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Character Setting

Frequently I hear writers say, "I don't write descriptions, I let my readers imagine the setting in their minds." Then, sometimes on the same day, I'll read an article written by someone assigned to judge writing contests. In it, they'll say things like, "A common element in most entries is how often the writers miss opportunities to incorporate settings, objects, and body language into their stories."

So, who is right? Technically they both are correct… from, as Obi-Wan would say, "a certain point of view." If you are writing for yourself or a specific audience, you can write as little setting as you please. If your writing as an entry to a contest, you might want to consider rendering settings in your stories.

Michael Hauge, for example, is an American story consultant, author, and lecturer who works with writers and filmmakers on their screenplays and novels. He recommends "…picking two or three details that create a vivid image in the reader's mind.  An apartment strewn with old pizza boxes and cigarette butts, where posters of Pamela Lee adorn every wall, is a more vivid and interesting than…" they entered the apartment. "The details also tell us a lot more about the character who inhabits the apartment."

Of course, describing a room as strewn with boxes and posters is completely different from describing every object in the room… that would be boring. But describing your character's setting in at least basic terms (like the boxes and posters) is an intricate part of the story itself. As a writing coach. Mr. Hauge also goes on to suggest that the overall setting of a book needs to be identified as soon as the work starts. Not only that but that the setting for each chapter could also be vividly described to the reader.

Settings can also act as a character or as an addendum to a character's mood. Take a character who you want to describe as depressed enters the scene. If the weather is filled with dark stormy clouds or they enter a grimy room, this certainly enhances the mood you want to set for your readers.

Overall, there is a connection to be made with your readers through the scene description. You know the world your characters inhabit, but your readers don't. They have never been there. After all, if you are a fiction writer, you made the world up. However, they have been in rooms they can relate to, connecting them with your story. Say your character is standing in line at the movie theatre. Everyone can relate to that; they have all been there. As the writer, you have a chance to connect your fictional world with the real world your readers find familiar. You do that through your setting descriptions. What your characters see visually, odors they smell, sounds they hear can add impact to what they relate to the readers through their dialog. They help the reader make the connection.

Characters will also see settings differently depending on their background. Your readers will also learn about your characters according to their style of learning. Take three detectives in the same room. If each of the detectives represents the three basic ways people learn, then they will gather clues in different ways. The visual detective with rather clues via observation of sights and reading. The kinesthetic detective will get clues from touch or smell as well as reenacting the crime by walking around the room. Finally, the auditory detective will gather information by listening (or sometimes just listening to themselves talking out loud… see Columbo.)

The three detectives will also use different methods to determine the truth of what a suspect is saying. The auditory detective will pick up on the speaker's tones, while the kinesthetic detective will put more weight on what the suspect's body is doing rather than what they are saying. All the while, the visual detective will be ignoring all that and reading the forensic report.

In real life, everyone is a little of all three defectives, but we all suffer from habits that cause us to lean towards one of the three. And If we do that ourselves, so will the characters we invent. In the end, describing the setting can change how your characters react. Some actors feel they can't get fully into character unless they are dressed the way the character would be dressed and on their set. This is because those settings affect how your character moves, reacts, and even thinks… just like with the actor. Or, more importantly, as writers, the setting can be the bread and butter of how we relate our fictional world with the reader's experiences and learning styles.

Here are some excercises to help you along.





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