Places are shaped by the people who inhabit them. This is especially true for places where your characters frequent, or where they have permanently moved in. Well developed settings are good for more than just physical grounding. Knowing the state of their surroundings and how their presence has altered the space allows you to develop your characters and setting at the same time.

It’s not messy. It’s “lived in.”

People move into places. They hang things on the walls, organize things, break things, paint things, replace things, and leave things behind when they go. Much like real life, he owner’s status and financial means also dictate the kind of objects that they have in their home, as does their personal taste. As such, using setting is solid way to subtly establish bits of back story or subtext without spelling anything out.

An excellent example of this appears, surprisingly, in Twilight. Bella notes early on that Charlie still has pictures of his ex-wife in the house. From this, the reader can infer that: 1. He did not instigate the divorce 2. He has not recovered from the divorce and still loves his ex-wife 3. He has not dated anyone else. Otherwise the photos wouldn’t be out.

I’ve always been poor. It’s part of my tragic past.

The link between setting and character sounds like common sense, but it’s frequently overlooked. For this reason, one of the hallmarks of a Mary Sue is their ability to throw around money in spite of having no income. A character from a poor family with no job is unlikely to drive a Ferrari unless there is a damn good story about where the car came from. Consider what your character feasibly can and cannot have as well as what they would choose to surround themselves with, or what they keep around for the sake of others.

Places are also shaped by the things that have happened there. The site of a massive battle is not going to look the same as the site of a picnic (although the are not mutually exclusive). Let your setting show its history. This extends to the way that characters treat the setting. In real life, people tend to treat the sites of disasters with a mix of fascination and fear. Here is a really interesting article about houses where heinous crimes have taken place after the fact that touches on the way that traumatic events can scar a location.

Some questions to ask yourself when developing settings:

  • Who owns the place? Who spends the most time there?
  • How the owners/tenants maintain it (is it clean, messy, grimy, organized?)
  • What is hanging on the walls? What has been left out? Who decorated the place and how?
  • Are there any unusual personal artifacts? Is there anything out of the ordinary?
  • If anything is out of the ordinary, who does it belong to and how did it get there?
  • Has anything notable happened in this setting? Has it been repaired/cleaned since
  • How does each character feel about the location?
There’s a bike graveyard two blocks from Zoe’s apartment. She’s such a slob.

Writing like a boss: It’s worth noting that transitive spaces are much different from permanent ones in this regard. Transitive spaces are places like stairwells, airports, and elevators. People pass through them frequently but don’t spend much time actually inhabiting them. They don’t belong to anyone in particular, and any markings tend to be divorced from individuals. For example, when you see an underpass that’s covered in graffiti and filled with litter, most people attribute this to the state of the city rather than to any specific individual who might have passed through. As such, transitive spaces tend to lend themselves to establishing a sense of the broader setting (clean, gritty, whimsical, mysterious) because they lack associations with particular people.

Photos courtesy of Morguefile.