Setting is a character. That observation edges closer to how important a role it plays, but doesn’t quite go far enough. Setting interacts with characters, affects their physical beings, triggers an emotional response, plays upon their senses, and can even set a mood. It shares an intimacy with the characters only second to the relationship between the characters themselves. Intimacy-- what better term to use in explaining the relationship between character and setting?
Intimacy is characterized by a close, thorough acquaintance, and first hand, personal knowledge. It is developed through the interaction between two entities.
And for every moment of every scene Setting is there observing, tying the characters to a place and time in a physical manner, and deepening the point of view to draw the reader more thoroughly into the story.
Writing about Setting in terms of the five senses gives an elemental sensuality to every description and makes it more active. Setting does not have to be an inanimate location. In fact, locations are seldom inanimate.
As an example I’ll use a short passage from my paranormal suspense novel, TIMELESS:
Loch Maree provided a purplish-blue backdrop to the circle of twenty stones topped by lintels that stretched nearly the width of the inlet. A knoll of ground provided a natural dam holding back the water.
Braden led her beneath the crossbar spanning a narrow path between two of the stones. Atop the limestone altar in the center of the site sat her basket, the long stems of several plants sticking over the sides. The edge of her tartan shawl, bunched beside it, fluttered in the breeze. Braden paused in the shade of one of the slabs, a sudden wary tension in his stance.
Warm moist air looped around them. A prickling sensation fluttered over Coira’s skin as though a lightning strike had just dispersed. The smell of smoke lingered on the breeze.
Braden’s grasp tightened around her hand, holding her at his side.
More curious than alarmed, she ran a soothing hand down his arm. “Be at ease. There is nothing to fear in this place.”
She closed her eyes and embraced the power that lingered on the air like mist. Pulling away from Braden’s grasp, she walked clockwise along the edge of the circle. A low hum traveled through the bottoms of her feet to the top of her head, the vibration intensifying as she neared one particular stone. The Ogham designs carved into the pillar writhed black, against the reddish light the setting sun painted upon the slab’s surface.
The air grew still and weighted with moisture. She tasted it, like dew, on her tongue. Her skin grew damp. The sound of the wind, the movement of the trees, her own breathing, ceased. Her ears felt full as if she had climbed a tall peak and needed to swallow to clear them. What was about here?
The physical interaction between the elements of Setting and characters can drive the plot, create a mood, and provide foreshadowing. By the elements I mean earth, air and water.
Possession of the land has triggered feuds and wars, cost life, limb, toil and strife, and been a source of power since mankind first banded into tribes. And a man’s or woman’s home can be their cave, hut, castle, or the spooky old house they’ve bought to renovate. The possibilities are limitless as are the scenarios the locations can inspire.
Here is an example of using location as a resting place for internal speculation such as in my contemporary Navy Seal novel, BREAKING FREE:
Zoe helped herself to a small bowl of salad and wandered out to the screened-in back porch. She sat down in the old metal glider Hawk had renovated and placed against one wall. Green striped lounge pillows cushioned the seat. She propped her feet up on the brown wicker coffee table, and set the glider in motion. The sunset deepened to rose, maroon, and then purple painting the laminate floor with color. Through the screened windows, the sweet scent of honeysuckle wafted to her on the breeze. The cadence of the crickets thrummed in a synchronized ebb and flow.
The porch was fast becoming her favorite spot. She gravitated there to unwind when she arrived home from the hospital. Her bowl empty, she set it aside on the wicker end table beside the glider and eyed the sunken hot tub a few feet away. Maybe she could fill it after dinner when everyone left. With the aid of a few potted plants, and the canvas shades that could be lowered over the windows, she could find some privacy. Perhaps it would ease the pain in her calf from standing too long.
Imagining Hawk in the hot tub with any number of buxom, blonde beauties cost her more than a twinge or two of jealousy. A jealousy she tried to deny. Along with the feelings that inspired it. Every time she experienced the rush of excitement when he entered the room, or the hypersensitive tingle of heat when he touched her, a lingering ache centered just beneath her breast bone.
Better the ache of regret than the pain of caring for him more deeply and something happening to him.
By using the five senses to paint a picture you can add atmosphere to any location. Here’s an example from the horror novella I’m working on now called WITHIN THE SHADOWS.
The heavy metal beat pounded against Julia’s ears drowning out the beep of the cash register as she keyed in the order. The base drum thumped in time with the headache throbbing behind her eyes. Jesus! She rubbed her temples. The rock and roll bands Hector hired were loud enough, but for the last two weeks, The Skulls’ music fell just short of an assault.
She scanned the dance floor where a strobe light flashed capturing stop-action gyrations of the couples dancing. Not couples, but the group, the collective. They moved as one. The smoke machine backstage provided a backdrop for the band and the audience. Painted and garbed in Goth style, the special effects lent the patrons the look of extras on a Day of the Dead movie set.
She wiped her workstation down with a damp sponge, tossed it in the sink, and turned her attention to the next order, a primal scream. The singer on stage broke into a demonstration. Julia flinched. Geez what was with this band?
As she snatched up the bottle of Kaluah from the packed shelves, the mirror behind the bar captured a brief glimpse of her pale face and exaggerated eye makeup. Movement, a form, stealthy, fast, and gray rose up behind her in the glass. With a startled yelp, she twisted around to face the threat.
Nothing. Nothing was there.
There is nothing inanimate about the weather or how it can become a thriving character in a story. Snow/Cold adds an element of physical threat to even the most lighthearted story. Typhoons, tornadoes, and hurricanes can add tension and suspense to any plot line. Fog has always added a sense of foreboding and atmosphere, a Gothic feel, to every manuscript. Prolonged periods of rain can act as an irritant and have your characters at each other’s throats, or can add a sensual backdrop of sound to which your characters can make love. Sunlight can add warmth and an exuberant mood in a scene or can contrast an emotional battle between characters.
Allowing your characters to experience the weather through their senses makes the very air they breathe an adventure in action-reaction.
Out of all the elements of weather, lightning is my favorite. Here's an example from TIMELESS.
Lightning singed the sky like a molten vein of gold and arrowed down to the stones below. Temporarily blinded by the strobe-like effect, he threw up a defensive hand. The thunder caught him unaware. Startled, he yelped as it crashed around him, vibrating through the bottoms of his feet.
Goose-bumps erupted on his forearms and he flung aside the umbrella. Tilting his head back, he screamed into the cloud- darkened sky in a show of defiance. Lightning would not frighten him away. Never. Once again, he was standing in the stones’ presence, absorbing their power, like static electricity racing over his skin.
A bluish-white bolt slashed downward, hitting a twenty ton lintel balanced between two posts, sending up a shower of sparks. He jerked, covered his ears against the thunder’s onslaught, and looked about for some cover.
The boxy shape of a structure stood fifty feet away. He ran through the rain, his feet slipping on the grassy bank, his breath coming in jerky spurts. He leapt inside the wooden storage shed. The heavens opened with a display of angry power as bolt after bolt lashed and whipped at the stones, again and again. The thunder rumbled like deep, terrible music.
As suddenly as it began, it ended. For a moment, he remained crouched against the door of the shed. Silence stretched first one beat, then another. The frantic drumming of his heart eased, though excitement still thrummed through every nerve ending.
Water can be the cause of death, the answer to the quest, and the playful, sexy lure for adventurous skinny-dipping.
The sight and sound of waves rolling upon a beach strikes an elemental chord in the human psyche. They can inspire loneliness or ignite passion.
Water is sensuous, dangerous, and mysterious which are perfect characteristics for an interesting and versatile setting. From the bottom of the loch in TIMELESS:
Don’t panic. Don’t panic. The mantra played through Regan’s mind like a prayer as she propelled herself through the turbid water with strong even kicks. Heavy sediment clouded her range of vision and gave the water a greenish cast. It reflected back the feeble glow of the watertight dive light she held clamped in her hand. The grayish scales of a lone fish sparkled as it swam within the small, illumined circle, then darted away along the brown bottom of the loch.
It looked as though she’d been dropped on a waterlogged moon, desolate and distant. Her face ached from the cold temperature of the water, but her dry suit kept her reasonably protected. She forced herself to stop and take stock of the situation. She’d lost her dive buddy, Henry, in the hazy water, but still had her compass and remained on course. Her heart beat hard against her ribs and she tried to slow her breathing. He’d been right beside her only moments before. Where could he be?
Allowing your characters to experience Setting through their senses switches it from an inanimate stage to an interactive environment. It will cement your characters within their story by bring the time period, culture, and place into sharp focus for them and for you.
The action-reaction you have to your world should be as equally tactile, as sensuous an experience for your characters. It should be as intimate a journey as any other you create for them. By deepening the Point of View in such a way, it enriches your writing and in turn enriches your readers’ experience. And that is what writing is ultimately all about.
Post by Teresa Reasor