer’s settings. Quote two different sections of effective setting in one of his or her published works. Imitate these two sections using different specific details that would fit a setting for the protagonist/antagonist you created in the Character Exercises.
THREE: Read what three other writers in the course came up with, and Post Reply in the Forums what you learned from them.