Enliven Your Story’s Descriptions by Infusing Them with Character

August 27, 2018

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.

 

Priorities

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.

 

Mood

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.

 

Backstory

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.

19 Comments

  1. Jenna Terese

    Wow. This helped me SO much! Thank you!!! 😀

    Reply
  2. Serenity

    This is so good! I have been struggling with the POVs for my settings for a while now, and I always seem to end up info-dumping rather than expressing with pertinence to the characters. Thanks Gabrielle! I can’t wait to put this to use!

    Reply
    • Gabrielle Pollack

      😀 I’m glad you liked it. Thanks for giving it a read!

  3. F.C. Tait

    This is great! Description is my main weakness in writing, so I found this very helpful. Thanks!

    Reply
    • Gabrielle Pollack

      Thank you so much for your kind comment! I’m happy the article helped you a bit. 🙂

  4. Kendra Lynne

    Wow, great post! These are needed tips.

    Reply
  5. Brandon Miller

    This is really, really well put. Succinct and clear. Sharing with my guild.

    Reply
  6. Gabrielle Pollack

    I feel honored that my article has made it into your guild.

    Reply
  7. Rachel Rogers

    Fabulous tips! And your examples are great. Two thumbs up!

    Reply
  8. Julia

    Just now catching up on some SE articles and I loved this one! You did a great job explaining this concept in a simple, easy-to-understand way. Great job! I look forward to paying more attention to character-infused descriptions as I write.

    Reply
    • Gabrielle Pollack

      Yay! 😀 I’m glad you liked it. 🙂

  9. Loki

    Oh my goodness, this article is amazing!
    I have a few friends who just got interested in writing. Their books are interesting, engaging, and also consist mainly out of info dumps.
    I knew that I could help them somehow because I’ve pushed past info dumping in my own stories, but I could never find a good way to explain how to avoid it until now.
    Thanks so much! You’ve helped both me and my friends!

    Reply
    • Loki

      *Avoid Info dumps*

    • Gabrielle Pollack

      That’s awesome! I’m glad it helped you guys. 🙂

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