About Your Book’s Setting
The Silent Character
By Roxanne Smolen
The setting of your book should be treated as a character. Does your story take place during a hurricane? An avalanche? A drought? Are you in a city of glass skyscrapers or a seedy neighborhood? In the immortal words of Sir Alexander Dane, you’re just going to have to figure out what it wants. What is its motivation?
I like to do character sketches. My main characters get a five page questionnaire to fill out. My minor characters get a five point brief: Physical Features, Personality, Likes/Dislikes, Family history, Beliefs.
Let’s revisit that seedy neighborhood to see how knowing your setting can enhance the ambiance of your story.
Seedy Street #1 — residential, cracked sidewalk, broken streetlamps, houses are older, mostly duplexes, built close to each other, close to the street, front yards are six-foot squares with a few weeds, barren of grass, most are enclosed by chain link fence, many have large dogs
Seedy Street #2 — residential, cracked sidewalk, broken streetlamps, houses are older, mostly duplexes, built close to each other, close to the street, front yards are six-foot squares, the grass is bright and well-tended, flowers bloom in window boxes and in pots on porches, small American flags wave amid the plants
Seedy Street #1 — litter blows in circles, houses look grimy, it’s July and no one has air conditioning so people hang out on porches looking sullen and tired, shirts stained with sweat beneath their arms, the whole street reeks of body odor and garbage like a cloud of stink, no one walks the streets
Seedy Street #2 — houses are old but clean, stoops are swept, it’s July and no one has air conditioning so people hang out on porches, shirts stained with sweat beneath their arms, cooking aromas from open windows and doors clash in unusual ways, the fire department has opened a hydrant and children shriek as they run through the gushing water, above them a rainbow shines in the spray
Seedy Street #1 — Likes the feeling of power it gets from keeping its residents in fear. Dislikes laws because it’s not sure they’re in its best interest. Dislikes strangers.
Seedy Street #2 — Likes the feeling of community, striving together, knowing help is just a door away. Dislikes violence. Dislikes strangers.
Seedy Street #1 — ethnic, clings to old customs and traditions because that’s all it has
Seedy Street #2 — ethnic, celebrates old customs and traditions but working to incorporate new ones
Seedy Street #1 — no one will help you but yourself
Seedy Street #2 — there is always hope
Now that you understand your setting a little better, you can people it with your characters and they will respond accordingly. They might even write the book themselves. All you have to do is sit back and observe.
There are more thoughts about book settings from other authors in the collection About Your Book’s Setting now available in print or ebook at Amazon.