Making setting an extension of character development

Authors have a tendency to prefer focusing on character and/or plot at the expense of setting/world-building. (The exception is some SFF writers, who focus on setting and forget about plot and character.)

So as editors we will often call that out and say something like, “Add a little description here. Otherwise it’s like Miles and Jeanette are interacting on a cloud.”

As result, the author tries! They really do. They end up with clunky descriptions like:

The kitchen was large. It was about fifteen feet by fifteen feet. It had a big island in the middle made out of oak with a big stainless steel sink in the middle of it. There was a stainless steel refrigerator in the corner. The countertops were granite and matched the flooring. The faucet was the kind that could accommodate a pasta pot. The backsplash was the same color as the floor tile.

I don’t know about you but I don’t think there’s much in this description that isn’t conveyed by the words “the kitchen.”

One way to improve upon this is to encourage the author to treat the description not as if they were describing what they see in a photograph but as the character moves through the setting:

Jeanette walked into the kitchen. At the island on the other side of the cavernous space, Miles was filling a pasta pot with water. Her heels tapped across the granite floor as she walked over to the refrigerator in the corner and opened the door.

This is not genius writing but it is at least better: there is a feel of movement in the scene and the setting isn’t just a painted backdrop. The characters are in it.

But it’s even better is when you can help the author see how to treat setting as an extension of character development. Show the kitchen from Jeanette’s viewpoint. Let it all be filtered through who she is as a character:

Jeanette walked into the kitchen, a monument to Miles’s obsession with keeping up with the Joneses. Only it wasn’t the Joneses who lived next door, it was Gordon Ramsay. Miles wasn’t just filling a pasta pot at the sink, he was filling it from a $3,000 faucet specially designed for filling pasta pots. The stone flooring her heels tapped against wasn’t granite, it was Italian marble. The refrigerator she was opening in search of a Diet Coke wasn’t just a stainless steel refrigerator, it was a Sub-Zero. She popped the top on the Diet Coke can and leaned an elbow against the counter (Vetrazzo glass).

Now the setting isn’t just about describing a kitchen, it’s about describing a character – or, in fact, two characters, both Miles and Jeanette.

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