Importance and Use of Setting

            Setting is more than a place where characters work or play. Setting can help set the mood and can help describe the character and the character’s motivation. For example, here is a scene from Spiral Into Darkness:

            Whenever Michael walked home from school, he took the same route, a shortcut lined with garbage cans and recycling bins. . . There was a parked car or two. Not expensive cars because they would be easy pickings for anyone interested in CDs, spare change, or anything else of value. Waukesha did not have many stolen vehicles, at least in this neighborhood, but if there was a car worth taking, it could end up missing . . .

The night was cold. He had his cell in one hand with the other in his jacket pocket and then would alternate when the hand with the cell turned red and purple. His shoulders were hunched, and his collar was up. A stocking hat sat on top of his head and covered his ears, but he still shivered . . .

The setting is an alley. Obviously, it is cold, and it is nighttime. But do you also get a picture of Michael, how alone and perhaps lonely he is? I supposed I could have placed him in a mall and could have demonstrated his aloneness and his loneliness by the lack of interaction with anyone. It would not have fit the story or the ensuing action as well as a dark alley.

Here is another example from Spiral Into Darkness:

After signing out at the front desk and wishing a good evening to the portly and elderly night security man, he paused at the door, buttoned up his topcoat, clamped his portfolio under his arm, and then stepped into the sub-zero late afternoon.

So cold, his nose hair froze. The dirty snow and ice that had melted in the early afternoon sun now crunched under the soles of his leather slip-ons. The shoes, like his gloves, looked good, but for all the warmth they provided, he may as well have been barefoot.

Vincent emerged between two cars, dodged a bus, and jay-walked across the street and then jogged into the parking garage. He had parked his silver Lexus on the fourth floor. Because it was so cold, he took the elevator, which had a faint cigarette and urine smell to it. He tried breathing through his mouth. It did not work because then he could taste it. The slow-moving elevator opened and he quick-walked toward his car. It was within sight at the far end of the garage. The sound was his loafers echoed off the cement and cinder block walls.

The garage was dark. Two of the overhead lights were out, which made him curious. He remembered them working when he had arrived . . .

A different character and a different setting. In this setting, I place the character in a busy city and a parking garage in the late afternoon. The parking garage is dirty, dark, and does not smell good. But do you also get a picture of the character? Showy, flashy, concerned with outward appearance. Not a lot of substance to him. About as cold as the weather.

I speak in front of groups on setting and character development, and at some point in my talk, I tell the audience that setting is a character, just as much as a “him” or a “her” might be.

I use setting to enhance the character. The character has to live in and interact with a setting. The setting causes the character to react to it.

In the first scene, Michael hunched his shoulders to the cold. His fingers and hands turned purple as he would first hold his cell phone in one hand while the other warmed up in his pocket.

In the second scene, Vincent has an unpleasant reaction in the elevator. As he crosses the street, you hear the ice crunch with each step. His feet and his hands are cold because, though his shoes and matching gloves are fancy, they do little to protect him from the elements.

In both scenes, setting enhances the character. Each character has to react to the elements of the setting, and in this interaction, each character comes alive. The elements of setting and character have to work together. If they don’t, or if one is lacking more than the other, the story falls apart. Perhaps, if either setting or character are lacking, there isn’t a story.

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