‘Nothing happens nowhere‘, or so said Elizabeth Bowen. I think she’s right. Your characters deserve a place where they can roam freely and interact, yet subtle enough to fall into the background (which is where it belongs, being a setting) like the landscape behind Mona Lisa. Her slight smile and lack of eyebrows would not be so amazing if the background was dull, hazy smudge.
Through the setting we can tell the time of year, the approximate century, the country and even the predominant emotions the characters are feeling.
Now when I first heard this, I could agree with all but the latter point. The weather could tell you the season, the various fixtures could be a big clue to the date and there are different building styles in every country. Of course, there are exceptions, depending on the hemisphere, the genre and the diversity of the community, but generally it’s true.
I didn’t think a character’s feelings could be shown through setting, but of course, they can. I’m sure we’ve all been out on a lovely day feeling miserable; the sun would be too bright and the heat an uncomfortable weight. When you feel happy, the whole world glimmers and seems more vibrant.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Eep! What I do when making a new setting is similar to what I do when creating a character. I note important things – the size, the walls (painted, papered, postered, colour) the floor (carpet, bare, rugs, colour), lighting, furniture. I make a plan, rough and by hand, to refer to so I don’t have my characters going through a door that wasn’t there in the scene previously. That’s the skeleton and it’s actually pretty boring, but needs to be done so you can move onto the fun bit.
I’m going to take my WIP, Unreal and more specifically, Stephan’s bedroom to show you what I do. I think of six objects I can ‘see’ in the room. If I can’t see six, I think about what that character would consider of some importance, and I list them.
Now, Steph is a romantic, and enjoys reading. In fact, the first thing I wrote about Steph was him curled on a sofa, reading a trashy romance. So the first thing in the room – a romance novel. Next, being undeniably British and a little lazy, the next thing in his bedroom would be – an old cup of tea. Stephan is a little absent minded, something that leads me to – a dried out plant. He also gets lonely sometimes, but has had many acquaintances. That added with the absent-mindedness mean there should be – an address book. The next thing is a secret, but it was the next item I though of -a stoppered vial. And then we get to the last object. A chessboard.
These items are all hints into Stephan’s character. Taking those six items and what I know of the room, I write a short description, around two- to four-hundred words long. It doesn’t have to be polished, but it has to be clear.
The bed is spacious and neat, the sheets a light ivory, the quilt carefully folded back to look inviting, no sign that anyone had slept there the night before. The windows along the South wall let the daylight bleed into the room through the long, thin curtains, the light colours making the room larger yet almost clinical. The door to the landing is on the West wall, the wood the same light ash as the bare floorboards. On the glass bedside table there is a book, the cover bent and curling but the image of a woman wilting in a man’s strong arms is still visible. The title is illegible, the gilt on the embossed letter flaked off. The pages also curl, as if it had been wet and dried quickly. Beside it is a mug, charcoal grey and square rimmed, a few simple green tiles adorning the sides. Inside, milk congeals in the long cold tea.
There is another table against the far wall, the varnish scratched and a few scorches along the top. It could be called a dresser, as it held a mirror with tarnished spots under the glass and a single draw with a brass handle. A withered, twiggy plant stands on the table; its stems twist morbidly as if it were in great pain, the soil cracked and dusty from lack of water. An empty vial, the length of a finger, has been left in the shadows of the plant, the cork sealed tightly with black wax. The rest of the table is taken up by a soapstone chessboard. The squares are cream and green, but there is only one piece on the board – a green rook. One corner of the board, diagonally opposite the single rook has been chipped off.
That’s as clear as I see Steph’s bedroom. It’s not how I’m portray it in my story, but it’s handy for quick reference. Doing this can also help spark plot or just give the characters more depth. The book, for example, hints that Stephan likes to read in the bath. Who hasn’t dropped a book in the tub one time or other? The address book is in the draw, and it acts like his little black book, holding the addresses of revisited bitees, the people he can and can’t rely on. The vial and the chessboard were gifts from his maker.
I don’t do this for every room, but I do a general one for the places visited in the story, a more detailed one for my main character’s semi-private areas (not those areas! Romance writers, seeing smut everywhere… *muttermutter*) and where major plot events occur.
Setting is important for a story, but should be like the bass guitar in a song, the oak-taste in whiskey, something subtle but enhancing. Don’t forget it or you’ll lose an important layer. Respect settings. They are more important than you think!