Setting and Characterisation

‘Never underestimate setting. Without it your story will feel like loose boards on a scaffold. It is as important as characterisation, and should be as meticulously developed and full of life.’ – Rio Youers, author of Old Man Scratch. http://www.rioyouers.com/

Writing fiction is like creating different imaginary worlds for your readers to explore. But in order for your readers to buy into the worlds you create, you have to make those worlds as real to them as this one. How do you do that?

By injecting a solid dose of reality.

And how do you inject a solid dose of reality?

By making people and their surrounds as real as possible. If you’re going to set your story in a city like San Francisco, or Cape Town, or Sydney, I would suggest visiting the place. If you haven’t been there how can you take your reader there? You’ve also got to make use of all your readers senses. You’ve got to make them feel, smell, touch, taste, and hear the places you want to take them.

You’ve got to breathe life into your characters. They’ve got to think and feel. Your characters have to be as real as your high school English teacher who said you’d never be a writer or the crazy old lady across the street who’s always wearing curlers in her hair.

No matter what type of fiction you’re writing, your reader should be able to say, “Yes, that could really happen.”

The key to being realistic and credible in your readers mind is your setting and characterisation.

In order for your reader to suspend their disbelief and join you on the journey you want them to take, you have to meet them half way. So … write what you know.

Stephen King lives in Maine, which is why most of his stories are set there, even if he has changed some of the names of the towns. He’s also based a few of the characters in his books on people that he knows. He often uses his uncle.

I set Shadows in Johannesburg, South Africa, because I was living there at the time. I knew the streets and the suburbs. The office block my main character works in, was the same office block I used to work in. I based some of the characters on people I knew. Some were happy about it, others not so much. So if you’re going to base characters on people you know, you should probably ask them first or only borrow certain character traits. I set Requiem in E Sharp in Pretoria, South Africa. It’s my home town and the place I returned to after my divorce. All the suburbs used in the book were suburbs I knew like the back of my hand. The blocks of flats and apartments used were blocks and apartments I’d been inside. I knew how each place smelt and what the walls felt like.

Okay … so you think the ordinary, mundane, and writing what you know is boring, but it’s the ordinary that helps you spring a surprise on the reader. It’s the mundane, every day common places and occurrences that your reader can relate to, that keep him or her believing the story you’re telling.

A believable character in your horror tale is as alive and as unique as anyone we really know in our actual lives. They have to be in order for your reader to care enough about them that they keep reading. Your reader can like or dislike the people you’re telling them about, but they cannot be indifferent to them. Indifference is the kiss of death. If they don’t care they won’t carry on reading. Make them care!

How do you make them care, you ask? Simply by making them seem real. Look around at the people you see in a café or at the movies. Look at the way they do things. Be a bit of a voyeur. How do they speak? What do they do with their hands? What are their idiosyncrasies? What do they care about? What makes them tick? People watching is something that all writers should practice.

Look at the people you know. What makes them different to anybody else? What mannerisms do they have?

Use the observations you’ve made and inject them into your characters. It’s amazing how a simple movement or speech pattern can bring a character to life.

Give your characters a past, a childhood. What are their greatest fears? Do they have loving parents? What are their ambitions? Who are their hero’s? What effect do these things have on them?

Know your characters and your setting. Only by knowing can you make it real for yourself and your readers.

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