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June 8, 2021

Characters & Settings: Making Them Interact

Apple on books with text: Deepen Your Craft with Resident Writing Coach Jami Gold (at Writers Helping Writers)

It’s time for another one of my guest posts over at Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s Writers Helping Writers site. As one of their Resident Writing Coaches, I’ve previously shared:

With this turn for another coaching article at WHW, I’m digging into another aspect of our story’s setting. How can we make it feel like our characters are truly living in their surroundings? Let’s take a look…

The Difference Between Characters Floating and Living in the Setting

Have you ever heard the phrase “talking heads” when it comes to complaints about the writing of a story? The idea is that if our characters don’t interact with their surroundings, they seem more like body-less voices floating through empty space.

Many readers enjoy creating a “movie in their mind” as they read, as it help immerse them in the story. To create that mental movie, readers need contextual information about our characters and the setting.

  • Are our characters inside or outside?
  • Are they standing or sitting?
  • If they’re sitting, what are they sitting on?
  • If they’re outside, what’s the weather like?
  • If they’re inside, what’s the room like?
  • And so on…

We don’t need to give readers every detail (that would make for boring reading), but some basics, like what’s listed above, are essential. In addition, a few key details can make the difference between the sensation of our characters’ floating in a generic “outside” versus the feeling that our characters actually live in the space around them:

As they approached their front door, her son asked, “Mommy, we’re home now, but Daddy isn’t with us. Is he ever going to come home?”
She pondered how to answer her son’s question, but couldn’t come up with right response.

Versus…

As they approached their front door, her son asked, “Mommy, we’re home now, but Daddy isn’t with us. Is he ever going to come home?”
She crouched by the sidewalk’s flower border and pondered how to answer her son’s question, pulling a weed for each rejected response.

How Do We Create that Difference?

In both of those examples above, readers know the characters are on their way to the front door of their home. However, in the second example, the mother interacts with the surroundings.

How can we make our characters *live* in our settings and not just feel like talking heads floating in an empty space? Click To Tweet

Interaction helps anchor our characters in their surroundings—whether we choose details like the characters crossing their front lawn from the driveway or those of the garden here. Either way, we know they’re approaching the front door of a house rather than an interior door of an apartment building.

In turn, that anchoring helps ground readers as well. They have more to hook their imaginations to than just an empty space or a generic “outside.”

The more our characters interact with their surroundings, the more they seem like real people—and the more our settings feel like real places too. Interactions can come from things they touch (push/pull, open/close, climb, sit, eat/drink, etc.), things that touch them (rain, wind, other characters or animals, etc.), things that affect them beyond touch (smells, sounds, sights, tastes, etc.), and so on.

Find a Good Balance

However, just as with everything writing, we have to find a balance. It’s possible to overdo interactions if we’re including too many details.

We don’t want to overwrite along the lines of:

She pulled the faucet handle toward her until the water flowed heavily enough to wet the washcloth. She bend forward over the sink and scrubbed at her face with the cloth. Then she pushed the faucet handle away from her and ensured the water flow had stopped.

Readers know how to imagine someone washing their face without reading the play-by-play details. *grin* That level of overwriting would be boring to read and yank our story’s pace to a standstill.

Instead, we want to include details that are meaningful, that are going to add to a reader’s understanding of our story and characters. How can we know which details are meaningful? That’s what my guest post is all about…

Writers Helping Writers: Resident Writing Coach Program

Nods, Smiles, and Frowns: How Can We Avoid “Talking Heads”…and Cliches?

How can we include details that fix the “talking head” problem and that add meaning to our story? Come join me at WHW above, where I’m sharing:

  • 2 common ways writers try to fix the problem
  • why those common fixes might not help
  • 7 examples of meaningful details
  • 2 ways to brainstorm character/setting interactions
  • an example of how to make random details meaningful

Have you encountered the “talking head” problem in stories you’ve read? Have you gotten feedback along those lines for your own writing? Does it make sense how a character’s interactions with their surroundings can help ground readers and their imagination? Can you think of other benefits (or concerns) with character/setting interactions? Do you have any questions about this topic? (My WHW posts are limited in word count, but I’m happy to go deeper here if anyone wants more info. *smile*)

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Kevin Kind Songs
Kevin Kind Songs

Here’s what I am being “nudged” to do: write from the “inside-out,” not the “outside-in.”; tell stories of folks who voices are not heard, that I have 1st hand experience with, ignore the solipsism of my voice; look for aesthetic beauty and common humanity – very unpopular, now; share new knowledge and science, esp brain science.

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

Thanks, Jami!

Lynne

Excellent article and advice! I think this can be the kind of thing that begins well in a novel, then as the story progresses and the need for pace increases, the characters interacting with the settings can become more sparse. So it’s something we have to be always vigilant about.

Sieran

Hey Jami! I liked both your examples here and on the WHW blog. It’s good to think in terms of emotions, since you could argue that emotions drive all actions. In my drafts and revisions, I’ve been thinking more critically about what my characters are doing, and what their actions imply about their emotional state, their personality, etc. For instance, if my character is looking at what their pet is doing, while their uncle is trying to talk to them about something important, then what does this imply? Maybe my character doesn’t take their uncle’s subject of conversation that seriously, maybe the topic makes my character too nervous, maybe their uncle or his attitude makes them antsy. Perhaps they have unacknowledged, resentful feelings towards their uncle, so they’re only half paying attention. Maybe they think their uncle is stupid and meddlesome, so there’s no need to listen to him. There are all sorts of possibilities, but you can narrow them down based on what you know of the plot, of my character, and of my character’s relationship with their uncle so far. In my story, I believe my character is nervous, because their uncle is talking about something very serious that my character wants to avoid thinking about. So my character would rather distract themselves for a few moments, checking out what cute little thing their pet is doing, instead of focusing on their uncle’s somber words and grim questions. In another story I’m working on, one character plops down…  — Read More »

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