Friday, August 1, 2008

Setting As Character

I'm delighted to welcome Allison Chase to Title Magic today. Under the name of Lisa Manuel, she's written four wonderful historical romances. This time she's added a touch of paranormal to her story and set Dark Obsession (what a fantastic bookcover!), the first book in her new Blackheath Moor series, in a place dear to my heart! Read on for her insights on how to use setting as character.

I LOVE setting, to the point that often I’ll pick up a book based primarily on where and when it’s set. The richer and more detailed the setting, the better.

Which is NOT to say that setting should ever bog a story down. On the contrary, setting details should always help move the story forward by increasing tension, mirroring conflict, establishing mood and tone, and “interacting” with the characters both emotionally and physically. Your setting should be as alive as your characters.

For example, I recently read two paranormal romances, both set New Orleans, which is without a doubt one of the most atmospheric cities in the world. Think of the French Quarter with its courtyards, balconies and alleys, its foggy nights, its history and traditions. As a setting, it’s seductive and edgy, sultry and dangerous, and once the reader is drawn in, it isn’t much of a stretch to believe that sexy vampires or demon lovers might be lurking in the shadows.

For the setting of my Blackheath Moor books, I chose 19th century Cornwall for its rugged, windswept, isolated countryside, along with a history rich in pirate tales and ancient magic. Where better to set ghost stories? During the course of the plot, my characters’ conflicts and emotional turmoil are mirrored by the wild landscape and stormy weather. Like them, the setting is in a constant state of change and sometimes becomes downright villainous, thwarting their intentions, or frightening and confusing them.

In creating the “character” of your setting, the first step of course is to decide what kind of setting best reflects the tone of your story. For a romantic suspense, you might choose a slick, urban location like Miami, London or New York; for homey, family-oriented stories, the South or Midwest; for romantic comedy, maybe a fun, sunny setting, like in one of my favorite movies, Fifty First Dates, which is set in Hawaii.

After becoming intimate with your setting by either visiting there, if you’re lucky enough, or through the wealth of information to be found in books, the internet, and even through acquaintances, the next step is to begin your world building. This can seem a little daunting, but I like to refer to what I call “The Matrix Method.”

In the movie, when Neo first enters the Matrix, there’s nothing but white emptiness, two chairs and a TV. Not very realistic, and Neo’s sense of awkwardness is apparent. Little by little, details are layered in until Neo finds himself walking down a crowded city street, beguiled by “the woman in the red dress.” At that point, setting begins “interacting” with Neo, affecting his thinking and behavior; the Matrix felt very real to him, very much alive, and he experiences an emotional reaction to it. In a similar way, you can begin with the basics of your setting in your first draft, layering in details as you revise and rewrite, always keeping in mind the five senses and emphasizing the details that will enhance the action and emotional impact of any particular scene. That way, your setting will come alive for your characters, and for your readers.

For more information on Allison and her books, please visit


Anitra Lynn McLeod said...

Welcome to Title Magic, Allison! When I started thinking about setting I immediately thought of Snoopy writing, "It was a dark and stormy night." :)

I've read a few novels where the setting was so vivid it was like another character. Sometimes I will deliberately make my setting contrary to my character's inner turmoil--as if the setting snubs them in some way.

Thanks again for joining us and sharing that gorgeous cover! ;)

Lexie O'Neill said...

Thank you for blogging with us, Allison!
I, too, love setting--it's integral to a story to me. Not "normal" or expected places, but out of the way places. So, the
reader gets to know the place as
another character.
Sometimes, I think authors assume we all know the place as
well as we do--many of us, for
example, haven't been to New York.
(Okay, I've been there once over
a weekend, but many people I know
haven't been at all:)
Thanks again!

Savanna Kougar said...

Allison, excellent blog about setting. Thank you.
You're so right about setting being another character because the 'world' can thwart or aid the main characters, or even determine what can and ca't be accomplished.
I luv how the heroine and hero related to or interact directly with the setting, or their environment.

Anitra, I hadn't thought of it that way, but definitely true about how setting in direct opposition can snub or be a foil for the character's inner turmoil.

Lexie, good point. I think sometimes setting is taken for granted. No, not all of us live or know New York.

Aleka Nakis said...


I agree. I love to see the setting intensify the story.
CW and ghosts??? Absolutely.
Your use of setting in your books is fantastic, and I so enjoy reading them.

Thanks for sharing with us.

Bonnie Vanak said...

Hi Allison, great interview! Your books sound wonderful. And I love your cover!

Allison Chase said...

Thanks Anitra, Lexie, Savanna, Aleka and Bonnie for your comments! And thank you Helen and everyone at Title Magic for having me yesterday! Hugs to you all,