Look around your room, or if you’re not in it, think about it. What does it say about you?
- Is it neat and tidy? Do your clothes hang in neatly color-coordinated chunks in your closet?
- Or, is there a layer of dirty (or clean) clothes covering the floor? Do you have stinky cleats and workout shorts piled in the corner or does the thought of athletic gear cluttering your space make you cringe?
- Think of the walls. Are they pristine and painted in your favorite colors? Covered with posters of your favorite band? Or plastered with photos of all your friends?
- What books are stacked on your nightstand? A few of Stephen King’s horror novels? Perhaps, the Bible or Book of Mormon? Or is there not a book to be found?
All of these details may seem innocuous or irrelevant, but they really say quite a bit about the type of person you are.
Just by including a few details about the state of a character’s room, car, or even backpack, you can develop your character’s personality, habits, quirks, beliefs, or even mood.
The key here is that your descriptions are included with the character interacting with the setting. Gratuitous details will seem, well, gratuitous, like random details you’ve tacked on.
The first step to making the details of setting help develop your character, you must really know your character really well. If you become a member, the free WTW Guide to Creating Irresistible Characters can help you with this. You can get it by signing up for the weekly WTW emails at the bottom of this post or by becoming a member.
Once you’ve got your characters figured out, then look at the setting(s) in your story. What details specific to the setting could reflect your character’s personality or state of mind? The story doesn’t have to take place in their room, but you can find details in any setting that will help to develop what kind of person your character is. As Janet Burroway writes in Writing Fiction, “seen through the eyes of a character, setting is never neutral” (172).
EXAMPLES in YA of CHARACTER and SETTING
All of the following examples come from popular YA novels. If you haven’t read them, check them out. All these authors are great writers.
In Someone Like You, Sarah Dessen describes the main character, Scarlett’s, room.
“Right next to her window was the shelf with her pictures: me and her at the beach two years ago…Marion [Scarlett’s mom] at eighteen, an old school picture, faded and creased. And finally, a t the end and unframed, that same picture of her and Michael at the lake” (30).
In one sentence, Dessen lets the reader know what’s most important to Scarlett: her best friend, her mom, and Michael, all three of whom play key roles in the story.
In Keeping the Moon, Dessen uses almost a whole paragraph to describe Norman’s car.
“In the backseat were four manneqins, all of them headless. One was missing an arm, another a hand, but they were lined up neatly, as if they’d piled in for the ride…besides our headless fellow passengers, there were twenty tiny plastic animals glued to the dashboard, lined up carefully, and a huge pair of fuzzy red dice bouncing from the rearview mirror” (9-10).
Here, we learn about both Norman and the main character, Colie. Norman is strange, not worried about what people think, a bit of an artist. Colie is detail oriented; she counts the animals and which limbs are missing from the mannequins. Never does Dessen tell us “Norman is strange and Colie is detail oriented” instead she creates those characteristics details in the setting and how the character sees those details.
In Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Ransom Riggs also includes a great description of Ricky’s car to develop both the main character and his best friend, Ricky. Jacob lives a structured, orderly life but is fascinated by anything out of the ordinary, like his grandfather’s stories or Ricky’s car.
“The Vic was amazing, a museum worthy piece of unintentional folk art…the seats were armored with duct tape so that errant upholstery springs wouldn’t find their way up your ass. Best of all was the exterior, a rusted moonscape of holes and dents, the result of a plant to earn extra gas money by allowing drunken partygoers to whack the car with a golf club for a buck a swing” (31).
Jacob and Ricky then take the car into the “bewildering labyrinth of interlocking cul-de-sacs known collectively as Circle Village” (31).
Such great setting details develop the characters. Jacob’s description of the car defines him as someone who’s fascinated by the unusual, but also a little bit scared by it. His description of the neighborhood they enter foreshadows what they will find and sets up the mood. Jacob is embarking on a strange journey, and the car description sets up that Jacob, though fascinated, is a bit scared.
For the last example, let’s look at how Suzanne Collins masterfully uses setting to develop Katniss’ and her fears in The Hunger Games. This description happens when Katniss is looking for Peeta in the arena.
“Muddy banks covered in tangled water plants lead to large rocks that increase in size until I begin to feel somewhat trapped. It would be no small matter to escape the stream now…I see a bloody streak going down the curve of a boulder. It’s long dried now, but the smeary lines running side to side suggest someone – who perhaps was not fully in control of his mental faculties – tried to wipe it away” (251).
In this brief passage, Katniss is desperately searching for Peeta, but through the description of the setting, we discover that she is feeling trapped and scared, maybe even a little lost, and that Peeta is somehow losing it. Collins never “tells” us those details of her character’s emotional states, instead she shows them through her description of setting that keep the action moving forward.
The next challenge is to figure out how the setting details in your story can help to develop your characters.