Setting Basics: Writing Through the Eyes of Your Narrator

1280px-Stipula_fountain_penI’ve talked before about the importance of your novel’s setting and offered tips for deepening your worldbuilding. In that post, I talked briefly about staying in character and describing only what that particular narrator would notice. Since I’ve seen a few novels that struggled with this recently, I thought I would expand a bit on this topic. It’s important to think about what details your narrator would include, what they would omit, and how they would choose to do so.

In my original post on setting, I wrote this:

As you’re considering which details to include in a scene, ask yourself: What would this character notice? How would this character react to this detail? For example, a car mechanic is going to be very specific about the make and model of cars he sees, and probably notices other details about them. Whereas someone who doesn’t drive may not be more specific than “car” or “truck” but will notice where all of the bus stops are on any given route. Having characters interact with the environment around them is a great way to not only include setting details but also reveal subtle characterization.

This is a good example to start with, but I’d like to expand on this idea a bit. How do you know exactly what your character would or wouldn’t observe in particular situations? Here are a few questions to ask yourself about what your narrator observes:

  1. How aware are they of their surroundings in general?

Determining how much your narrator would or should notice about their surroundings makes a huge difference. I’ve been thinking about this question a lot recently in regard to my own work, because I’ve been writing several characters who are very aware of their surroundings. One is a soldier in an elite unit who has undergone significant training; the other is a girl who has lived as a fugitive for most of her life and is constantly on the run from danger. Both of these characters are going to be incredibly alert in any given setting, and writing a moment where they’re unobservant would feel inauthentic. In contrast, the protagonist of my middle grade novel is a twelve-year-old who has never been on her own for long periods of time before. She’s going to be much less aware of her own surroundings.

  1. What are they most aware of?

Even the most alert characters can’t be aware of every detail of every setting all of the time, so it’s important to think about which details they would and wouldn’t filter out. To continue my examples from above, the both soldier character and the fugitive are definitely going to assess unfamiliar locations and be constantly alert for anything dangerous. But the soldier is going to be looking for very specific threats, while the fugitive will pay attention to the police siren in the distance and count the number of possible escape routes. Their level of alertness might be similar, but they’re not going to focus on similar things. Every character is going to look at the same scene differently.

  1. How do different locations affect them?

Similarly, the things that your narrator pays attention to will vary depending on the setting. Perhaps they’re highly alert in most situations but feel comfortable and relaxed at home. Another example is my middle grade character who isn’t usually observant; she will become much more descriptive in certain settings because, as someone who’s lived a relatively isolated life so far, she’s going to be very focused on locations and senses that are new to her in a way that the other characters wouldn’t. So even once you’ve established your character’s general level of awareness, it’s important to think about the ways in which the setting is affecting them.

  1. What situation are they in?

The tone, pacing, and general situation of each scene is going to have a huge impact on how much your narrator should observe. Fast-paced action scenes are not the place to start describing settings in detail, but the reveal of a new setting may feel rushed or stark if more details aren’t included. So, for example, let’s say the fugitive has a habit of observing the make, model, and license plate of cars surrounding her, in case she’s being followed. But she’s not going to be focusing on that during the middle of a high-speed car chase. Though it might feel inconsistent, keep in mind that real people aren’t always consistent in certain situations; it’s okay if your character aren’t either, as long as there’s a clear reason for it.

  1. Who are they with?

Even something as simple as which other characters are present in the scene is going to affect what your characters notice. For example, a character might be too focused on the arrival of their longtime crush to see what’s going on nearby. Or the soldier might feel more relaxed in the company of her fellow soldiers, even if it’s subconscious. The presence or absence of others is going to affect what your characters observe.

  1. What are they feeling?

The narrator’s emotional state in a particular moment is also going to affect their descriptions. Just as it’s important to think about how different situations change things, it’s also important to think about how their emotions will change them. For a character who’s feeling embarrassed and is in a hurry to get away, everything might seem like a blur. But a character who’s bored and looking around for something to do might notice something seemingly insignificant. Again, these things are situational and will change throughout the novel; it won’t necessarily seem inconsistent as long as it’s in line with the character’s emotions at the time.

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What do you think? How do you determine what your narrator observes in different scenes? Have any tips or questions? Let me know in the comments!

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This post is part of my Writing Craft series. For more info about planning, writing, and revising your work, check out the other posts in the series here, and follow the blog to see future posts!

Related Links:

Setting Basics: How to Deepen Your Worldbuilding

Showing vs. Telling: Character Emotion

Understanding Point of View: The Basics

Understanding Point of View: Eliminating Filter Words

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