Setting the Setting

Ronie Kendig has a BS in Psychology and is a wife, mother of four, and avid writer. Her espionage thriller, Dead Reckoning, will be released through Abingdon Press (March 2010) and the first book in her military thriller series, Nightshade, will hit shelves July 2010 (Barbour Publishing). An active member of ACFW, Ronie serves as the Book of the Year coordinator, assistant to the conference appointment coordinator and volunteers on the conference planning committee.

Visit Ronie at her website or her blog.

Last month in our series on Psychology in Writing, we explored psychology in characters. Knowing your character, knowing how each element of your story will affect them is vital to capturing your audience. This month, we’re going to engage psychology through the setting.
Have you ever read a book and *felt* the sun’s warm brilliance on your face? Or the wind that whipped and tore at your character fighting his way back to his house in the midst of a tornado? Every element of setting should have an impact on or reflection of your character. First, let’s establish the obvious. What is setting? Is it the type of building, the weather, the location? In a word, yes. It’s everything. But let’s not relegate the setting to the backdrop on the stage of your story. Bring it alive. Make it work for–or against–your story and characters.
When I walk into a nursing home, I’m creeped out. Now, before you say I’m gerontophobic, understand that I had several negative experiences in that setting as a child. And so it is with your characters. Each setting you take the time to graft into your story should have an impact on him/her. What sort of experiences, positive or negative, snap your character into the past or make her shut down entirely? Let’s scale back a bit. The setting doesn’t just have to be the large, empty warehouse on the wharf. It can be a hardwood floor leading to a study where the dry air and wall of leather-bound books assail your hero with fond memories, or the old beat-up ’64 Mustang that remind your heroine of her father and stir her to be better, remind her to finish what she starts (or some such).
Setting should be as much alive as your character. Don’t let it grow stale or cliché. Does your character have a flat-screen TV? Why? Is it your heroine who uses the massive, ceiling-to-floor screen to study the surveillance footage of a crime scene? Or is your hero an America’s Army game junkie who’s hooked it up for life-sized gaming? Does the floor-model TV remind your hero of long nights spent watching Mr. Ed with his grandfather? What about the curio cabinet full of snow globes? Why are they there? And since we’re having so much fun with this (you are, aren’t you?), let me challenge your thinking. The POV of a character is the setting as well. Okay, I see the deer-in-the-headlights look already. Let me explain: every situation your character walks into, every building or city, should trigger some psychological response.
Don’t get me wrong. You don’t have to psych out the character or reader with everything. These impact points can be very subtle or very obvious. Check it out: Subtle: a character walks into an unfamiliar setting. Psychological response: unsuspecting, calm, curious (great potential to throw something heinous at your unsuspecting character, for drama . . . or let them experience the neutrality so they lower their defenses little by little). Obvious: character walks into a dark room with no windows and a familiar odor.
Psychological response: immediate tension and post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms as the character recalls a holding cell in Viet Nam.
It’s also important to note that two (or three, four . . . etc.) characters are likely to have very different reactions to the same setting. For one person, walking into a rec center may remind them of the day they shattered their ankle and shot at the pros. Yet another character may remember the moment they met their true love. The heroine may see a beautiful landscape filled with wildflowers and sense freedom, while the hero sees the endless acreage that will demand his time and energy.
As you can see, setting elicits not only visual stimulation, but it should have an impact on your character (and thus, your reader). Messing with people’s minds is fun, and this is one more element of the story where you can evoke a response that is specific to your character.
Make the mundane marvelous. When a reader walks into the setting of your story, what is it telling them about your hero or story? How can you tailor the setting to better reflect your story or challenge your character?(For more information on setting and its impact, read the new Donald Maass craft book, The Fire in Fiction. Specifically, chapter four, “The World of the Novel,” goes into more detail on this subject.)