Settings That Reveal The Emotional Lives Of Characters

Can you think of a novel or short story that describes its setting in ways that seem to you, as reader or writer, to reflect the emotions of its point-of-view character? For some writers this happens without planning or forethought. They discover the setting and the emotions it evokes in the POV character in much the same way they find the story trail itself: by following their noses. The result is an intimate connection between the character and his environment that is difficult to describe. When it happens to me, it feels like magic.

I will try to illustrate this connection with an example from my own work because I know something about what happens inside me as I write. In Boundaries, my novel about a lawyer and a client in a child custody case, much of the story takes place close to the Pacific Ocean on California’s Northcoast. There are scenes that take place on the beach, in nearby dunes, on bluffs high above the ocean, and on the gauzy edge of fog induced by the collision of cool, moist ocean air and hot, dry inland air. Without knowing it until late in the first draft, my placing the story on the boundary between continent and ocean was significant: I discovered that I was exploring the way people push against important boundaries in their lives – personal inhibitions they may need to cross in order to grow and ethical/moral requirements they are expected to honor but feel driven to violate. Regarding the latter, I suppose I am challenging my readers to reach for compassion that may not be easily forthcoming given the nature of the transgressions.

Describing Boundaries’ “found” settings unwittingly became one of the ways I explored my two POV characters’ inner lives. Ben Snow, the lawyer and a solitary soul, lives along an isolated stretch of road one pasture and a low rise of dunes away from a mostly empty stretch of beach. Sydney Bouquet, the client from another place and a woman of great fortitude in the face of a dramatic challenge, learns to appreciate him in part by becoming acquainted with where he lives and how he lives there. The reader learns about Sydney’s inner struggles when I take the story to her home in a small southern town. The settings reveal the moods and deepest aspects of my POV characters’ natures.

I could mention other stories in which the writing reveals the connection between setting and character, but I’d rather hear from you. What have you read or written that illustrates this connection?

In the meantime, in future posts I may include selections of Boundaries’ settings to illustrate my point and engage you in conversation.

2 thoughts on “Settings That Reveal The Emotional Lives Of Characters

  1. I say let emotions run free, like coyotes, go where they want to go and do what they want to do. Trying to drag them on a leash to wherever the writer wants to set them is unnatural. If I attempt to control every aspect of a story it turns out flat, lifeless. I’m willing to rely on happy accidents for most of what I write. I create oddball characters and then turn them lose on the page. I’m not skilled enough to create settings that mirror my character’s emotions, I let them tell me where they want to shoot craps or shine a light, I’m not smart enough to know all that. I am smart enough to let them lead me where they want to play, smart enough to know that when it works it’s Something Outside of my mind that weaves it together. So, yes when it works it’s wizardry, like Steinbeck’s Cannery Row in which Doc’s marine lab has a rattlesnake it it. It doesn’t matter that rattelsnakes are not aquatic, it’s there to reflect Doc’s burried venom. I bet Steinbeck didn’t start writing Cannery Row with a list of sea creatures to include in the lab. And I bet that when the rattlesnake slithered in Steinbeck grinned and said “thanks” to the writing gods. The happy accidents are a big reason why I write, to connect with Something Outside.


    • Great example from Steinbeck, Bob. I agree that he wouldn’t have had a list of sea creatures in mind, but I wouldn’t be surprised if including a rattlesnake in a marine lab in Cannery Row was a tongue-in-cheek choice rather than a lucky accident of following his nose down a story trail. We will never know. I really believe that the “Something Outside of your mind” that weaves your stories together can include the magic of finding your characters’ emotions in setting. Like you, I’m not smart enough to conceptualize that possibility and then pursue it deliberately. When it happens it’s strictly “nose to the ground,” and that’s the time when that Something Outside is probably guiding me. The happy accidents are the delight of writing.


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