Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Setting Is Character

by Corrina Lawson

Setting is character.

That was the advice given to me by award-winning Young Adult author Robin LaFevers years ago when I was struggling with describing the world my characters inhabited. I wanted to write dialogue, not focus on the room everyone was standing in. But I was going about it all wrong. The room isn't important because the character is standing in it. The room is important because of how the character perceives it.

Take St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City. A New York City native Irish Catholic priest is going to walk into the church with a completely different mindset than a California native dedicated to New Age ideals. It's not the Cathedral that's important, it's how each one reacts to the Cathedral.

Once I learned this lesson, description came much easier for me, as it was part of how my character viewed the world.

World-building is just a bigger extension of this idea. It's part of the character's voice and how they see the world. And if the writer lacks a strong idea of the world, the characters are going to be moving through indistinct mush. That's true if the setting is contemporary New York City or a far-flung space station or Regency England or, as in the case of my latest novel, The Curse of the Brimstone Contract, an alternate world Victorian London.

Take the two characters above. The New York City of each one is going to be a far different. I just finished a fantastic mystery, Invisible City by Julia Dahl, in which an inexperience reporter investigated the murder of a Hasidic Jew. The reporter's mother was a member of this community and fled back to it after her daughter's birth. What the reader experiences is a layered, complex section of New York City from an outsider's point of view. And, even more, the writer also creates a unique newsroom setting for when the reporter goes to work. All of that is necessary worldbuilding, even though the setting is contemporary.

And I think world-building is more than getting details of the setting right. It's sometimes making the oddities of the setting seem absolutely commonplace to the character who inhabit it. In Linnea Sinclair's Dock Five series, often the characters use slang for items in their world, a slang that isn't always explained. Sinclair also adds in weapons with unique names, each with a slightly different purpose. The characters don't carry laser or energy weapons, they have "boring" Surgers or Norlack 473 snipers, modified to handle wide load slash ammo. I'm not quite sure what slash ammo is myself but the characters are damn sure what it is, and that's what is important.

That deep-worlding is still something I'm learning myself. I spent a great deal of time immersing myself in a handbook written in the Victorian Age for Jewish women, particularly the parts with cooking and sewing. For some reason, I had decided to make a seamstress my heroine and yet, my only experience with sewing is a class in high school and hemming pants. So I spent much time talking with those who create clothes and found that process had some similarities to creative writing and found my way in. But Joan Krieger's profession isn't just important as her job, it's important as the way she views the world. She's a merchant, so that puts her at one class level. She's among beautiful things that she can seldom afford to have her herself. She's independent and capable of running her own business but also at the mercy of clients who consider her beneath them. And then there was another layer, and that's magic in her world, and I used Sinclair as a guide for how the people in this world would talk about magic. They'd have special words for it, they'd have slang for certain elements of it, and there would be people who would understand but also misunderstand it.

World building done right is what makes readers want to live in the world. Batman is just a guy dressed up as a Bat hitting people without Gotham. Elves are just generic Elves unless you place them into somewhere like Middle Earth and give them a rich history and culture. Without a revolution fueled by magic and steam, Joan exist in our Victorian London and wouldn't be the person she becomes. And the Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson of the BBC's Sherlock aren't quite the same in the modern day as they were in Conan Doyle's original stories.

I'd even flip on Robin's original statement. Setting is character but character is setting as well.

Invisible City

Robin LaFevers' Amazon page


Carrina Lawson's new release, The Curse of the Brimstone Contract.

Corrina Lawson's Amazon page


  1. i like this blog - sci fi and romance is a good combination!

    world-building is incredibly time-consuming. i research a ton and write down backgrounds that no one ever sees, but it needs to be done, because the characters have to have them and i need to know why they are who they are.

    great post =)

  2. I really enjoyed your post. You explained quite well the role of setting which I as the reader just take in stride as a gobble up the story. My focus is on the characters and the plot, but the setting is vital to both.

    Great job on your new book too! Can't wait for more stories with those characters!

  3. Corrina, great post. Thank you for taking the time to share part of your process for creating books.

  4. Awesome post, and something every writer needs to read - if only to spare me from having to skim over overly grandiose descriptive passages that don't reveal anything about the character or story (argh!). I don't care about the colour of the curtains or the painting on the wall, but I do care about why she's looking at it and how it makes her feel.



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