Tag Archives: Setting

Using Setting to Establish Character in the First Page

I’ve been working on a multi-POV novel lately, and I’ve had to introduce several new viewpoint characters. I’m discovering that one of my favorite ways to quickly immerse readers in each new character is through the setting.

The great thing about this trick is that your words can do double duty. When you introduce a new viewpoint character (right on the first page of the book, if your book only has one POV), you’re often also introducing a new setting. By showing the setting through the character’s eyes—showing their reactions to it, opinions of it, how it makes them feel—you can create a strong mood through setting while simultaneously revealing things about your character. You can ground your readers quickly and efficiently, right at the start of the book, giving them what they need to orient and immerse themselves.

For instance, let’s say your first scene is on a busy city street. Rather than describing your setting through tired, generic “city bustle” description, or by Googling the particular intersection in the exact city and faithfully noting real world details you could observe there, show us how your character feels about being there. What do they notice? What do they focus on?

A jaded city native heading to work might complain about annoying tourists jamming up sidewalk traffic, avoid a panhandler she sees on the same corner every morning, or weigh the benefits of grabbing a coffee and bagel against the risk of missing her train. She isn’t going to gawk at city landmarks or be overwhelmed by the sights and sounds—but this is a great chance to let us glimpse her routine (before you disrupt it forever, naturally). Is that routine sacred to her, and does she cherish the little fussy details of it, chafing at any disruption? Or is it frustrating, and is she glancing longingly at the planes overhead, wishing she were on her way to Hawaii?

A kid coming to the city for the first time with his parents might see totally different things. He could be focused on not letting his ice cream cone drip as he walks, or stare at bird poop on the arch of a street light, or be riveted by street performers or purse dogs. He might be excited to be in the city, trying to tug ahead of his parents and check everything out; or he might be nervous and overwhelmed, clinging close.

If you’re writing in 1st person or even a close 3rd person POV, you can give us snatches of their internal monologue, too—a character who’s critiquing the fashion choices of passerby is very different than one dreaming of how she’d sketch them, or thinking how easy they would be to kill. A character faced with a closed subway entrance might dither primly, cuss angrily, or accept it as yet another thing gone wrong in their pathetic life with a morose sigh.

Taking a moment to focus on setting can be a great way to establish character, voice, and setting all in a mere paragraph or so. It can vividly ground your reader and pull them into the story, rather than leaving them flailing around looking for handholds (a danger of starting with action or dialogue). You can even weave character goals through the setting, letting it be an obstacle or an aid to what the viewpoint character is trying to accomplish.

It’s worth focusing your character’s lenses on what’s around them on that first page, even if just for a moment. Give your reader a place to stand and let them see who’s standing there with them. Then take off running.

Setting Ain’t Nothing Without Character

A while back, I was writing a scene set in New York, and it was no good. I’d put in all these little details I’d actually seen in New York myself, and I’d used the internet to double check everything I remembered, and made heavy use of Google Maps… but it still didn’t seem like New York. I couldn’t figure out why.

Then it hit me. New York City isn’t just a collection of details—even carefully-chosen, evocative details. It’s a feeling. And that feeling is different from person to person. It’s a completely different place for my brother (who lives there and loves it) than it is for me (who only visits and is a bit of a country mouse). The same street might be vibrant and exciting to one person, overwhelming and intimidating to another, or full of daily nuisance and utility to a third.

What I needed to capture wasn’t some quintessential, factual, accurate New York. I needed to evoke how New York felt to that particular character at that particular time.

Here’s another example. I like fantasy, and one setting piece you see all the time in fantasy is the Market Scene. We’re going to the market, or riding through the market in a new city, and now we must stop and tell you all the sounds, sights, and smells of the market. There will be people, food odors, and nasty odors. There will be garbage and various exciting things to buy (though we’re actually not going to stop and buy them right now). There will be yelling and maybe a scuffle somewhere.

Far too often, all these markets blend together into one generic ur-market, no matter how lovingly the author describes the exotic spices in the air. And that’s because they’re trying to describe the market from some neutral, external perspective.

Nobody just goes to a market and looks around passively and drinks in the sights, right? If you’re trying to pass through because you don’t know the city well enough to avoid a high-traffic area on your way to the castle, you’re not going to be sniffing the air and admiring the colorful costumes, you’re going to be cussing about the crowds. If you’re scared and running from the authorities, you’re going to see everything in terms of hazard or safety: witnesses, cover, distractions. If you’re a little kid, you’re going to fixate on this one marionette at a toy-seller’s booth and not think about anything else until someone drags you away kicking and screaming.

I’ve often heard the excellent writing advice that you should select details to describe based on what your character would notice, since how they see the world tells us a lot about them. The converse is also true: you can only truly show us a place when you show it through the eyes of a character, with all the emotions and associations that character invests in it.