4 Setting Questions That Will Deepen Your Characters

How to Write Better Characters Using Your SettingIn the best of stories, setting is an inherent key, not just in bringing to life the scenery, but in helping you deepen your characters. As such, it isn’t something any author can afford to overlook. Answer the following setting questions to find the weak points in your setting construction and help you use it to its full potential.

1. Is Your Setting Inherent to Your Story?

In some stories, the setting is so important that to change it would mean changing the entire plot.

For example, in Empire of the Sun, J.G. Ballard’s novelization of his boyhood in a Japanese POW camp during World War II, the setting, first in Shanghai, and then in the civilian prisoner camp, cannot possibly be separated from the story itself. It’s the power of the unique setting and the vivid word pictures in which Ballard paints it that make this book breathe.

In contrast, the sequel The Kindness of Women, which takes place when the author/hero is a grown man living in England, fails to share the original’s strong sense of place—and as a result never comes close to the same power.

Empire of the Sun Kindness of Women JG Ballard

2. How Does Your Character View His Setting?

Write Away One Novelist’s Approach to Fiction and the Writing LifeIn her book Write Away, bestselling mystery author Elizabeth George points out that “through a character’s environment, you show who he is.”

Fellow mystery author Michael Connelly, in an interview with Jeff Ayers, concurred:

You are always looking for ways to deliver character to your reader. One of the most important and ready ways of doing that is through the character’s interaction with his or her city…. Because he is really contemplating himself.

3. Are Your Characters Experiencing the Setting With All Their Senses?

Utilize all five of your character’s senses to bring the setting to life. Random details of description, no matter how beautifully penned, don’t matter to the story unless they are filtered through the character’s individual experience. The heat of a summer day doesn’t matter until the character is the one feeling it. The sound of the telephone ringing only makes a difference if the character hears it. The whisper of jasmine in the air is pointless unless it has meaning for the character who smells it.

4. Does Your Setting Affect the Mood?

Setting, more than any other facet of the story, allows us the most flexibility for creating mood and pacing. The ominous thunderheads gathering above the protagonist’s cornfield, the forbidding chill of the abandoned shack on the side of the road, the stuffy air inside a funeral home—all these bits of setting serve to inform readers of the mood you’re trying to strike.

Answer these setting questions carefully. Don’t settle for the obvious answers. Look beyond clichés and examine the needs of your story to find the most appropriate setting. Then juice it for every drop of usefulness. If you can bring your setting to life as a character in its own right, you’ll be that much closer to creating a story your readers will never forget.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What are the setting questions you asked yourself about the setting in your work-in-progress?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. @Liberty: I’m not a traveler – both because of the expense and personal preference. But I’ve actually found that I can get a more vivid description of a place I’m not intimately familiar with. Research gives me the details I need, and since I’m not overexposed to setting, I think my perspective is fresher. But I do have a story planned that I want to set in my hometown!

    @Nina: Very true. Many of my favorite books are ones with a particularly strong sense of setting.

    @Christine: Have fun!

  2. As always, a well-written post.

    Setting has been an important part of my novel(s) – almost another character. Home, Place, Belonging seem to be a ‘theme’ whether on purpose or not (some say there are no accidents when we write, because it all comes from ‘us’ -)

  3. One of my favorite “surprises” in writing (and reading) is the discovery of the inherent themes that aren’t even necessarily intended. The themes that well from inside are usually the most powerful.

  4. Katie, I just can’t believe how much your blog has inspired my own writing. Thank you, thank you, thank you! I love descriptions of nature, and the settings written by others. Now it is my turn to start writing the setting.Thank you for the encouragement!

  5. Dive in and have fun!

  6. You know, I never even thought of using the setting for anything? I just picked a place that worked for the story.

    So many obvious things don’t stand out to me about writing. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

    Corra

    from the desk of a writer

  7. Great post!

    You know setting is something I don’t think about that much. I really should. I had to build Purgatory for my current MS, and I think I still have some work on that… Thanks for the reminder ;o)

  8. @Corra: Oh, I don’t know that setting as a personality of its own is necessarily obvious. All of writing is a learning process. New and improved ideas come along every day!

    @Erica: World-building is a blast. It gives you such an opportunity to bring the setting to life.

  9. Thank you for bringing all of these elements of setting to my attention. Setting is something I can honestly say I’ve neglected to give much more than cursory consideration.

  10. Surprisingly, setting *isn’t* one of our main considerations in writing – probably because you can neglect it and still write a splendid story. But imagine how much better a story results when setting is given its just due!

  11. Wow…great post. I’ll admit, my characters haven’t really explored their setting, but they will today. ; )

  12. Sounds like fun! I’m in the middle of research for my WIP, so I get to explore setting today in another way!

  13. In the two books I’ve written so far, the setting was wedded intimately with my main character. In the first book – She breathed, talked, all her mannerisms were brought about because of where she was raised and where the book took place.

    It worked so well and had such a natural flow, I used the same formula for the next book as well. I find it breathes life into my characters, gives them a sense of belonging, personality and heart. (Hugs)Indigo

  14. Backstory – which includes huge chucks of setting – is integral to storytelling, in my opinion… even if none of the backstory itself appears in the book.

  15. I’m not convinced you haven’t already been nominated for this, but I’ve nominated you for a Prolific Blogger Award: http://jbrubacher.blogspot.com/2010/02/national-storytelling-week-prolific.html

    Don’t feel you have to play along, but I wanted to recognize how much I enjoy your posts. Thank you!

  16. Thank you, Jen! I’m tickled pink!

  17. Enjoyed the post. Setting is my weakest link. Thanks!

  18. You’re welcome. Here’s to strengthening that link!

  19. One more question – How much has the character done to create the setting?

    Or, come to think of it – Has the setting come to create the character?

    For some characters and some settings this won’t be the case at all. But for others… If the character is in a totally new place, they will be aliens to each other. But if it is the place where the character grew up, oreven a place where he’s been a while, the question ‘how has this place formed him?’ is going to be very important. And if the character has had a strong imprint on his environment, for good or evil, to show the setting which he has created is to show HIM – isn’t it?

  20. Great post, I’m one of those authors who have my editors and readers telling me I need more description of the setting. I use something like your questions to find places to do that.

    One thing I look for which might fall under how the character experiences the setting, is places where the setting becomes an adversary or an ally. The sample which comes mind is LOTR where there is the extreme contrast between Moria and the elves’ wood.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, this is a great point! Adversarial settings are a wonderful example of settings becoming characters in their own right.

  21. I love that we can use settings to our advantage to deepen character or potray a mood. The story will first take place on my MC’s home world. So I have to decide on what kind of weather patterns there’ll be.

    Thx!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      That’s one thing that’s always fun about fantasy: so many options for world building!

  22. My book is set in Philadelphia, where my protagonist has just moved. I use her wreck of a house — the varmints, the flooded basement, the broken cabinet doors — to mirror the state of her heart and poor morality. It is not until her new father comes into the picture to repair the house that she comes to an understudying of her need to be purified and made new.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I love how settings can be used to symbolize a character’s inner journey–especially since story structure itself has so many analogies to building a house!

  23. Great article. I’m sure you answered this question in previous comments, but is that photo out looking your property? It really reminds me of a place I used to live at in Montana.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Hah. Nope. It’s from Death to Stock Creative Community. I’m not sure where it is, but it’s gorgeous!

  24. Even though most of my books take place in a number of settings, I try to make at least one very important to at least one character. In my current project, one particular setting, an important one in the story, is the ruins of where the main character’s mother used to live, before she died in a house fire. It doubles as the perfect hideout that very few living people know about, and as a place for reflection.

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