Besides believable characters, a sound plotline and a compelling tale, all stories – whether they are non-fiction or fiction – must have settings that paint an image in the reader’s mind. Characters don’t exist or relate to each other in a vacuum, they are surrounded by buildings, nature, technology and the environment. They hear noises, smell odours, and they feel. Use settings to paint a picture, to inspire, or to unnerve the reader.
If your character is in a cafe, bring that cafe to life. There will be the murmur of other people’s conversations, mobile phones ringing, background music, the clang of dishes in the kitchen or perhaps the crash of a glass hitting the floor and breaking, and staff moving around or interrupting diners. Depending on the type of cafe and where it’s situated, there may be a baby crying or children squealing, parents scolding their children or the footsteps of people walking past – especially if it’s in a busy shopping centre. What about the mixture of odours from cooked food and coffee? Don’t overlook anything.
Use all your character’s senses
There’s a whole world going on in that cafe and your character should be a part of it. Your character can hear all those noises competing with each other and the aroma of blended smells. Your character can see the staff rushing around, the other patrons enjoying their drinks and food. Is there a couple at a nearby table arguing? Is there a couple that are on their first date? What about an older couple that are so used to each other’s habits that they pass the salt or pepper without being asked?
Let’s not forget to include what your character feels. This could be handling the hot cup of coffee, or the gritty salt from chips. Does the chip burn the mouth and tongue or does your character savour the taste? Or perhaps your character ordered a hamburger and a slice of beetroot has slipped from its confines to land on the character’s white shirt leaving a wet purplish-pink stain. Perhaps your character ordered a salad and with that first bite wished it were marbled chocolate cheesecake instead.
Settings influence mood
A setting can be used as a contrast or a similarity to how your character is feeling. A troubled character may be drawn to the shoreline to watch the rough seas, whereas a complacent or pensive character may prefer calm seas. Or a particular setting might be used for actions, such as: overgrown bush land with a murky swamp, mosquitoes, and a foul odour may be the perfect place for your character to dispose of that corpse. A gloomy and ramshackle two-story house may be the perfect abode for ghosts to rise at the strike of midnight.
Triggers to write settings
There are many sources for writers to be inspired and write appropriate settings. Here are a few ideas to help create your settings:
- postcards, photographs, cards, travel brochures and magazines
- your memory of places you’ve visited
- your imagination – create unique locations
- visit places – take photos and make notes of everything you see, hear and smell.
A setting is not just a place where your character goes; it has a life of its own.