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If Walls Could Talk...
Using setting to talk about your characters
Apologies for the late post! It’s not Wednesday afternoon here any more, but I hope it’s still close wherever you are.
We’ve been talking about setting the scene in stories. So far, we’ve established three things: setting is important, setting can help tell the story (not just serve as background), and setting much easier to do when you describe things with colors, shapes, and sounds.
Here’s another thought: setting can help tell secrets about your characters.
Every creature has a habitat, right? Polar bears, for example. What do we know about them? Likes snow, icebergs, things that are generally cold. Can swim, likes seals. If you were to erase the polar bear from the picture, and explain all of the surrounding things that polar bears like, it would be relatively easy for someone to guess that you might be talking about a polar bear.
Or they might guess another Arctic animal, but they’d be close. A few more hints, and they’d get it.
It’s the same describing characters in a book. Let’s imagine, for a second, a couple in a standard romantic comedy. They probably hate each other to begin with, swearing that they’ll never spend another minute in the other person’s company even though we all know that changes by the end of the book. In some rom-coms, they’re completely opposite personalities: he’s neat as a pin, she’s a disaster, he’s quiet, she’s loud, he likes staying home and reading books, she likes parties and nightclubs. During the book, you’ll discover a lot about the characters based on their words and actions. But you’ll also hear about it through their settings.
People surround themselves with environments that they like. Readers choose books. Knitters keep bins of yarn. Woodworkers have walls of lumber. If one character likes things neat and tidy, his room reflects that. If another enjoys a certain amount of chaos, it’s there, buried under piles of clothes with that phone charger she lost last weekend. The little trinkets and things on display - photos on the walls, souvenirs from trips, graduation certificates, little statues of mothers holding children - tell stories of themselves. Why this item? Why on display? Is it a gift from a beloved mentor or sibling? An achievement that your character is proud of? Or is it a piece of someplace they want to go visit, or a hint of the person they want to be one day?
When working these into your stories, don’t feel like you have to tell their life’s work by the adornments on their mantle. But if you can use them to push your story in a certain direction. Family photos talk about their past or present. Certificates make them seem accomplished. Rows of empty beer cans and bottles imply loneliness, and possibly an addiction. And an empty mantle with a layer of dust may tell the saddest stories of all.
In the story below, I tried to use the room - this seedy little cafe - to talk about my characters. What they like, what they hate. Things that could have come up in conversation, but why use that when the room will do?
How do you use setting in your stories? What’s your secret method for building the scene, and how do you use it to further your story along?
In the Cafe
The clock on the wall ticks too slowly. Maybe the batteries need to be changed. Maybe it's just tired. Or maybe I just want to get the hell out of here, and I'm blaming the clock for being slow when I'm really going too fast.
My spoon taps on the table incessantly. I can see in her eyes how annoyed this makes her, but she says nothing. Her lips tighten and she gives me the fake smile she reserves for visiting professors and VIP dignitaries. I've never been on the receiving end before, but somehow it feels different than normal. Like she's indulging me. Not like I'm special.
"So this... is what you wanted?"
Her voice curves up at the end, questioning. In disbelief or fascination or nothing, I can't tell. But I do recognize the twitch in her left eye. She only gets it when she's frustrated, at the end of her rope. She wants to yell, wants to demand what we're doing here, why I've run away, why I chose this lackluster hole-in-the-wall place over her diamond-crusted summer home. She probably thinks I'm making some kind of statement, but I'm not. Not like that, anyway.
I take my time in answering, glancing at the walls before I speak. They're covered in framed pictures, ratty old promotional posters, signed headshots of celebrities that needed to take a leak on their way by. Old advertisements for castor oil, hand drawings of strangers in line, overblown political cartoons of slicked-back hair and oversized suits blabbering about policies. Dust blows lazily off the top of the fan that circles over our heads. I hope some of it lands in her coffee.
She hasn't touched it, of course. It tastes burned and they don't offer cream, because they don't have anything that refrigerates here. No overuse of electricity. Light normally streams in through the windows, but today they're covered to discourage bugs. It's hot enough that my shirt sticks to my back, and I'll probably leave a butt-shaped sweat mark when I get up. But nobody in here cares. They're all used to it. Like ornaments on the wall, they come here every day. Fixtures, just like the pictures.
My eyes flit back to the older woman sitting before me. Her perfectly white suit has brown dirt smudges on it, which brings me satisfaction. Her wide-brimmed hat, which would have been perfect outdoors, takes up too much space inside and she had to take it off, revealing professionally styled hair. Drops of sweat gather beside her nose and in the creases of her eyes, and if she knew, she'd be horrified. This place means nothing to her, is nothing to her. Which only makes it more important to me.
"Yep." I nod. "This is it."
She looks around, too, no doubt noting the pair of men in the corner that openly stare at us, the bartender-slash-barista who ignores everybody, the cash register and tip jar stuffed with bills. No music blares over the stereo behind the counter, and the silence is thick and chewy. I would imagine that it tastes like revenge.
"This is your petty little move, then. You're angry at me, so you move here."
I shrug. "You’re here, too."
Her lip curls. "Not by choice."
"I didn't call."
We lob these short sentences back and forth like tennis balls. She hates me, I know she does. What she didn't realize is how much I hate her, too.
"Your father called."
"He wants you home."
"Tell him thanks, but no thanks."
She tries to murder me with her eyes. I appreciate the effort.
I snort. "He sent you?"
This time her lips press together even harder. The skin around her mouth turns white. "He thought I could-"
"Change my mind? Are you serious?" I interrupt, completely throwing off our little volley of arrows made of words. "Why the hell would that work?"
"I am your mother."
I sit back again. This time my skin sticks to my shirt, and my shirt sticks to the chair. There's nothing about this place that draws me to it, nothing to keep me here. No driving, romantic urge to live amongst the poverty dwellers and pretend I'm discovering myself. No, I'm here because I don't want to be there. In their mansion with their grounds and gardens, with their staff, with their fake smiles and false laughs and "you really ought to get to know their son, he's really a nice boy when he's not drinking".
That place - with its gilded gold everything, with parties and conversations and politically-minded aspirations - that's not where I belong. Even here, with its dust and dirt and cartoons and poorly-scrawled bathroom messages, is more real than they are.
And nothing's going to change my mind.
Especially not her.
"Not any more," I say.
She flinches, like her words hurt. Like she didn't spend too many hours at work and come home drained, no energy left to play with her only child. Like she didn't dress me up like a doll to parade in front of her friends and abandon me when I talked too much. Like she didn't foist me on some poor woman's family in an attempt to strike up a match that would benefit both of the family companies.
But she doesn't answer. She doesn't say a word, doesn't touch her coffee. Brushes the dust off the shoulders of her nearly-spotless suit when she stands to her feet. Doesn't say goodbye when she leaves.
I sit alone for a long time. Eventually I finish my coffee, then take hers, too.
In the corner, the clock keeps ticking. Someone must have given it new batteries, because it sounds like it's finally on time again.
(Photo by Vlada Karpovich, Pexels)