Using The Characters

When we’re building atmosphere in a story it can be affected by the perspective of characters. Every character has their own viewpoint with their own preconceived notions, fears, memories and loves and all of these will change how they interact with their surroundings and the interpretation they give. This is particularly important if this character is the narrator because everything is filtered through the character’s point of view, this also applies in limited omniscient/third-person where we’re limited by the character’s knowledge although it is not the first-person/subjective I.

An example would be the different interpretation of lifts/elevators depending on whether or not a character is claustrophobic. To someone who has no fear of confined spaces a lift is simply a way of moving up and down a building. For someone with a fear of confined spaces a lift can vary from a place of discomfort to a place of terror. We could argue that a person with claustrophobia wouldn’t get in a lift (not true as it can be unavoidable) but even if they don’t get into the lift the atmosphere would change as they approached the lift before they chose to take the stairs instead. In this case the atmosphere is altered by a character’s changing emotions.

A character’s knowledge of a place will also alter their perception of it. This can either be things other characters tell them, things they know before the story, or things they learn as the story progresses. This could be a place that at first appears threatening to them and then becomes home or the reverse. There are many horror stories about people moving into houses and beginning with a positive ‘new start’ attitude that gradually changes as they find out more about their new house or the haunting begins. However, we can create an unsettling atmosphere despite the characters’ positive attitude by presenting hints that all is not as it seems. A popular way to do this in horror films is with the camera angle that suggests someone watching, in other cases mysterious stains/marks, things moving, or sticky doors, among other things, reoccur to suggest something is happening beneath the surface.

Under knowledge we may also include memories. We can have traditionally creepy places with a happy atmosphere because they’re associated with happy memories or places traditionally associated with happy atmospheres have sad ones because they’re linked to sad memories. For example we might have the crumbling house associated with a happy childhood or the brightly coloured park associated with death. If we were to change which character was presented with these places the atmosphere would change because another character might not have the same associated memories. This difference in perspective can be used to reveal different things, a person with negative associations to a place might miss the positive aspects and vice versa. Presenting a setting from these two differing perspectives can create conflict, for example in a mystery where a character misses a clue that another sees based on their own bias towards or against a place.

Using a character’s view of a place can be very useful for when we want to give a setting an unexpected atmosphere, contradict an atmosphere with the mood of a character, or have the same setting appear with two different atmospheres depending on the point of view. A character’s changing perception of a place can also be used to show the character and story arc without necessarily having to explain their changing feelings if we choose.


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