A couple of weeks ago I spoke about characters that you love, I did so because I was re-reading a favourite book series and re-visiting these characters reminded me how important people are to a story. Of late, however, I have relearned the importance of setting.
Recently, I had a list of jobs I wanted to do in the evenings after work and not one of them has been done, this is because I was in Columbia.
Columbia being the floating/flying city in Bioshock Infinite.
SIDE NOTE: This is an awesome game and I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys videogames. Even if shooters are not your thing chances are you will enjoy Bioshock. Shooter games are not my usual style of game, but I love this series both for it’s tragic and captivating stories and it’s mesmerising settings.
I want people to become lost in my worlds, just as I became lost in Columbia.
So with that in mind I have been doing a lot of work learning about crafting settings. I have read books about the craft, listened to Podcasts and, perhaps most importantly, I have spent time reading books with wonderfully developed settings.
There are many tools at hand when crafting settings, the visual description being only one of them. We have more senses than just sight, and when used in tandem, the setting gains depth and reality.
How Readers Experience Your Settings
Readers will experience your settings through your characters, and your characters will have the use of all their senses (maybe). If you rely too heavily on visual description alone, then you are potentially ignoring several resources available to you via your characters.
Your characters senses will influence their emotions. The coldness of the wind, the stink of the sewage bubbling up from the overflowing drains. Both the cold and the bad smell will make your character react in a certain way; it will trigger emotions in them. Their emotional reaction, good or bad, will influence how your reader perceives the setting. If your character experiences the setting in a negative way, then your reader’s view of the setting will likely be negative also. Thus you have given your setting an emotional connotation and allowed your reader to experience it in a much more rewarding way.
Use All of Your Readers’ Senses.
You should use as many of your reader’s senses as possible to experience your setting. Senses include smell, sight, and touch, all of these will allow you to tailor the setting for your reader to enhance the experience and give your story the tone you want it to have.
Smell is a great sense to use; it can trigger memories, bring out emotions and tell us what is happening. The smell of bacon cooking, for example, will automatically cause your readers to think of their own experiences with the smell. Your characters reaction to the smell will give you an opportunity to show aspects of your character. It also gives us a guess at day time etc.
Sight is another useful sense, as it is perhaps the straightest forward. How your character feels about what they see will then reflect on your readers. For example in my first novel, Grey Wings Aurelius and Mephistopheles see the city in very different ways, Aurelius dislikes it strongly, and when we see the city through his eyes, it’s dark, grey and unpleasant. Mephistopheles is indifferent, even though he walks through the traditionally more unpleasant areas such as the alleyways his view of it is less depressing and more structured, there is no emotional reaction to his surroundings other than the sense of tired familiarity.
Touch is a powerful sense when using it to describe a setting. In Grey Wings, both Mephastophilies and Aurelius are cold in the city, the winter has set in, and the cold freezes them. It helps portray Aulerius feelings of hopelessness and Mephistopheles cold detachment. You can use touch to give a setting a ‘sense of feeling’ or you can use it as a simple descriptive tool and let your reader make up their own mind.
I’ve talked a lot about using your character’s senses to immerse your readers in your settings. It’s no secret that this is one of my favourite ways of world building, but that doesn’t mean there are not other tools.
We’re often told that showing is better than telling, I am an advocate of this and in my writing if I spot myself telling as opposed to showing I will edit it so that I show as much as possible. But, sometimes there is space for telling. You do not need to show your readers everything; sometimes it is ok to tell them, to describe your setting.
If you choose to use description, it is important to use it well. A good description can help create a well-developed setting, the perfect background for your story. A background that stays in the background and doesn’t overtake your characters. A good description is something you hardly even notice you’ve read, it is short, simple and to the point. The language is clear and unembellished. Less is often more.
Visit the setting yourself
Most of my novels and short stories are set in fictional places, towns and cities that don’t exist. But Ghoul is set in London. Mya spends her days sleeping under the cemeteries and her nights roaming the streets, tunnels and rooftops of the city. A ghoul living in the English Capital.
Mya and her clan live under Highgate Cemetery in a colony they call the Necropolis, while I could not go under the Cemetery (eww) I did go through it. I visited the places in the cemetery that have meaning to my story, walk in the footsteps of my character and was able to see, smell and hear what they would. It was a unique experience for me and I learned so much.
Lastly, don’t overdo it
Remember this is a story about your characters, not the place where they happen to find themselves. Too much description is boring to read, even if you make it interesting and show us rather than tell us. A little goes a long way in this instance, and less is certainly more.
In conclusion, settings are relevant to a story and can actually go a long way to helping create an atmosphere and the world for your characters to roam. It’s important to create your worlds carefully, and I sincerely hope these top tips help you do just that.
Above I have discussed my preferred tools when it comes to manufacturing settings.
One of the wonderful things about reading and writing is that it is so subjective, what I like and enjoy can be different to someone else’s, neither is necessarily wrong, just different. With that in mind, I’d be interested in hearing your favourite ways to bring your settings to life.
Katie Marie wrote a Book. A big one and a couple of little ones. Check them out!