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Stir Up Your Setting–Making Setting a Character

Sunday, May 13, 2007

In the list of movies I posted Friday, something that is a key element to why they all stand out as having wonderful settings is that, in a way, the setting becomes a character in the film.

Think about the difference between the setting of a stage play and the setting of a modern, big-budget movie. No matter how much money a production pours into building sets for the stage, it’s always going to look like a set. Why? Because the environment isn’t real. There are no elements, no weather, no sunlight, no wind. When movies are filmed on location, they have so much more realism—and actors will tell you that they can get into their roles better when away from soundstages or backlot locations. For example, the location Peter Jackson & crew found for Edoras for the second and third Lord of the Rings films: a hill  rising up out of a flat valley, surrounded by a ring of huge, snow-covered mountains. The actors all agreed that their performance was different because of the location—better—because they felt they were truly in this medieval kingdom atop a hill.

The first way setting starts becoming a character is through its culture. Books set in the South but written by someone who’s never lived in the South may get all of the details right when describing what things look like, but they aren’t going to be able to describe what the air smells like after a rainstorm; how in the height of summer, the clouds roll in during the hottest part of the afternoon and release a quick, drenching downpour that does nothing to lower the temperature, but raises the humidity to armpit-of-Satan levels; when the azaleas start to bloom—and what they look like lining most residential streets and the campus of LSU; the electric anticipation of the entire campus on Saturday afternoon as everyone makes their way to Tiger Stadium; the way that 50 degrees with 75% humidity can be bone-chilling; or local idioms like, “How y’all are?” or “‘Preciate ya!” or that we don’t all walk around calling each other “Hon'” all the time. Incorporating the local culture—the flavor, the uniqueness of social customs, language, and the “this is how things have always been done here”-ness—pulls it into the forefront of the writing without its overwelming the characters or the story.

A second way to incorporate setting as character is through specific, unique details. Did you know that in Baton Rouge, almost all of the streets are concrete and not asphalt? Whereas in Nashville, almost all of the roads are asphalt—a major exception being the I-440 loop that bypasses downtown (although they patch it with asphalt, which really just makes it worse). When you think of azaleas, do you picture a small bush with little blossoms? Then you’ve never seen Louisiana-style azaleas. Springtime in Baton Rouge was one of my favorite times of year when these huge shrubs that lined most residential streets (and the LSU campus, as mentioned above) burst into large white, pink, and fuscia blossoms.



A third method of making setting into character is to have the setting create conflict for the characters. A rainstorm that knocks out the electricity (can happen anywhere). A tornado that hits downtown Nashville (happened in 1997—could happen again any time. Think about The Wizard of Oz. The story wouldn’t have happened if there hadn’t been a tornado). A flash flood that keeps the characters from being able to get to the hospital when one is bleeding to death. Have the elements of the location affect your characters. Is it hot outside? How hot? Does your character like hot weather or hate it (like me)? Is the air conditioner inside working? I, personally, am so sensitive to temperature that I will wake up in the middle of the night if my house gets over about 71 degrees. Why? Because when the house gets warmer than that, my sinuses solidify into a concrete block and I can’t breathe. Are there allergens in the environment that your character(s) could react to? (Nashville is one of the top five worst cities for allergies.) Though allergies might seem like something inconsequential to think about, it is a conflict for the character because allergies make the sufferer feel absolutely rotten, which then affects everything in that person’s life.

Fourth, use specific locations/names. Use street names, names of local businesses, or names of national chains you know exist in that location. To add local flavor to my fictional city in Louisiana, I don’t have them go to Starbucks for coffee. They go to Beignets C’est Vou Plait (like Cafe DuMond in New Orleans). I don’t have them shop at Kroger or Publix. They shop at Bordelon’s. They don’t eat at Olive Garden, they eat at Palermo’s Italian Grill—which serves Cajun-inspired pasta dishes like crawfish ravioli. The sister of my heroine in A Major Event Inc. owns a seafood restaurant that has a pirogue (PEE-ro) hanging from the ceiling. The bookstore where my characters like to go to read and have coffee is Blanchard LeBlanc, not Barnes & Noble. One of the main residential areas of my city features names of Louisiana plantations such as Oak Alley, Destrehan, and Rosedown. The tallest building in downtown is Boudreaux Tower, and the glass-enclosed, huge event venue at the top of it is Vue de Ceil, not the Skyview. If you are using a real location, you must make sure you do your research really well. Nothing will betray your lack of familiarity with a place than getting something out of place which is familiar to locals. For example, I read something supposed to be set in Nashville which had the character looking out of the Bluebird Cafe onto Music Row. I immediately knew the author had never been to Nashville—nor had he or she even looked at the location of the Bluebird on a map—because it’s several miles away from Music Row and looks across at a strip shopping center in Green Hills.

Finally, the setting can affect the mood of the scene. In the movie list, I mentioned how the weather reflects the emotions of what’s happening in the Bourne movies: “The weather also helps set the mood—as it’s usually either raining, snowy, or cloudy for most of the movie. The three main scenes that are bright and sunny are (a) the end of the first film when he joins Marie at her shop on the beach, (b) the opening of the second film when they’re happy together in India (before the assassin* shows up), and (c) the end of the second film when Bourne calls Landy and she tells him his real name and where he was born—emphasizing the happiness, the optimism of those scenes.” It doesn’t have to be the weather—it can be the delapidated state of a building that reflects the broken-down feeling of someone who’d just experienced a loss. Or it can be the opposite—the character is euphoric despite the foul weather, bad traffic, dirty kitchen. How the character bounces around washing dishes, singing while she scrubs at the crusty spots on the floor can emphasize just how happy she is.

The easiest way to start incorporating Setting as Character is to have the character interact physically and emotionally with the setting. Look at some scenes you’ve already written. Can you add a phrase here, a sentence there where the character interacts with the setting—picks something up, dusts off a windowsill, sees a new restaurant—without pulling the character out of the forward momentum (and without adding anything unnecessary)? Is there a way you can use the location of your setting—weather, climate, geography, topography—to create conflict for the characters?

  1. Monday, May 14, 2007 12:12 pm

    Maybe THAT’S why I don’t care for plays. I can’t get into them, whatsoever. Love this series, very timely for me as I try to set my story in Alaksa. (Which, BTW, I hadn’t realized you lived there!) Even though I’ve been there four or five times, I have to remember details. Great post!


  2. Austin Field permalink
    Monday, May 14, 2007 12:47 pm

    I never thought about giving my character allergies. And since he is outside so much…tracking…that could create either tense or funny moments…he sneezes when he’s trying to sneak up on someone in stealth…

    I like how Jack London incorporated setting in Call of the Wild and White Fang. His description of the Yukon is so real you can almost feel your toes freezing right along with the characters’.


  3. Monday, May 14, 2007 11:15 pm

    Love this. Setting is so much more than just the background. I love how you suggest ways to make it a relevant and essential part of the story.


  4. Tuesday, May 15, 2007 9:26 am

    Funny. If I’ve never been to a place, an author can pull the wool over my eyes. What do I know? But if I’m familiar with the locale, like anything set in NYC or Cincinnati, an errant detail will jar me out of the story. Too many and I get turned off.

    I started a story in Plant City, FL and stopped because I felt I didn’t know the place well enough yet. I needed to do more research to get the locale right. I didn’t think about setting as a character. I just didn’t want any local readers to say my writing was inauthentic.

    BTW, you’ve obviously spent a lot time in or around LSU. My DH is an LSU alum.


  5. Tuesday, May 15, 2007 9:32 am

    Specifics – that’s my BIGGEST problem with writing. I’m not specific…and it’s not just with setting.

    I’ll say: He shoved food in his mouth, rather then identifying the ‘food’.

    I do the same for location and setting. At least I realize I do it, so I can watch out for it and edit it.

    Specifics, I think make a big difference in writing.


  6. Tuesday, May 15, 2007 8:38 pm

    So very true. The details make all the difference. And if I’m reading about a real place I’ve never been to, I’m trusting the author to be authentic and to have done her/his research.

    I’m currently reading STILL LIFE WITH CROWS about a serial killer in southwest Kansas. The author team, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, ask the pardon of the reader, as the terrain is described as mile after mile of cornfield. Southwest Kansas is wheat country and little else. A bit jarring, but because the authors acknowledges the author license, I’m willing to forgive them.


  7. Monday, May 16, 2011 4:34 pm

    I love this blog purely on LSU references. I am an LSU grad c/o 2005. I love the references. You must be a New Orleanian. SAINTS!

    Here’s the writer in me: Love the blog. SUPER BOWL CHAMPION SAINTS!!! (Sorry!) Great blog on setting. Many writers miss opportunities to use setting as a character. Shutter Island by Dennis Lahane is GREAT for setting.


    • Monday, May 16, 2011 5:02 pm

      Terrell, I’m a proud BATON ROUGE native! (Though I do cheer for the Saints, too!)



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