Shaping Character Through Setting

Who tells the story? Every writer has to figure this out for their story.

Let’s go next level on this, yeah? Let’s talk about how you approach POV when the setting is a character. You can usually tell if the setting is a character if it’s a significant part of a character’s conflict (Harry Potter in the forest surrounding Hogwarts) or identity (Anne of Green Gables).

POV is a really big deal in any setting-rich story because it characterizes your narrator. Just . . . stick with me.

In third person, the author can do some of the descriptive work. In first person, the protagonist must describe the setting to the reader while still sounding authentic and relatable and not like some weirdo who talks about everything they see like they don’t have a filter.

Well, unless that’s what your character is supposed to do.

Anyway.

Author Marion Dane Bauer says that the advantage of third person limited is that it moves into action easily with a tendency to show what is happening rather than tell how a character feels about it. She also notes that third person limited lends itself to rich language more easily because every single sentence isn’t ruled by the character’s voice the way first person point of view is.

For example, in my current manuscript (working title: Dark Bayou), the protagonist Sylvie regularly interacts with the swamp she lives in. Sometimes a description that works in third person becomes awkward in first person, like this one:

“She knew every scent of their bend in the bayou. The heavy smell of death and resurrection always lay over everything. The swamp reclaimed its own. From every rotting cypress trunk, a thousand blades of sawgrass or palmetto shoots unfurled with the sharp tang of new life.”

Although this is purely in Sylvie’s point of view, third person limited tends to give a sense of an unseen narrator who fills in what Sylvie has noticed over time. The description is for the benefit of the reader. That’s fine for third person. If Sylvie says the above in her own voice, she’s going to sound super philosophical, which she isn’t.

In first person, the reader should experience consciously only what Sylvie would experience consciously, and that means that if Sylvie noticing the cycle of life in the swamp fauna, she needs to have a specific reason for noticing it. Is it because the smell triggers a memory? Or because it comforts her in the aftermath of a difficult experience? Does she notice because something unusual about it draws her eye? Maybe she’s thinking about the circle of life right at that moment and the sight of sawgrass sprouting from a cypress trunk reinforces her musings? Because otherwise, it’s just weird to comment on her environment for no reason.

If we use a first person narrator to communicate too much about his/her setting, they won’t feel authentic. On the downside, keeping the narrator authentic makes it hard to build the setting/world when it’s one the character knows well.

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This forces us to be incredibly smart in choosing the exact right setting details to include because we must give the narrator a believable reason for noticing them. Each detail must:

  1. Ground the reader in a sense of place.
  2. Connect to what is currently happening in the story.
  3. Characterize the narrator believably; how she describes her setting must reflect the way she would think and speak.

I resisted first person narration in Dark Bayou because I associate it with a contemporary vibe and it’s a YA historical fantasy. I like the more timeless feel of third person past tense for a historical novel, but first person seems like a far better choice for engaging young adult readers. So I switched.

Now I’m puzzling through the challenge of writing setting-as-character when using a first person narrator. The swamp needs to be fully developed in the reader’s mind because it has utterly shaped Sylvie and will continue to feature in the story. This means that I have to choose carefully what Sylvie will notice and why.

For example, my current draft only shows Sylvie’s house as she interacts with it—climbing stairs, walking across creaking floors, lying in her straw pallet in the corner, eyeing the statue of St. John in their shrine. I don’t show her thinking explicitly about the exterior of the house because I couldn’t figure out why she would stop to describe the home to the reader, but a super sharp beta reader was like, “Um, I have no sense of this house. I need more.”

So. I had to think: what reason would Sylvie have to make a direct observations about her house? I decided it would make sense to contrast her leaving the familiar, comfortable swamp to return to the house and really feel the contrast between a place she feels safe and a place she doesn’t. This gave me a chance to let the reader in on Sylvie’s emotions while describing a part of the setting:

The swamp did not unsettle me the way the house did, and I had to force myself to lead the goat back to it. It stood two hundred paces from the bank of the bayou, crouching with the forest at its back, a clearing a half-acre wide in front of it all the way down to the water. The unpainted cypress wood had weathered gray so long ago I couldn’t remember it being another color. The roof sloped down to cover a small porch, a furrowed brow over the creaky door. Somehow the two-room shack managed to look smaller from the outside than it felt on the inside. But then no space would feel large enough if I had to share it with Osanne.

Now we know more about Sylvie as a character AND about the house she lives in, all from her description of it. I think it works. Maybe. But maybe on draft ten I’ll think differently. Right now, it feels good.

Exploration of place through a character’s eyes leads to discovery of the character herself.  It’s a loop that gives beautiful resonance to us as writers as we seek to create the same resonance on the page.
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Melanie Bennett Jacobson is an avid reader, amateur cook, and champion shopper. She consumes astonishing amounts of chocolate, chick flicks, and romance novels. She lives in Southern California with her husband and three kids and a series of doomed houseplants. Melanie is a former English teacher who loves to laugh and make others laugh. In her down time (ha!), she writes romantic comedies for Covenant and maintains her humorous slice-of-life blog. Her sixth novel, Always Will, hits shelves in October. Melanie’s contemporary YA novels are represented by Alyssa Henkin.

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