Sounds like an odd combination, doesn’t it? Setting, POV, Backstory and Characterization.
But as has been pointed out here at Magical Words more than once, good writing has to do several things all at once or it’s not pulling its own weight. If all your descriptions do is describe the scenery, then you’re not only missing opportunities, you’re probably boring your reader half to death. And I can say from the standpoint of a reader (and that’s all an editor is: a reader who gets paid for his opinion), there is nothing I will skim over faster than a laundry list of scenery. “The tree was green. The river ran past it. His horse was purple. He was a prince, so he wore fancy clothing. Blah blah blah…” Wake me when it’s over. Or better yet, send a rejection letter and move on to the next one.
However, although setting is often viewed as nothing more than a necessary evil, in the hands of a writer who knows what he or she is doing, it can be blended with POV to reveal backstory and/or characterization in the most insidious (and effective) ways.
“Insidious.” That sounds like fun. Sign me up.
Let’s cut right to the heart of the matter, shall we? POV—the ability writers have to expose what is inside of their characters’ minds: their thoughts and hopes and prayers and perversions—provides a tremendous opportunity to use settings and other visual descriptions as a way of revealing backstory and/or character’s attitudes toward the people and things around them. How? By revealing the character’s reaction to those items.
It opens the door to having your descriptions mean something.
Let’s start with the simplest way to use this: setting and the revelation of a character’s attitudes.
Joe walked down the busy sidewalk. There were a lot of people out that evening, some of them bumping into him because it was so crowded. It was only one week before Christmas and some of the women carried boxes wrapped in pretty paper, while others carried bags. The sidewalk was icy. Joe was a pervert.
Okay, there are the facts, and nothing but the facts. How insanely boring. And a trifle disconcerting. Joe was a pervert? Even if it’s true, talk about coming out of left field. I could add more description, but frankly I was bored with it. None of it meant anything.
But suppose we try it this way:
Joe walked down the crowded sidewalk, eyeing up possible targets from among the multitude of Christmas shoppers. Some of them carried bags, but in his experience those bags were too easily turned into weapons at the slightest provocation. If he was going to pretend to slip on the icy sidewalk and grope a woman on the way down, it was best to go after the ones with boxes. Their hands were too full to do much until he had already grabbed himself a good handful. Heck, if he did it just right, he might be able to use his legs as he fell to trip one of these women and get her to fall on top of him. Then she’d be apologizing for pressing herself up against him instead of screaming bloody murder. Joe liked the sound of that. And the young blonde coming toward him with the oversized hatbox wrapped in emerald green paper looked like just the one to start with.
Joe liked Christmas. It was his favorite time of year.
Is it longer? Of course. Is it more interesting? I sure think so. Are you convinced that Joe is a pervert, even though the word is never used? No question. Are you tired of rhetorical questions yet? Probably.
But look at the way that just about every single descriptive item ties in to something Joe is thinking, planning, or wanting. Used efficiently, scenery can paint a lot of kinds of pictures, both internal and external. That’s what we’re after. It’s like David wrote in his most recent post, when he said: “Vernor’s Law states that as authors we are always trying to do three things: develop character, advance plot, and fill in necessary background information. At any given time in a novel we should be accomplishing at least two, and preferably all three of those objectives simultaneously. If we’re only doing one, our story has stalled.” Blending POV with Setting to reveal character is just one more path (among many) toward accomplishing that.
So there you have it: a quick example of how you can use POV to use setting to reveal the truth about a character’s…, well, character.
Next week I’ll revisit this topic and add in another layer: backstory.
In the mean time, this coming MOnday you can feel free to check out an interview I did for the Six Questions blog (http://sixquestionsfor.blogspot.com/), where Jim Harrington (an editor himself, for Apollo’s Lyre) asks a lot of different kinds of editors—you guessed it—six questions, mainly focusing on why stories get rejected and what it takes to stand out. He posts these interviews quite frequently; mine will go up Monday, February 7th and be current for about 48 hours before he replaces it with a new one. The old interviews are archived though, so you can still find them; it just takes a little digging.