Dimensions of Setting

At some point, early on in the creative process, you settle on a setting for your story. Great. You can check that off the list. But is setting more than just a time and place? How important is it to shaping your characters, the plot, types of conflict, or themes of your literary endeavor? Are you overlooking the emotional environment of the story? If you’re unfamiliar with this term it is basically how elements of the setting help to shape and give emotional weight and complexity to your characters. Emotional (sometimes called social environment) also plays into shaping the tone and mood of your work.

Let’s examine this concept by picking a setting: a bedroom.

Make the details you present about your setting count for the story, for the characters, and for your readers. First, we want to give the reader a physical sense of the place without overburdening them with too many unimportant details like how many walls it has (we can assume four) or if the light switch is flipped up or down. Focus instead on giving dimension to the character by making the room feel lived in by the character who inhabits it.

Do certain colors or objects stand out or play an important role, either directly or symbolically? Can we gauge what they value by what they include or fail to include in their room (family pictures, religious icons, art, etc.)? What is the lighting like? Do they have a window? If so what view of the world greets them when they look outside? Has the view/environment shaped them as a person or do they exist to defy their surroundings thanks to their strong personality? Are they connect or cut off from nature or natural elements in this bedroom? What is the temperature or atmosphere (humidity, noises, smells, silence) of the bedroom like? Is their life a jumble like the pile of dirty laundry in the corner or are they so uptight the room feels sterile? Are your characters renovating it, discussing doing so, or does it look the same as it did 40 years ago? What does that say about them and where they’re at as a person or in their relationship? Are they holding on too tight to the past, rushing too quickly into the future, living a balanced and pleasant existence?

The main feature of any bedroom is typically the bed itself and can symbolically be used to represent a host of information about your characters. What comes to mind if I mention the only bed in the room is an infant’s crib that has never been used? How does that empty crib play into the story or how the characters interact with one another because of it?

A bed could be a symbol of passion, romance, fear, peace, sexual independence or confusion, joy, faith, infidelity, escape, imprisonment (if a character is sick, suffering from a disability, or even directly restrained to it) just to name a few. You could switch out one bed for another during the story if say it’s a coming-of-age tale or a person is forced to move because of choices they’ve made (or failed to make) and are forced to move or deal with the absence of another character.

Consider what your bedroom (or house) conveys about you to others. Who interacts in this place? Is this a room that the character shuts themselves off from the world in as they seek solace in isolation, a place where they can truly be themselves, a safe environment that allows them time to reflect or connect with another?

Whether you do so initially or during the editing phase of your story, you should work to make the setting an integral part of adding dimension and complexity to your characters, plot, and themes. Remember that setting is more than just a time and place.