Writing Unique Settings
Settings through the Character’s eyes
Every writer has their own version of how they create their stories. For me, they are like motion pictures my brain projects. Our goal as writers is to describe what we conjure and write it so another person can see a similar image.
Writers know to describe a setting, we involve the five senses – smell, sight, hear, feel, and taste. But sometimes, while trying to convert ideas into words, the character’s POV can be overlooked.
Readers form different pictures with the information supplied regarding the setting of a story. Some writers create long setting descriptions featuring beautiful language but, ultimately, unnecessary information. As a reader, I often skip these because they don’t move the story forward or interact with the characters. Long descriptions don’t make me grip the book and eagerly hang off every word to find out what happens next. I’m interested in the important stuff – the character’s journey.
So how can writers weave in the setting without interrupting the story flow? The answer is through the character's actions, experiences, and POV. Each character has a unique perception and interaction within their world. By describing the setting through the character, the environment becomes directly relevant to the story while also fleshing out our characters.
If we consider ourselves, when we walk into a known room, it is done automatically, knowing what to expect – we don’t consciously note and describe every detail. However, when entering an unknown area, noticing the surroundings becomes vital, what must be understood to navigate and achieve our goals safely.
I know a lady who becomes instantly alert at the sound or sight of a dog – she loves them and hurries to greet them. But consider a character who’s never seen a dog or one who hates dogs, or is indifferent? Each character will react and describe the dog differently.
People also process the environment and the five senses in specific orders. If someone enters a room with a strong smell, they will notice that before the texture of the couch cover. A scent is a powerful tool in an author’s kit; a brief sentence carries considerable weight and should appear as a character enters an environment. My son’s room usually smells like dirty socks, my daughter’s room like paint and nail polish – two very different images for two very different places.
However, writers can’t start every scene with a smell, or it becomes a predictable formula for describing the setting. So, mix it up; it’s not always the first thing noticed. Sound also rates high in the order; I arrive home and hear a fight scene blasted across the speakers or the musical notes of a Disney movie and giggling girls. Before I’ve taken that first step inside, I know who’s controlling the TV; therefore, the sound would be noted before the smell of home baking, nail polish, or my son’s discarded shoes.
What about background noise, when does someone notice those? Do I hear the cats purring while the kids argue over who’s going to load the dishwasher? Or when the kids are quiet? Is someone likely to notice the ticking of a wall clock and the soft murmurs of conversations while waiting for an appointment or as they race through an office building?
Sound plays into the tension of the scene – is a knock at the door going to startle, be expected or interrupt a tense moment – is it a loud pounding at eleven-thirty at night or a polite knock at ten-thirty in the morning. Use sound to create tension or disperse it. It can also be used to describe actions, a glass shattering, musical notes filling the air. We don’t need much to build a scene.
When recording textures, does it relate to the character? When I see beautifully stained wood cabinetry, I run my hand across the smooth polished surface and think of my father, who is a cabinet maker. However, someone else might remember a family home or a place visited. With knitted items, I remember my grandmother, who taught me to knit. My oldest son will screw his face at anything woolen because he hates the feel, but give him a super soft fluffy item, and he’s taken to a place of comfort. How does the POV character relate things they touch to their memories and personalities?
Taste is easily related to the character, described when the character eats or drinks; this can be used to build both setting and character; custard to me is comforting, reminds me of my mum, while cream donuts of trips to my grandparent’s place. What memories does the food inspire in the character – what role does it play in building a character’s image and the setting? Is it home baking, store-bought, or elegantly prepared food on a table set with precision? Has the character been raised with luxury or in a home where food was scarce, and how will this change their view?
With the scenery, rather than having a lovely long description that slows the pace, consider how the character views the scene, not just what their eyes see, but what thoughts are inspired by their view and how the character would describe it. Are they watching the sunset waiting for nightfall to escape in the dark? Or holding the love of their life in a peaceful moment. Is the sun rising before a soldier on a battlefield or a farmer milking the cows?
The character’s state of mind plays a role in how they view their surroundings. Will they notice people around them, are they aware of their surroundings or caught up in their own actions? The emotional state of the character is going to dictate what and how they observe.
Don’t, however, simply match weather and mood, consider that placing a happy character in grey weather is going to have a different effect to a depressed character, and the same with putting both those personalities in a storm. Each character will view the scene differently and be impacted by it uniquely, so it needs to be described according to those different perspectives.
The setting is vital, and our words must count – they need to have a purpose in carrying the story forward. If you’re trying to work out how to describe something, consider your character’s POV and their thoughts, reactions, and interaction with the setting, make it unique to them. If we make the context relevant, we can add a description in small doses, much like backstory, building both setting and character.