A unique setting isn’t about how you describe it, but about how a character perceives it.
Everything in a story revolves around characters, including setting. Descriptions are not foreign elements that must be incorporated solely because characters need a place to plant their feet. Showing the setting through the eyes of a character gives it purpose, direction, and meaning. You’ll further immerse readers in a character’s POV and make the surroundings distinct—no person will describe the same location in the same way. Descriptions can reveal insights about a character that readers have yet to understand, sowing your prose with subtext. A character’s priorities, backstory, and feelings enrich descriptions.
Since setting relies heavily on characters, we need one of our own to experiment with. Pretend our protagonist is named Mary. A pack of wolves is chasing her, and she’s tearing through the forest in an effort to escape. She comes across a clearing. A stream winds through the grass and a tiny robin perches on a nearby tree branch. What do you think she’s going to do?
I’ll tell you what she’s not going to do. She won’t stand there and admire the robin’s merry tune or how his feathers remind her of a crimson sunset. She won’t wonder at the playful stream or how the sun bounces off the water.
In all probability, she won’t realize the robin exists, and the stream is only a blur in her peripheral vision. She’s more concerned with the wolves behind her than any beauty around her.
This is because a character’s priorities determine what she observes, both hiding and highlighting the world around her. In Mary’s situation, she may not notice the robin or the stream. However, she might spot a large tree with low branches she could grab to climb out of the wolves’ reach.
A character’s priorities can narrow down the details you need to include. You don’t have to document every aspect of the setting, only those pertinent to your character and readers.
Emotions make a story memorable and can enhance a setting too. Like priorities, feelings affect a character’s outlook.
Mary is still wandering through the forest, but this time she isn’t being hunted by ravenous wolves. Instead, she’s returning from the castle after being fired from her job as a maid. She trudges through the same stretch of woods and does indeed see our friend the robin. She still wouldn’t describe his tune as merry, however.
Her negative emotion alters the scene entirely. The robin’s chirping mocks her. The stream she pauses by isn’t dancing but murmuring sheepish apologies and condolences.
Coloring the setting with her frustration brings it to life. However, you don’t want to go overboard with emotional descriptions. Swapping a word or two is usually effective. The sun’s rays could be limp, the robin’s flight halting, and the grass bowed.
People are not simply the sum of their priorities and emotions, right? Past experiences and trauma influences their view of the world too.
Let’s throw Mary into a completely different situation. She is neither being pursued by wolves nor leaving her workplace for the last time. Now she’s peacefully strolling through the woods.
When she sees the robin, her mood shifts. Robins were her mother’s favorite bird. She’s since passed. The robin stirs sadness and nostalgia in Mary. It’s a symbol that carries many memories, even though those memories were never before attached to that little clearing with the stream and the robin.
Small details, actions, sounds, and the like can trigger memories that impact how characters interpret their surroundings. This reveals the depths of your character, because the way she describes or feels about a place changes when it reminds her of the past.
Your Character’s Personality Is at the Core of Descriptions
Different combinations of backstories, emotions, and priorities will produce a diverse group of characters who won’t pay attention to the same details others do. This enables you to use their unique perspectives to create character-infused descriptions that blend well with the story and entertain your audience. However, this won’t happen if you don’t know your characters. Don’t be afraid to dive into their personalities. Get so closely acquainted that you can’t help viewing the world through their eyes.
A long time ago on a hill not so far away, Gabrielle Pollack fell in love. Not with ice cream or cats (though those things are never far from her side) but with storytelling. Since then, she’s been glued to a keyboard and is always in the midst of a writing project, whether a story, blog post, or book. She was a reader before becoming a writer, however, and believes paradise should include thick novels, hot cocoa, a warm fire, and “Do Not Disturb” signs. Her favorite stories include Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn saga and Nadine Brandes’s Out of Time trilogy.
As those who know her will confess, Gabby is a whole lot of weirdness packed into one INFP. Sharp objects, storms, and trees are her friends, along with stubborn characters and, on occasion, actual people. When she’s not writing, she’s shooting arrows through thickets and subsequently missing her target, jamming on the piano, and pushing her cat off her keyboard. She hopes to infuse her fiction with honesty, victory, and hope, and create stories that grip readers from the first page to the last. Her other goals include saving the world and mastering a strange concept called adulthood. You can hang out with her on her quirky blog and Instagram.