Creating vivid characters and believable settings is a complex process--or rather, it's at least two processes, since character and setting aren't the same thing. But the these processes have something in common, and that something is the vivid dream.
When I speak to writing students about creating vivid characters, I suggest that they start with a detailed visual picture that they then relate selectively, picking the two or three or half a dozen details that will make a character a unique individual for the reader. The same thing goes for the setting in which their characters move and argue and strike each other with beer bottles.
|Quiet Please. Writer Visualizing.|
When I write, I'm watching a movie in my head, seeing characters in the setting. As they move about, I see what elements to mention, like the heroine's hair being pushed away from her face and falling right back again or the moving shadows from the tree above the patio table at which the murderer sits.
|Grant, Gibson, and Saint|
Am I claiming that my mental movie is identical in every respect to the one playing inside the reader's head when he or she reads my finished story? No. That would take more detail than even a Gustave Flaubert could cram into a scene. Or else a kind of magic. And yet there is a sort of alchemy at work when the reader completes the circuit and reconstitutes the freeze dried images we put on the page. (The preceding sentence has been submitted for a mixed-metaphor award.) I believe that if my settings are real places for me and my characters real people, my readers will pick up on it. They'll meet me halfway, plugging in the missing details from their own experience or imagination.
And my dream will live on independent of me. Which is something worth seeing.