Lauren A. Forry was brought up in the woods of Bucks County, Pennsylvania where her FBI agent father and book-loving mother raised her on a diet of The X-Files and RL Stine. After earning her BA in Cinema Studies from New York University, she spent some time in film production before moving to London where she earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Kingston University. There she was awarded the Faber and Faber Creative Writing MA Prize for her first horror novel, Abigale Hall.
Rebecca wouldn’t be the same without Manderley. Shutter Island wouldn’t possess near as much menace without its dangerous and isolated geography. Harry Potter without Hogwarts? Impossible. Oftentimes, a setting needs to be as much of a character as the people populating it.
Writers have numerous ways to build fully-fledged, three-dimensional characters, but how do we make a setting a character without a constant use of personification?
While writing my debut novel, Abigale Hall, I knew that – in true gothic horror tradition – my imagined estate needed a unique life all its own. Much trial and error ensued but, as I went through draft after draft, three facets emerged as the keys to giving character to my setting.
1) Details. Details. Details.
Picture a café: A woman with long red-painted fingernails yanks a sticky-fingered, pig-tailed girl away from a rack of candy. An acne-scarred teen chews on his thumb as he watches a tall blonde in a yellow sundress twirling her hair as she orders a flat white. A woman in a stained collegiate sweatshirt thumps her head on an open nursing textbook.
All people have their little physical quirks, traits, and mannerisms that make them stand apart. Capturing these details is how a writer makes characters come to life.
The same is true for setting. The more individual details we can give to our settings, the more it becomes a unique, living thing.
Go back to that café and look closer: a dried stain on the hardwood floor in front of the drinks cooler; lines of dust on the windowsills; Sara Bareilles songs playing over the speakers; a slow-moving fan twirling on the ceilings, shuffling a stack of yellow flyers on the counter.
These unique characteristics separate this café from other cafes the reader might have visited. They help to create a strong image of the location these characters inhabit. Creating that image is the first step, but to give the setting more character remember…
2) Like people, every place has a past.
Characters behave the way they do because of what has happened to them in the past. The acne-scarred teen will not say hello to the tall blonde when she offers him a napkin because a beautiful classmate once mocked him in the cafeteria. The tall blonde will smile at him anyway because she had terrible acne once, too, and understands how embarrassing it can be.
Background, along with details, is what fleshes out characters, and it’s our responsibility as writers to give each of them a past. Even though they are born in Chapter 1, they need to feel like they existed before the reader ever opened the book.
The same is true of settings, real or imagined. The past gives character to places as much as it does to people. It’s why a 1000 year-old ruin possesses a different personality than a brand new condo. Because settings cannot react to circumstances the way characters can, giving settings a background relies on revealing details about the place that hint at a history the reader should want to learn.
The bulk of Abigale Hall is set on a fictional estate in 1947 Wales. The manor house is meant to have been constructed in the 1700s, which means I needed to create a house that felt like it contained two and half centuries of history. Scattered throughout the estate are: portraits and oil paintings, cracked and faded with age; boarded windows on the upper floors, some missing a plank or two; a cemetery overgrown with weeds; broken doors; and bloodstains, both old and new.
Each of these details tells the reader something about this emotionally haunted place and helps to create a sense of history. Take that broken door, for example. The reader doesn’t know why it broke, but at some point, something – or someone? – happened that caused a perfectly functioning door to fail. And perhaps more tellingly, the door has never been fixed. Details like this show the reader that this is a place which has suffered damage and neglect for many years and also help create an air of despondency and depression. At least for some, which brings me to my final point…
3) Describe a setting’s personality through how it makes the characters react.
As the woman with the long red fingernails exits the café, she lets the door slam on a man in a wheelchair. The acne-scarred teen shouts, “Hey!” but the woman ignores him. The teen leaves his table to hold the door for the wheelchair-bound man, who smiles and thanks him.
Every action and reaction characters take reveals an aspect of their personality. A setting, however, can do neither. But it can cause reactions in the characters who encounter it. Does an old house evoke nostalgia or hostility? Is there a particular smell or sound that causes a character to feel happiness, or do those smells and sounds elicit fear?
Do various characters react differently to the same place?
To my protagonist, Eliza, a displaced 17-year-old in postwar Britain, the dilapidation of the estate depresses her. She can see its past grandeur but feels the pain of its decline. The condition of the estate, in addition to the strange sounds and smells that haunt the place, compound her feelings into ones of fear and torment. She starts to see the estate as a cancer, eating itself from the outside in, and all that remains alive of the welcome place it once was is Abigale Hall, the main hall of the manor house. Abigale Hall is warm, open and bright with no damp, no destruction. To Eliza, it is a beating heart that allows her to feel comfort in an otherwise dead place.
In contrast, the tireless housekeeper, Mrs. Pollard, adores all of the decaying estate – except for Abigale Hall. She knows every nook and cranny, the history behind every heirloom and broken object. She could tell why that door is broken and why it hasn’t been fixed, but she chooses not to. And she spends as little time within Abigale Hall as possible.
Since the reader is meant to associate with Eliza, we accept that her view of the estate would be more akin to our view. So when we see how Mrs. Pollard reacts differently, it creates unease around the setting. How can we trust a place that is loved by a woman such as that?
Through the reactions of Eliza and Mrs. Pollard, Abigale Hall develops a personality that is all its own.
As with characters, there is always the danger of over-describing a setting or giving too much unnecessary background, but the right balance between all of these aspects can help turn a setting from a sketch into a fully immersive world that speaks to the reader as much as the characters.
Black and White Publishing
Published April 20, 2016
Photo © Mike Allebach