Today's example was custom made by Susan Helene Gottfried using an existing character from her books. She wrote this as an exercise for this setting thing we're doing. Let's take a look.
The things men do for their wives, he thought. The door weighed nothing and slipped out of his fingers. It crashed into the metal chair rail on the full-length windows. Weird how he looked through all that glass and could only see himself. Distorted. Fuckin' A.
He'd expected sterile rows of glass grocery-store cases inside, with half-dome fronts. Instead of seafood, these would be loaded with truffles and bon-bons and bark and all that shit girls craved.
Nope. No cases. Tables. Round ones. They'd seat two in a restaurant. Each covered by a tablecloth so bright, he wanted his sunglasses. Each stacked with chocolate. Every table had a theme and a flower post on a pedestal -- every bit as gaudy as the damn tablecloths -- holding a hard-to-read, hand-lettered sign.
He groaned. Deciphering what was what would take all day. He'd need another day to decide what to placate her with.
He only had an hour.
When Susan and I were originally tweeting about her exercise, she told me she was struggling to get it down to 150 words and preserve the character voice. Even if she hadn't told me that, though, we'd be using this example as an opportunity to discuss point of view and setting.
Every detail in this setting is viewed through the strong lens of this character's point of view. This particular man notices particular details that another might not notice. This is great. This is what we want to see. This is step one in connecting the character to the environment. Maybe a PMSing woman walks in and sees only the truffles. Maybe a state health inspector focuses on the open displays. Characters perceive environments in different ways.
In this case, we have a musician whose eyes are probably sensitive from exposure to stage lighting, and consequently he notices the brightness of the colors and the tininess of the text. But the chocolates themselves hardly rate a descriptive mention after that first scornful "all that shit" line. This is all character-specific.
But that's just the first step in joining the character to the setting. What's step two? It's something Susan is doing very well here. All those viewpoint-specific setting details are pinging off this guy's radar. He is INTERACTING, not merely noticing. And he's doing it all without making a single gesture. First we get the contrast of his expectations versus the reality. Then we get a taste of his scorn for the very thing he's there to buy. Then we get his visceral reaction to the tablecloths, followed by an emotional reaction. Then we get his whining about the signs. It's very deftly done.
If this were a real piece rather than an exercise, I would be extremely pleased with the way the setting was handled, but Susan and I might be talking about ways to make this guy a little more warm in this moment. We might talk about tempering his negativity with genuine worry about his wife. We'd be killing that thought tag in the first line (it's unnecessary when the pov is already this deep and clear), and we'd be shifting that first paragraph so he's not thinking about himself but about his wife. But that's a separate issue unrelated to setting. I only point it out because, you know, I'm incorrigible that way. Tinkering with that first paragraph would shift the entire tone of the piece so that we might feel more sympathy for this guy.
Now, here's an exercise for anyone who cares to do it. I want you to take this chocolate shop setting as set up by Susan and put another character in it. In the comments, give me a one-sentence description of this character. Then give me three things this character will notice about this environment. And then give me one unique way this character will react to one of those three things.
Ready, set, go! :)