Our guest author for today’s Teachers Write quick-write is Heidi Schulz, the author of the New York Times Bestselling Hook’s Revenge, and a sequel,Hook’s Revenge: The Pirate Code, published by Disney-Hyperion. Bloomsbury Kids published her picture book debut,Giraffes Ruin Everything, in August 2016. Her short story for children, The Day the Puddles Stomped Back, can be found in Oregon Reads Aloud, an anthology to benefit S.M.A.R.T. (Start Making A Reader Today).
Setting as a Lens for Character
“Ma cracked the window to let some fresh air in, Momly’s car always smelled like a freshly scrubbed bathtub. Like…clean, but poisonous. Cleanliness was next to godliness, huh? So next to godliness that you might die from it. Maddy and me were used to it, but it irritated Ma every single time she was in the car.”—Patina by Jason Reynolds
Effective settings are important to grounding readers in a scene and helping them to feel truly immersed in a story, but they can convey character attributes. Take a look at the paragraph above. What kinds of things can you guess about the main character, and the relationships she has with those around her from that short selection?
The way a writer chooses to describe a setting can offer great insight into character, and can be an excellent way to follow the old writing advice: Show. Don’t tell.
Take, for example, this selection from Illusive by Emily Lloyd Jones. What information about the main character are you able to glean from this reading?
“Arm in arm, she and Devon emerge into downtown Manhattan. Despite the fact it isn’t yet noon, the sun already beats down on the back of Ciere’s neck. She sucks in lungfuls of hot, humid air, tasting sweat and exhaust. Steam flows up from sewer grates, and people swarm the sidewalks—everyone from the homeless with their blackened teeth and sunken eyes to businessmen with tailored suits and briefcases. Ciere has to dodge several tourists as they shuffle past. She tilts her head back and gazes at the city. The buildings are an odd mix of classical arches, sleek skyscrapers, and the grunge that has taken root in these urban areas like mold in an old bag of bread.”
I love this example because it’s so visceral. Words like “swarm,” “grunge,” and “mold” paint a vivid picture and it is abundantly clear that Cierce does not like the city. This works far better than a neutral description of the city and a line of dialogue from the main character such as, “I really hate the city. It’s so gross and dirty.”
(Also note that in this example, the point of view is not first person. Conveying a character’s feelings through setting description works just as well in close third.)
Now take a look at this selection from Love, Ish by Karen Rivers:
“There are a million billion stars shining through the blackness and it’s totally worth it to be out here even though I can’t sleep. The constellations slide by above me so slowly I can barely see it happening unless I close my eyes for a bit and then open them again. I see three falling stars (which are really just meteors, but it’s prettier to think of them as stars). Tonight, the moon is a crescent and if you follow the end of the crescent, you can see Mars. It’s blurry and so so so so so small. I can’t believe I’ll go there one day. I mean, I know I will, it’s just hard to imagine being that far away, being in a hammock on Mars (in a biome, of course) looking at a blurry Earth.”
Aside from conveying a positive association with space (“shining through the blackness” “prettier to think of them as stars”), there is also a sense of wistfulness conveyed in the description of Mars being so far away, and the thought of one day looking at the Earth from a similar perspective. We gain a lot of insight into this character from this one short description.
One last example from my book Hook’s Revenge.
“A miasma of overripe fish, gun smoke, and unwashed bodies hung in the briny air. Schooners, sloops, frigates, cutters, and many other varieties of ships in various conditions were moored offshore. Sailors swarmed over their surfaces like roaches on leftovers, inspecting rigging and performing repairs. Before her eyes, a brawl broke out on the deck of a twenty-gunner. The air was filled with sounds of the roaring sea, screaming gulls, shouted curses, breaking glass, and breaking bones.
A wide smile grew on the girl’s face. For the first time in her life, Jocelyn felt truly at home.”
Here, I’ve used words and phrases with a typically negative connotation (“swarmed,” “roaches,” “screaming,” “breaking bones”), leading the reader to expect the character to feel negatively, but then I reverse those expectations for comedic effect. Try playing around with this technique in your own work.
Choose a setting. Make a list, using all your senses, of that place’s attributes. Try to use neutral words/phrases. Then, using that list as a guide, make two more lists, one recasting those neutral descriptions in a positive light; the other, in a negative. Feel free to consult a thesaurus if it helps.
I have created a chart, pictured below, using the example of an old barn.
Now try writing about this place, first from the point of view (either first person or close third) of a character that has a positive association with that place. Then reverse it and write the negative. You do not need to use every item on your list, but try to include multiple senses. See my examples below.
A sudden cloudburst was all the urging Leah needed to find refuge in the old barn. Inside, it was warm and cozy. Billowy cobwebs draped the beams above, softened all the barn’s hard edges. In the sweet-smelling hay underfoot, Leah heard the bustle of small animals going about their business, while overhead, flies buzzed lazily, caring little for the storm outside. From the shadows, a tall horse, soft and brown, moved slowly toward her and Leah quickly pulled the left-over apple slices from her lunch bag. The mare gently took each piece as offered, her velvety muzzle and warm breath tickling Leah’s palm. Leah hoped it rained all afternoon.
A sudden cloudburst forced Leah into the old barn. Inside, it was damp and smelled of rot. Spiderwebs hung everywhere, concealing fat spiders that Leah felt certain could drop into her hair at any moment. In the limp, musty hay underfoot, Leah heard the scuttling of rodents and she took a small step back toward the door. From the shadows, a monstrous horse approached. Hands shaking, Leah pulled the left-over apple slices from her lunch bag and tossed them on the ground, hoping to either distract or appease the animal, then ran for the door. She’d rather take her chances in the storm.
Of course, negative and positive associations are among the least complex emotions you can convey. Take a look at your setting again and see if you can describe it in such a way that conveys loneliness, anxiety, contentment, pride, relief, or some other feeling—perhaps something from a character you are currently working on? Post that description in the comments below.