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. Great article! The senses is such an important one that I personally need to focus on more. I usually forget to include smell and touch, both very important to creating a convincing scene, and the characters actions within that scene.

    In my novel that I started this year, I have brought the major snowfalls that we here in the UK saw this winter into my story. This has brought a disruption to the setting which is aiding the story, and I’ve managed to use this to affect the main characters mood, and I’m trying to make it really part of the story.

    Thanks for the article!

  2. Great post. I am currently facing the setting problem with my WIP. It is set in fictional city, which is very alive in my own mind, but it doesn’t come across like that on the page, so one of my key revision goal is to make sure that setting comes alive through my characters.

  3. Excellent post! I’m terrible at setting and tend to focus on dialogue and action rather than description and setting. It is something I really need to work on. 🙂

  4. Thanks for another helpful and informative post! I love the idea of making the setting another character with its own wants, needs and moods.

    Note to self: Do not forget that advice. Setting-> character. Setting-> character.

  5. I love playing with setting. That’s one of my favorite things to write!

  6. Great post… and just what I needed to read, because setting is something I’m really trying to improve on 🙂 In some of my stories, the setting will enhance the story, whereas other stories, setting comes as an after-thought. So definitely trying to work on that! Thanks for this post 🙂

  7. This is the one thing I tried to ensure I added to my MS. I am not sure if I have managed, but I am going to check back on areas that might be a little weak. Interesting post.

  8. @Christopher: I think smell is probably the sense we neglect most – and the most difficult one to evoke. But very effective when done right.

    @Wanderer: Fictional settings have there own set of problems. But I generally the freedom of expression very freeing

    @Sherrinda: Setting and description are one of the “silent partners.” They’re vital, but we also have to be careful not to dwell on them too long.

    @Heather: When you think of some of the best classics, setting is almost as huge as the characters themselves. The South in Gone With the Wind? The galaxy far, far away in Star Wars?

    @Kristen: It is fun, isn’t it? I’m having a ball with it in my WIP set in Kenya and WWI.

    @Mia: Once you start focusing, you’ll find it a lot of fun!

  9. @Glynis: That’s the beautiful thing about revision – we can always go back and fix the things we missed in the first draft.

  10. Excellent post! My story is set in ancient Egypt and it simply wouldn’t be the same in a different place. I look at setting as a way to add depth to the story- it makes it 3D.

  11. I agree; smell is really difficult to get right, but very effective. Have you read ‘Perfume’ by Patrick Süskind? Fantastic use of smell in that novel!

  12. Great post. This is something that I need to give more attention to.

  13. @Stephanie: One thing about writing historical and speculative fiction (as I do) is that the settings are almost always inherent – and researching/creating them is half the fun!

    @Christopher: Haven’t read it, but I’ve heard of it. It was an interesting concept: a whole story based around the sense of smell.

    @Lorna: The beauty of setting is that, once you get started on it, it’s lots of fun!

  14. I’ve sometimes found that settings actually inspire a whole story – I want to mine what is mysterious about a place, what the people do there, who would hate to be there. Great post!

  15. I’ve yet to write a story where the setting wasn’t integral. Setting is one of my joys.

  16. I’m having a blast researching the setting of my WIP–Michigan in the late 1800s. My main character is based on my great-great grandfather who was a shanty boy back then. Luckily I have a 16-stanza poem he wrote called The Harvest of the Pine that’s full of sights and sounds and smells. 😀

  17. What a neat starting point for your research! I’m sure the fact that it’s a setting that matters to you personally only ups your investment in it for your writing.

  18. The post was helpful to me and my thoughts. I’m new to writing and enjoy reading your post as well as others. It helps me to sharpen my skills, and encourages me to continue.

    Once again, thank you for your helpful insight to writing.

    Louis

    PS. How do you do the pod cast? I would like to a one for my blog.

    Thanks

  19. I use the free audio recording program Audacity and a headset mic. Then I upload the audio files to my website server. If you’re interested in making your podcasts available for iTunes subscribers, you can find more information about that here. Feel free to email me (you can use the contact box in the left column) if you have any more questions.

  20. Regarding fictional settings, the best way I’ve found for this to work is to base it on an actual place; otherwise it won’t resonate. My fictional town in The Justice Coalition and its sequel are based on my experiences in Denver, so it feels like a real place. With sci-fi, of course, it gets a little trickier …

    ~ VT

  21. I’ve never had a problem finding verisimilitude in my made-up settings, but I had a ton of fun researching real-life Chicago for my fantasy Dreamers Come.

  22. This post is full of helpful tips, but I’d have to say that there’s nothing that can be more helpful than ones own experiences in the place. Most of the stories I write are set in Kansas City–a place I grew up visiting and now live in. I remember how it feels to have just moved here and the unfamiliarity of everything, getting used to where things were and the idiosyncrasies of the city. I couldn’t have done that so well if I’d set my stories in my old hometown, which now, I could write a story set there with the distance of almost a decade.

    Finding just the right details, though, can be tricky. I’d like my readers to be able to get a sense of Kansas City to the point that if they’ve read a few of my books, they feel they could visit the city and be able to find their way around easily.

  23. I have always believed the setting is a very important detail to a good story. The setting helps to blend all the details together into the story. The setting can be the difference between a great story or a hum-drum story.

  24. Thank you for the post. I am currently writing about my setting and looking ways to make it come alive.
    Thanks!

  25. @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!

  26. 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’ -)

  27. 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.

  28. 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!

  29. Dive in and have fun!

  30. 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

  31. 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)

  32. @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.

  33. 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.

  34. 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!

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

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

  37. 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

  38. 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.

  39. 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!

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

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

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

  43. 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?

  44. 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.

  45. 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!

  46. 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!

  47. 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!

  48. 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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