Lessons Learned: Character, Setting, and Depth

When I first saw the 7 point plot outline my eyes slid over “A character, in a setting, with a problem.” Duh! Right?

It turned out that some of my greatest problems were in the character and the setting. I failed to imbue them with what Dean Wesley Smith calls ‘Depth.’

I should have known better. Members of my book club are absolutely obsessed with books that have rich, sensual descriptions and characters that spring to life on the page. I even made notes for myself on what they liked so that I understood what worked and what didn’t. And yet I didn’t understand how to do it or what it was.

Depth. It’s why we read. We read fiction to be taken to another place and immersed in that world. To meet amazing, crazy, interesting people we could never meet in real life. To have vicarious experiences through their eyes and through their opinions.

I was so anxious to get to the plot that I skipped over setting up the environment and the characters. It’s the equivalent of being so anxious to host a dinner party that I didn’t bother to make the food or buy the wine, just set the table and hoped everyone would be happy with that. But depth in setting and character is the food and drink. It’s why we’re there.

Depth is basically concrete description from the protagonist’s viewpoint and through their senses. Dean has a great course on this called, no surprise, Depth. I highly recommend it. Dean pulls no punches when you do it wrong and he helps you get it right.

One of the things I consistently do poorly and have to go back and improve in my writing is the use of what Dean calls, “fake details.” These are details that seem descriptive but really aren’t. For example, “tree.” Just saying that there were trees around isn’t of much use. It’s a fake detail. But saying that the date palms are blowing in the breeze gives a very different sense of place to saying something like the damned squirrels cheeped loudly in the branches of the gnarled oak tree. Being concrete is critical for evoking a sense of place.

Dave Farland teaches something very similar in his courses. Here is a writing tip from him that talks about how to appeal to the senses.

Finally, one of my favorite techniques comes from Witchmark author C.L. Polk. (If you haven’t read her books, go, get them now. She’s an amazing writer.) She took a technique used to help people prone to panic attacks and turned it to a writing technique. It’s one I’ve used frequently.

That’s depth, which was my first problem and one I’m still trying to improve in. Tomorrow I’ll talk about an issue that plagued me for the first 40 stories: the Problem.

Be well friends! And stay well.

5 Comments Add yours

  1. Am definitely trying to balance between description and not boring the readers. I guess this journey to betterment will never end. Thanks for putting together this insightful piece!

    1. Thank you for stopping by! Writing is a journey, but a good one.

  2. Setting was really hard for me. I spent years listening to common writing advice that says to do minimal description and let the reader imagine it. I had to basically force myself to put it in or I’d leave it out entirely. Once it got to be a habit, then I had pacing problems because of it. I’m trying to do a happy balance that’s a little faster paced.

    1. That’s pretty much exactly what happened to me. I went from no setting to too much static setting. Now I’m trying to improve with that.

    2. That makes sense. It’s hard to get the balance. One of the things I really admire about Mary Robinette Kowal’s writing is that she does produce these thick, rich descriptions without interrupting the pacing. And she produces it fast. Kris Rusch is the same.

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