Ever notice how irons have a setting for permanent press? I don’t get it. ~Steven Wright, comedian, actor, writer
Some story settings are as useless at helping define the characters as the permanent press setting on an iron is at knocking out non-existent wrinkles. How can we utilize our setting descriptions to make stronger characters?
Add more contrast.
When designing a stage set, framing the actors with a sense of place is important, but making sure they don’t melt into the background is the designer’s chief consideration. The actors must pop on the stage. Their character must stand out. To accomplish this, great care is given to contrast. Contrast between the character’s costume and the set. Contrast between where they are and where they belong.
For example, in the Broadway musical, The King and I, the contrast between the tropical setting and the elaborate hooped skirts of the English governess creates a character that pops every time she takes the stage. Dropped into a country where the natives wear very little, the audience has an immediate sense of how out of place this prim and proper woman is. This contrast immediately propels her struggle and this struggle against the setting is one of the elements in the story that keeps us riveted.
How can we paint our novel settings so that they pop our characters? Add contrast.
In the opening scene of Water for Elephants, Sara Gruen paints a circus set, complete with fry cooks, a crowded midway, and frenetic music announcing a catastrophe. In the midst of the chaos of curly-haired yaks and panthers escaping the dusty tent, she drops Marlena. The woman is dressed in beautiful pink-sequins.
“She was on the opposite side, standing against the sidewall, calm as a summer day. Her sequins flashed like liquid diamonds, a shimmering beacon between the multicolored hides. She saw me, too, and held my gaze for what seemed like forever. She was cool, languid. Smiling even. I started pushing my way toward her, but something about her expression stopped me cold.”
Using a few descriptive words, Gruen painted a rugged set then dropped a uniquely fragile, yet very strong character onto the stage that obviously didn’t belong in the circus. This conflict creates interest and gives the reader another character clue, one that helps frame a three-dimensional character.
Using setting in our works is kind of like Deception Pass in the Pacific Northwest.
From the bridge the small stretch of beach along the Puget Sound looked so inviting. So I convinced my husband that we should hike down the mountain and stick our toes in. But once we clambered over the huge logs and trudged through the ankle-twisting rocks this southern girl was in no mood to brave the cold or risk the swift currents. I was way out of my element.
What contrast can you add to your settings? How can you make your character so out of place or uncomfortable with their surroundings that the reader can actually feel for her?
Take time to set the stage and watch your characters come to life.