Setting, POV, Backstory and Characterization: Part One

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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.

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18 comments to Setting, POV, Backstory and Characterization: Part One

  • Tom G

    Mmmm, he thought as he scratch his three day old beard while reading. Why did Eddie S-man write this, knowing I’d be reading it. Was this a dig?

    He glanced around. Where’s the dictionary? Oh, under all that dust. I don’t kned it anyway. Besides, that Jane Yellowrock girl is still eyeing me from the Mercy Blade cover. I think she likes me, but the knife kinda worries me. I could be wrong.

    Best to be safe.

    Hey Edward, great post.

  • Yes, Edmund has been spying through your window, watching you as you type. It’s slightly less creepy than Faith’s muse and his thong and pasties, but only slightly.

  • Lance Barron

    The rider sat the stallion as though born to the saddle. The neutral-colored horse and the elven cloak of the rider shifted in and out of view. All save his head. The rider laughed and his eyes twinkled. On cue, the horse reared, and the rider waved the brilliant sword “rewrite” over his head. He rode away leaving a storm of multicolored rejection letters swirling in his wake like fresh-fallen leaves in a forest of maples.

  • This is helpful stuff, Edmund, and yes, very much in keeping with what I posted about last week and will post about again on Monday. Once again, the word that comes to mind for me is “synergy.” Character, description, narrative, backstory — it all works best when it works together.

    I should add, Joe is one creepy guy….

  • Are you tired of rhetorical questions yet? Probably. *snicker*

    Entertaining and enlightening. Thanks, Ed. I’ll make sure my next sub to IGMS uses none of what I learned here today. kidding.

    Cheers,
    NGD

  • Lance — Be careful with that sword; it is a double-edged terror.

    David — “Synergy” is the magic word. It’s one of the things that makes this site so special, too.

    NGD — Please do feel free to leave these things out. It makes the slush-reading go by so much faster. If you know what I mean… 😉

  • Edmund, thanks for a great post with specifics on how to write effectively. Description is one of my weaker areas, but I think your bottom line is to turn description into action. (Sounds like a certain guideline about active vs. passive voice…) Vernor’s Law is also a useful one to keep in mind. I’m adding both of these concepts to my back-of-head file drawer to use while writing and to my growing list of things to pay attention to when editing.

  • Edmund, darlin’, have you been chatting up my muse? I mean …

    Insidious … That sounds like fun … expose what is inside … perversions … opportunity to use … revealing … pervert…

    I am laughing and Muse Man is grinning ear to ear.

    Kidding aside — Great post. It reminds us to multitask as we write. Reading mysteries, especially police proceedurals can bore me to death, when a writer takes the *cop voice* too much to heart and forgets to mix it up, as in:

    He was white, brown and blue, six even, slender, and walked with a limp.
    She was AA, bottle blond and green contacts, five-two, plump, and had bloody hands.

    My goodness. Mystery writers are supposed to be inventive.

    Stay away from Muse Man. He’s mine. And he already has David interested.
    😀

  • Razziecat

    This is the best explanation of combining POV and setting that I’ve ever seen. Creepy, but useful! 🙂 I’m going to re-read some of my stuff to see where I can improve.

  • Alexander – There are a lot of things to keep in mind, eh? David hit the nail on the head when he said it’s all about synergy. Bringing all these elements TOGETHER is what makes them work.

    Faith – Chatting up your muse? We’ve been in the back room doing shots!

    Razzie – Remember to use your new-found powers for good and not evil.

  • Nicely imagined, Ed. I know it’s just imagined rather than experienced because the charges were all dropped, right?

    Kidding. Great post.

  • AJ – All the witnesses mysteriously disappeared. Rumor has it they were edited right out of existence.

  • Young_Writer

    He does sound creepy… Anyways, thank you this was very informational. We were talking about characters at a writing course I went to this afternoon. By the way, the examples helped a lot.

  • I agree with you about the value of examples, YW. I always understand something better when someone shows it to me in action as opposed to just describing it.

  • Sarah

    You are going to finish that story, right? RIGHT?! I need narrative closure dammit!

    Oh, um, sorry. Yes, that was a great post. I shall put it to work as best I can. Ironically, I just spent a week teaching Yasunari’s novela Snow Country in which the landscape does all the emotional work that the protagonist can’t, while I spent most of my writing time wrestling with trying to signal the symbolism of location in my own WIP without actually typing, “it’s liminal space people! And very Nordic!” so I needed this. Thank you!

  • Yeah, thanks a lot. Muse Man wandered home after midnight, drunk and stinking of tequila and Jell-O. He *woke me up*, claiming he wanted to WRITE! In the middle of the night!
    I told him no and he promptly fell asleep, snoring. I bet you both have headaches today. 😀
    (Sorry. Couldn’t resist.)

  • Mikaela

    Your blog prompted me to a brief snapshot from the draft I am revising, on my blog. I figured I might as well post it here too 🙂 ( Not perfect, but much better!)

    Before:

    She jumped when the sound of a bell echoed through the apartment. Kate stared at the door for a moment. Razael must have forgotten something, she thought and went to open the door. Kate’s jaw dropped in surprise when she saw the short scarred being that stood there.

    After:
    The sound of a bell chimed through the apartment. Kate froze. She didn’t expect anyone. She was trapped in a web of indecision. Common sense told her to not open the door, but her upbringing insisted that it was rude to keep someone waiting. Maybe Razael forgot something. Kate scanned the hall, but the walls and floor were bare. The door bell chimed again. I can’t let whoever it is stand there. Before she could change her mind, Kate opened the door.The being that stood there looked like a winged lizard walking on two legs. A scar slashed across his left cheek. His scaled skin were the same color as the cliffs of Grand canyon. A large earthen pot were in his hands.

  • mudepoz

    I love this. No clue how to do it, but that makes a writer a writer, and a reader a reader. Someone has to buy your books:)