Humanizing Settings

While reading Clash of Kings, pondering how Mr. Martin writes, I had an epiphany which dealt with his settings.

In the beginning of the book, Mr. Martin has an old man walking through a castle. This simple act is given considerable attention, and I was pondering why. I was also pondering how in the world Mr. Martin had turned such a drawn out process into something I enjoyed reading about. On numerous occasions, he would give lengthy pages to simple acts, and I could not understand how he got away with it.

For why he went into detail about this old man walking these stairs, I believe the goal was to show me the setting. I was there, in this castle, on an early morning. There was urgency in my steps, but each was filled with pain. It wasn’t so much that Mr. Martin wanted me to learn of this old man, but the setting around the old man. This brought me to my second epiphany.

Mr. Martin is capable of telling us these lengthy settings while keeping our interest because they are humanized. Mr. Tolkien would give us long winded descriptions of places and people, but it was from afar. We were watching these settings from a distance, unable to truly connect to them. While Tolkien did a great job giving us sight, and even a few other senses, he robbed us of the connection we would make with a real setting. Mr. Martin does not rob us of our senses.

In the setting, the old man is telling us very clearly what he hears, how it feels when he takes every pained step with his bad hips, what the stone looks like, how he swears there are more stairs added every day, and other perspectives that let us see the setting in a beautifully human way. Is it biased? Sure it is. I don’t know what it’s like to feel pain each time I walk down a step. As the old man says, I was a youth taking them two at a time. But even with that, I sympathize with this man while I learn about the setting and even about him.

My hope is to do this in the future. I want to try finding scenes, especially between immensely suspenseful moments, where I can drag out the thoughts of one person and really focus on them and what they are doing, what they are seeing. Almost every time one of these moments occurs, it’s just to relax the reader before someone dies, is maimed, a horrible truth is revealed, or some other dramatic moment. I’m waiting for when these moments are precursors to playing with bunnies in a courtyard.

With this in mind, write an introductory story for a new character and place. Draw it out as long as possible, using the character to show both who that person is, and what the setting looks like. Around 250 to 500 words would be a good word count. Then, in George Martin style, kill someone. Just kidding. Do what you like.

5 Comments on “Humanizing Settings

  1. Seems like it would take an extra special talent to pull this off. I, unfortunately, do not have such talent.

    • I think you underestimate yourself. You do a great job being able to give lengthy descriptions and keeping them interesting. The dragons hatching struck me as something similar.

  2. I’ve seen a couple of other epic authors do this well, in the humanized way. I realized that it’s how fantasy epics end up being an ungodly number of pages. I totally plan on writing a fantasy epic one day and studying this helps.

      • Ummmm, have lots of characters that you introduce in detail just before you kill them off. That adds pages and interest. Also, lots of travel. All of the epics have expansive travel stories and pages spent on describing the characters interacting with their landscape.

        The thought of writing an epic fantasy intimidates me. I’m going to try outlining that one.

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