Think about one of your favourite fictional stories. Why did you like it so much?
I’ll bet a key reason you liked it is that the story had a character you cared about. Someone who felt real to you. Someone who drew you into their adventures and kept you captivated right to the very end of the plot.
It’s not easy to create a character who is consistently three-dimensional throughout a story. That’s why there are so many articles out there on strengthening the main character’s point of view.
One item that is sometimes overlooked, though, is the relationship between character and setting. This is particularly important in stories that are intended to have a narrow narrative distance between the reader and the character.
When I edit scenes involving setting descriptions, a common piece of advice I give is to think about the scene from the character’s point of view. I have run across descriptions of living rooms and castle halls and even parking garages that are brilliant on their own, but they don’t work for the story, because the descriptions are coming from the writer’s point of view, rather than the character’s. The painstaking research that the author has done to make the scene feel more “real” has been lovingly added to the page, but the reader ends up feeling more distant from the story instead of closer to it.
Why? Because if the setting was being described by the character, they would be presenting it in a different way. And the reader has now been reminded that there is an author behind the story, one who is adding in details that the character would not perceive or missing ones that the character would care about.
Here are some questions you can ask yourself that will help you make your setting descriptions more character-focused:
- What would your character notice first? Is this the first thing that is mentioned in the description?
- Is there someone or something that your character needs to notice in more detail (such as the new love interest)? Is the appropriate emphasis given to this part of the scene?
- How would your character visually look at this particular setting? Would the character notice the wide view and then look at specific details? Or would the character hone in on a particular part of the setting? Would they see things in a certain directional order, such as from left to right, front to back (down a hallway), bottom to top (looking up a castle staircase), or from top to bottom (scanning someone from head to toe)? Is anything in the setting being described out of order?
- Would your character know or care about the details you’re including? Maybe they are a car enthusiast, and so they would know the exact model of that sports car in the parking garage. Or maybe they would only notice it’s red and has four wheels. Maybe they’re staring at it because they can’t afford such a fancy car, and they’re envious of the owner. Or maybe they wouldn’t even see it because they’re too busy looking at something else.
- What emotional state is your character in? Are they focused, happy, sad, angry, afraid? This could affect how they describe things, how well they are taking in the details, and which pieces of the setting they dwell on.
- How busy is your character right now? If your character is in the middle of a fight or running away from the villain, chances are they won’t have the time to describe much without inadvertently slowing down the action.
- Is your character visually oriented, or are they more likely to notice details through other senses? If your character is a musician, maybe they notice sound a lot, for example. Or maybe your character focuses a lot on other senses, such as smell (especially if they are a werewolf!).
By taking the time to think about how your character might react to their particular surroundings, you will both strengthen the description and reinforce the integrity of your character’s point of view. And your reader will feel rewarded when they read your character’s story.
I encourage you to try taking a setting and describing it from the perspective of multiple characters in the scene. You might be surprised by the differences that come out.
Do you like writing about settings, or do you find it challenging? Do you have any tips for describing setting that you’d like to share? Please share your thoughts below!