How to use character to refine your story’s setting

I have always had trouble creating a setting in my fiction. I am very much character-focused; who they are, what they do, why they do it. Location is often incidental. As a result, I find it difficult to place my characters in their environment and when I write I very rarely describe where they are.

perspectiveHowever, having started my Future Learn Fiction course with the Open University, I have stumbled across an idea that might help me conquer this problem I have with setting. And that is not to see the scene through my eyes, but the eyes of my character.

So, instead of trying to imagine my character’s room – the furniture, the wallpaper, the smell, the noise from the street below – I am going to tap into my character and see what they notice about their room.

The furniture and wallpaper are staples, always there and automatically assumed. It would be details that might stand out, they could  frown as they notice the bare patch on the flocked wall paper where the family dog used to wag its tail so hard, excited to see their owner – only the bare patch is visible now because there is no dog to hide it. The bumpy mattress that needs replacing, with the spring digging into their shoulder when they fall onto it, exhausted from work.
For them, the smell is probably so familiar that they only really notice if it’s different – like that citrus sharp tang of cleaning spray after mum’s been in to ‘tidy up’. And the sound of the street below might only bother them when they have a migraine clawing its way into their brain.

If I start to analyse how my character would view their surroundings I become much more invested in the process. Plus, it reveals so much more about who they are and how they view the world. If I’m writing a particular piece in ‘their’ voice, or want to have them tell something about their past environment, I can identify what it is that would be important to them.

Perhaps one character is very visual and would talk about the yellow flowers in the vase on the windowsill and the way the way the sun slanted across them. Another character might focus on the smell; that wonderful, soft fragrance that tickles their nose and reminds them of their aunt. Whilst someone else might highlight the dogs barking outside, high pitched and squeaky as they play.

We all have our preferred ways of describing our environment, but as a writer we can use these to our advantage by allowing our characters to do that for us. Not only that, but it could very well mark out one character from another; providing their unique viewpoint of a setting through their experiences, rather than our own.



3 responses to “How to use character to refine your story’s setting

  1. Interesting post, Cat. I suppose in a way writing is a bit like acting, in that if you can ‘become’ the character it makes the story so much more vivid and believable.

    • Thanks. I need all the help I can get with trying to embed setting into my writing process.
      I like the idea of becoming the character, really immersing yourself in their lives. Thanks for stopping by and commenting. 🙂
      Take care, Cat

  2. Or, you could have your characters so busy shooting zombies in the face that they completely fail to notice their environment.

    “Mmmmm, braaaaaaains”


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