“Giving your Setting a Little Character”

I read somewhere that you should treat the setting of your story like a character. Give it a strong identity, allow it to have mood swings, ask it to interact with other characters, watch it drive the plot. Think of Wuthering Heights. How different that story could have been if Cathy hadn’t ventured out on to the moors in a storm.

Characterisation

Good characterisation is expressed in the detail and a little detail goes a long way towards creating a convincing story world.

Here’s a short excerpt from my first novel, Fury, in its first draft form:

Everywhere trees thrust from the ground, and hidden in among them Slav spied large mounds of earth heaped up.

And here’s the same line as it will go to press:

Everywhere, thickets of alder cluttered the forest, and hidden in among them Slav spied large mounds of earth.

When you’re writing about a forest, you find out a lot about trees. In this case, which ones make the best charcoal for gunpowder production.

Emotion

But how can your setting have feelings? If you think about the phrase ‘mood lighting’ it lends us a clue.

As they traveled, darkness invaded the forest. Even during daylight, shadow triumphed, so little of the sun filtered down to the forest floor.

The above sentence does not convey a happy forest, which is perfect, as the story events which take place here aren’t happy either.

Dialogue/Interaction

Dialogue between two characters is sometimes like a ping pong match of action and reaction. It’s the same when a character interacts with your setting. Stimulus leads to response. But rather than response coming direct from the setting, it can be conveyed via your character’s senses.

Slav dusted away the shallow snow from the foot of the tree. Cold bit into his fingertips numbing his sense of touch.

Plot

A good setting can move the story action forwards. In the extract below it’s the snow covered ground which brings to an end the characters’ escape on horseback. The forest is working against them.

As the exhausted mare plunged into the night something snatched at it beneath the snow, dragged its legs from under it. Perhaps it was a stray branch hidden below the white crust, or a decaying stump masked by the falling flakes. The animal plummeted forward, front legs crumpling.

I feel sorry for the poor mare.

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Lorrie Porter

About Lorrie Porter

In a fit of youthful enthusiasm Lorrie Porter graduated from University College London with a degree in Ancient World Studies then went on to qualify as a teacher in Classics. She loitered for many years in a solicitors’ office where she spent a lot of time staring out of the window. However, her fascination for dead languages and civilizations continues to thrive. She graduated from MMU with an MA in Creative Writing. Lorrie writes fiction which embraces a dark and emotional aesthetic and is currently working on Dead Boy, an adventure set in bygone London. Her other novels are Cradlesnatch, a story about a monster who steals children and Fury, which has wolves, bandits and other miscreants among its pages. Lorrie lives on a narrow boat with her talented husband and impervious cat.



  • Glen

    The setting for the opening of Dickens GREAT EXPECTATIONS (1861) is the misty marshes. It creates a sinister atmosphere and tends to indicate some form of foreseeable danger and uncertainty. It is where the young working class orphan Pip meets the escaped convict at the start and later where he is kidnapped and nearly killed by Orlick. Great article Lorrie.