5 Tips for Writing a Likable "Righteous" Character

16 Ways to Make Your Setting a Character in Its Own Right

16 Ways to Make Your Setting a Character in Its Own RightWriters hear it all the time: you must make your setting a character in its own right. But golly boy howdy, what does that even mean?

It means: the setting is supposed to come to life—to be rich, vibrant, catalytic. It means: the details of the places in your story are supposed to leap off the page and fill readers’ imaginations so fully they can smell the pastrami sizzling. It means: an excellent setting can spell the difference between a book’s success and failure.

Every author wants positive things said of their settings. So we study Google Maps like obsessed geocachers, save up our airline miles for research trips, and dog-ear our thesauri in search of graphic descriptive details. All these steps are useful in creating and enlivening realistic settings. But are they, necessarily, the only steps you need to make your setting a character in its own right?

As you already know from creating complex and fascinating human characters, good characterization is about so much more than just finding the right details and using the right words. Characterization is about looking beyond the surface and finding the soul. It’s about discovering hidden subtext that doesn’t quite match up with the contextual surface—and then mining all the delicious questions that arise from these juxtapositions.

Lie That Tells a Truth John DufresneNobody said it better than John Dufresne in The Lie That Tells a Truth:

Place connects characters to a collective and personal past, and so place is the emotional center of story. And by place, I don’t simply mean location. A location is a dot on the map, a set of coordinates. Place is location with narrative, with memory and imagination, with history. We transform a location into a place by telling its stories.

3 Main Questions (and 13 Mini Questions) to Help You Make Your Setting a Character in Its Own Right

As always, we’re not just going to let this important idea reside in the misty netherworld of the abstract “ah-that-makes-so-much-sense-I-totally-believe-it-kinda-sorta-get-it-but-have-no-real-idea-how-to-actually-do-it.” No way, no how.

Today, we’re going to explore some of the important questions you can consciously ask about your story’s setting in order to, first, understand what it means for a setting to be a character—and, second, how to execute this concept confidently.

1. What Is Your Setting’s Backstory?

As with any exploration of character, you must look to the past. What made this place what it is? Just as our own histories inform our every decision, the history of a place is its story. The “memory and imagination” Dufresne was talking about arises from the identity found within a specific place and its culture.

1. What people have been influential in shaping this setting’s past?

Ultimately, setting is not character. Characters are personalities, which means they are persons. People are the ones who infuse life into places. People are the ones who give places identity, meaning, and focus.

So what people have shaped your setting’s past? Depending on both your story’s stakes and the lifespan of your main setting, you may want to examine this from many different levels: global, international, national, state, city, community, neighborhood, home.

The people important to your setting may be presidents and kings, or they may be grandmothers and town drunks. Whoever they are, they’re your setting’s “founding fathers.” They made this place what it is. It’s their personality that has imbued this setting with life.

2. How cultured is this setting?

Within the context of setting, culture is personality. A posh Paris neighborhood will have a completely different personality from a bean field in southern Texas. Both the context and and the subtext of your setting will vary wildly depending on these answers.

3. What educational opportunities are available in this setting?

The personality of your story’s characters will be shaped by their educational opportunities. Are they expected to go to Harvard? Or are they lucky if they learn to read? Are certain minorities held back or encouraged? All of these answers will not only influence your characters’ life goals, but also their mindsets and beliefs about themselves and others.

4. What job opportunities are available in this setting?

Closely related to the above is the question of avocational opportunities. Is this a working-class neighborhood where sons follow their fathers to the steel factory? Or is this place below the poverty line and struggling with gangs who provide for their families via drugs and violence? Are children encouraged to pursue their dreams and become whatever they wish? Or do cultural or monetary restrictions impose a different structure on their futures?

5. What epochs have shaped this setting’s sense of identity?

Just as your protagonist’s backstory will be informed by the painful beating heart of a Ghost, your story’s setting will also be shaped—for better or worse—by previous events.

What is the most important thing that has ever happened here? Perhaps a revolution five hundred years ago freed your protagonist’s people—or enslaved them.

What is the most important thing that has happened within memory of current residents? Perhaps the discovery of a little boy’s skeleton buried in the forest twenty years ago still haunts the townsfolk.

6. What secrets is this place hiding?

Secrets are the stuff of good fiction. In part, this is because they offer the opportunity for mystery, plot reveals, and plot twists. But this is true also because the desire to keep a secret and the methods used to do so usually reveal starkly intimate truths about people. This is just as true on a community level as it is a personal level.

The elite rich who make their money through the suffering or slavery of others very rarely want to fully admit to this truth and would much prefer to either blatantly ignore it or cover it up (to themselves as much as others) with comforting half-truths and lies.

The Lies your characters believe will almost inevitably be a product of the settings in which they live. Understanding your setting’s Lies can help you craft stronger and more pertinent thematic arcs for your characters.

2. How Will This Setting Contribute to the Plot?

Now that you’ve gotten a sense of your setting’s history, it’s time to focus on the specific impact this place will have upon your story’s plot. You must do this by working backward from your story’s First Plot Point (at the 25% mark) and the Inciting Event (at the 12% mark). Because these moments are when your protagonist will progressively engage with the main conflict, they must be understood from the context of your setting’s backstory.

1. How has the setting contributed to the Inciting Event?

Halfway through the First Act, the Inciting Event is your protagonist’s Call to Adventure, during which he first brushes up against the main conflict—and tries to avoid it (or is dragged away from it by others).

A good setting is not merely a backdrop for this engagement with the conflict. It is an enabler, an obstacle, an explanation, and/or a symbol of everything that has led up to this point and everything that will happen from here on.

For example, in Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games, the Inciting Event (in which protagonist Katniss takes her little sister’s place in the Reaping by volunteering to fight to the death in the Games) is a direct manifestation of the post-apocalyptic setting—a downtrodden mining community so under the thumb of a dictatorial regime that it has no choice but to sacrifice its children to a barbaric tradition.

katniss hunger games reaping

2. How will the setting be altered by the First Plot Point?

One way or another, the setting in your story’s First Act will not be the same setting into which your protagonist embarks in the Second Act. The setting of the First Act is the story’s Normal World—which your character must categorically leave behind at the First Plot Point when he enters the metaphorical Adventure World of the main conflict.

Sometimes your character’s departure from the Normal World will be literal. He will leave one world and enter a brand-new one. For example, in Star Wars: A New Hope, Luke Skywalker leaves backwater Tatooine and becomes part of the “larger world” of the galaxy and its ideological war.

luke skywalker tatooine star wars new hope

In these instances, of course, you will need to create two vibrant and complex settings, which flow logically one into the other and which contrast each other meaningfully.

Other times, the shift from Normal World to Adventure World will not be physical but only metaphorical. The protagonist will remain in the same physical setting, but that setting will have altered in some way that makes the protagonist’s engagement with the main conflict unavoidable.

For example, in Monsters, Inc., protagonists Sully and Mike never leave Monstropolis. Rather, the city itself changes when it is thrown into chaos by the arrival of the little girl Boo.

boo monsters inc

3. Who is the Typical Resident of This Setting?

Your setting’s personality will be a composite of all the people who live there. Create a profile of the “average citizen.” Understanding the hopes, dreams, fears, and lifestyle of your setting’s typical resident will help you better understand the setting itself and how to make your setting a character in its own right.

1. What is this person’s outlook on life?

What is it like to live in this place? If you lived here, would you have an optimistic or pessimistic view of the world and its future? What would be your desires for your community? Are you idealistic or resigned? Traditional or avant-garde?

2. Does this person like living here?

Some of us live exactly where we want to live. Others of us would give anything to be able to move on. Consider which would be true of the people in your setting—and why. What keeps them here? Or, conversely, what makes them loathe this place?

3. Does this person plan to leave or stay?

By extension of the above question, does the average resident of this place want (at least at some point in his life) to leave? Is it expected that he leave? Or is he expected to stay? Do parents hope their children will follow in their footsteps—or get out of Dodge if ever they’re lucky enough to get the chance?

4. What will be this person’s likely trajectory—from childhood to death?

Consider the average lifespan of your setting’s inhabitants. How long will they live? What does childhood look like for most of them? What will most of them do after they graduate high school? Will they marry? Have children? What kind of job, and what salary, are they most likely to get? What will retirement look like? Where and how are they likely to die?

5. Is your protagonist a representative of this typical resident—or not? Why?

Once you’ve created a profile for your average citizen, compare it to your protagonist. Is your protagonist a good representative of your setting’s personality and prospects? Or is he the black sheep who can’t fit in, for better or worse?

Your setting will always be at its most powerful when you’re able to use it as subtle symbolism within the arc of character and theme. You can use it to represent everything your character must either overcome or become.

***

Ultimately, understanding how to make your setting a character in its own right is all about creating a setting that is populated with vibrant and realized people—and then using that setting as a meaningful piece with the overall thematic representation of your plot and character.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What do you think is the key for how to make your setting a character in its own right? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Ms. Albina says:

    Great article, my characters live on fictional planet. In the story Leilani is looking at a talisman and find out how to use it. She also got three for her birthday.

  2. The illustration you used for this article was just wonderfully mind-blowing. As always the post leaves me with much to think about. As with most encouragement to dig deeper, they’re not swift thoughts, but still good to be challenged by.

  3. I want my story to take place in a small/quiet town, and I’ve been worried about the setting being too boring. These are great tips on how to make it come alive! I especially love the idea of determining what has shaped the setting’s identity, and profiling the average citizen. Thank you for this post!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Small towns can be some of the best settings. They’re so intimate, which makes the personalities that much larger than life.

      • and if anyone steals the idea above i will take legal action

        not refering to you km weiland

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        Ultimately, all stories must balance character and plot. But “character-driven” usually refers to stories that focus more on the protagonist’s internal conflict, rather than his external conflict with an external antagonist. In these instances, it isn’t so much the character’s flaws that need to be front and center as their damaging misconceptions about the world.

    • Small towns are great for settings, everyone knows everyone else, what they’ve been up to and who they’ve been up to it with. Whether its a mystery or a family saga, you can’t hide in a small town.

  4. Wow, thank you so much for this! I’ve been looking for detailed world building questions for my work-in-plotting, and couldn’t find any that really helped. This is great! Thank you!

  5. Joe Long says:

    I believe part of setting is the local culture – the share beliefs and attitudes of the residents.

    I’ve just read To Kill a Mockingbird, set it Alabama in the 1930’s, and Bastard Out of Carolina, in 1950’s South Carolina. What I found in common between these novels is their portrayal of people in the South as having very strong family and group identity beyond just black and white. People were known and judged by their family reputation or where their family was from.

    My characters exist in middle class suburbs of a withering steel town. The protagonist’s father grew up on a farm which he left to go to college and become a professional. I have a chapter that visits the grandparents and shows the difference in culture. (I even added a line referring to family identity. Had “I know her dad” and added Grandma saying, “Yeah, she’s one of them Stiffler girls”) Mockingbird did this when one Christmas Atticus took his children from town back to their ancestral plantation.

    So I think I’m on the right track but this is definitely something I’ll have bookmarked.

    Here are my opening paragraphs

    ***

    Really, what did I have to complain about? I put the novel down on the stand beside my bed and thought about it. The girl in the book grew up dirt poor in the Deep South. We were rich enough – three bedrooms (even if one was made into a family room) and two cars. Even had a second TV, one of those little black and white ones, in the kitchen. Dad gave us a good life in the suburbs, better than he had growing up on a farm or Mom as a coal miner’s daughter – but most of the kids I knew were eager to get the hell out.

    It was a dirty, dingy, dying steel town, like several in the valleys surrounding Pittsburgh – but for me, it was home. It was terrifying to picture myself anywhere else – all on my own, not knowing anyone. On the other hand, how could I stay in a place with twenty-five percent unemployment? I’d barely made it through two years of college while living at home and driving to the branch campus on the other side of town. In another two years I’d be out on my own regardless.

    I looked at the calendar on the wall. Friday, July 20, 1979. Six weeks until school started again. Six months until a new decade, just over a year until I could vote for president for the first time. The day itself meant nothing to me. I grabbed a sock off the floor, balled it up, and fired it at the calendar.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The setting in To Kill a Mockingbird makes the book, IMO. You simply couldn’t have set it anywhere else.

      • Joe Long says:

        This intro mentions the economic depression in the town and how kids are leaving. As relates to your points 1-2, 1-4, 3-2 and 3-3, in the middle of the first act he says (paraphrasing) “I like it here but my friends say there’s not jobs and nothing to do.” Then at the beginning of my third act she asks, “When you finish college I’ll still have two years of high school. Are you going to wait for me?” Even if he says yes, she knows it’s unlikely he can hold true to his promise.

        In the movie “All the Right Moves”, set in the same town just four years later, Tom Cruise is only one year older than Leah Thompson, but she fears when he leaves for college he’ll never come back.

  6. There are 3 main settings in my book. One is San Diego, where the characters live. The second is Washington, DC, since my MC has to deal with the Secretary of Homeland Security and the President. The third is under the Pacific Ocean, where Project Kraken is being built. I try to give each of them their own unique identity.

    In addition to place, time can also be a character. A novel set in Ancient Rome, for example, would have a much different feel than a novel set in 21st century Rome.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Good point about time. Most of what I write is either historical or based on history, so I know this is definitely true.

  7. K.M. you’ve presented yet another thought-provoking article. Thank you. There’s no question that setting is a major character in virtually every story. Thanks for putting this into words and lists that I can refer to each time I’m fleshing scenes out in my stories.

  8. M.L. Bull says:

    Great post! A lot of helpful questions for giving character to setting. 🙂

  9. This has come at the perfect point in my first novel writing experience. I’ve recently realized my setting lacked substance, and all these questions will help me as I research more. Thanks

  10. Gregory MacDougall says:

    I certainly do not use everything that I’ve researched as I actually write a scene, BUT it seems to me that the process of knowing exactly where everything is, which way the sun is shining, what type of goblet they are drinking from, is it hilly or flat, etc., makes the scene come to life for me and allows me to write a scene that had hitherto been a blank page. I use Google Earth a lot! I research period dress, food, etc. I know which way the sun is shining in every scene: winter is different than summer. Spring sun patterns are the same as fall, but the climate, vegetation, and energy flows is completely different. As I write the scene, I am careful NOT to include extraneous details that detract from the plot. So for me, this is an essential start to writing a scene but I do not throw stuff in that is not in direct alignment with the plot.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I agree. Research is like Hemingway’s iceberg: 9/10ths stays under water, but it provides the subtext for the 1/10th readers actually see.

    • Gregory MacDougall says:

      “are completely different.”

  11. Saja bo storm says:

    K.M, as always a fabulous, informative, and thought provoking post. My WIP is set in Paris. A place I know nothing about intimately. I grew up in the Gilmor Projects, an urban inner city wasteland of sorts. My childhood setting was a character that my family, friends, teachers and classmates struggled against,ignored, succumbed, or overcame to become characters with diverse personalities. It was there that I discovered a library filled with books full of places I could visit and explore. All different from where I lived. I want to do the same with my writing. Thank you for the 16 ways. ☺

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I love writing about places I’ve never visited. It’s the cheapest way I know to see the world. 🙂

  12. Wow, this makes me feel much better about the setting of my high fantasy novel. I guess I did better at worldbuilding than I thought. The setting of my literary biblical novel, though… that one needs work. It doesn’t exactly help that neither I nor the protagonist of that novel is very observant. 😛

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Honestly, sometimes the made-up settings are way easier than the real-life settings–especially in historical fiction. :p

  13. Dear Katie,
    I just want to say thank you very much!!! I admire your generosity and dedication as well as the devotion to your work. I cannot believe that you have given so much time creating podcasts to make the life of your readers even easier. I am becoming a fan of you very quickly. Thanks again.

  14. DirectorNoah says:

    You’re absolutely right K.M!
    Setting lays down the atmosphere and tone of the novel, and is certainly a character in itself, with all the shades of human emotion attached to it. It’s why haunted houses are interesting and work so well in fiction a lot of the time. The house is rich in texture and character, with its history and the background of its residents. This allows the creepiness and tension to be subtly lathered onto the pages (or screen).

    For real world places, Google Earth is an excellent tool for visiting the locations of the story. Nevertheless, most of the extensive stuff I’ve researched for a scene is not used, though I might throw in a few extra details for realism purposes.

    This post is very reassuring for me, as I’ve already intensely researched and outlined the setting for my WIP, using many of the tips you’ve mentioned beforehand. It’s so nice to know you’re on the right track!
    Thank you once again, for your amazing posts and all the work you do on this blog, and for helping budding writers like myself, become better authors! ?

    Keep up the great work K.M! ?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Google Maps is great too. I use it all the time for calculating distances between places.

  15. Claire Jones says:

    A great post, it’s given me plenty of things to think about. I know that the books I really enjoy have a really good sense of place, and thinking of it as a character in its own right is helpful. It is something I really need to try and capture, even though the setting I have isn’t the most exciting. I definitely need to work on it and try and bring it to life. Thanks for reminding me how important the setting is.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Just keep circling the idea until you find a setting that *is* exciting. You want something you will enjoy writing about.

  16. Such an informative post, thank you! This is just what I need to move forward. Many points that you make I’ve already worked through for my story.

    I’m a little stuck on the last- #3) Who is the typical resident of this setting?

    The main setting in my story is a large and diverse city. There is every type of person, nearly every culture represented, every economic level, there is a plethora of variety in the jobs market with opportunities at most levels from minimum wage on up as well as some residents who are trust fund billionaires. Ironically one of my protag’s issues is that she doesn’t belong in this setting.

    The setting in my story changes from city to suburb, back to city then moves to a very remote location, back to the city then ends in a country setting-all driven by the plot. The city is the only setting I’m finding difficult to characterize this way.

    Maybe I’m missing the reason this question (#3) is important to answer. Should I narrow down the setting to a smaller area of the city and/or her work place and residence? Again there’s a great deal of diversity in each of those as well.

    So far (in my head) she does not belong because of how important the things, that are not found in the city, are to her.

    As I’ve let this comment ferment a bit, I think that the lie she believes is that she DOES belong. And as you can see, she does leaves at the end.
    Can you see what I’m missing?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Your character won’t encounter every type of diverse person within the city. I would narrow it down to the handful of various “strata” she visits and design a typical character for these areas.

  17. J.M Barlow says:

    This is an amazing post, Katie! You’ve done it again.

    A lot of my various settings answer many, but not all of these questions, and it explains why I like these settings for different reasons. The visual element was left out of this post, but some of my settings have only gotten that far. Putting this all into words is huge.

    Thanks a million, K, I’m bookmarking this one!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, visuals are undoubtedly important, but within the non-visual medium of written fiction they’re actually surprisingly small piece of the pie.

      • J.M Barlow says:

        Exactly right. (Although not so for the graphic novel).

        And in fact, a lot of the answers to these questions lend themselves to the visual element – whether creating it or enhancing it. Just as the setting as a whole does to the story proper.

        I can apply this post of yours to any of my settings, making it universal. The best kind of lesson.

  18. christam says:

    I really love the setting in my first story. The larger setting is a small town but the most important place in it is an abandoned house off a beaten path that’s been overgrown by the surrounding nature. The heart of the story takes place there, from somewhere the protagonist stumbles upon early and decides to try to escape to in order to be alone, to a place where he meets the impact character & can’t shake her off. It becomes a place he still escapes to but takes the things he learns there out into the bigger world he is trying to escape. Its simple but I feel like it’s impact succeeded, but unfortunately I am having trouble trying to replicate that in my second story.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Thee’s just something about the phrase “abandoned house.” It’s always so evocative. An insta-writing prompt. :p

      • J.M Barlow says:

        Yeah, theres an abandoned cabin in one of my stories that could have an entire dtory of its own written about it. The “what ifs”! So many”what ifs”…

  19. I absolutely love this post! Got a lot of help from it. Do I see a book in the works? Don’t make me beg.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      You never know. 😉 Next book I’d like to do is one on Most Common Writing Mistakes. After that, I’m not sure.

  20. Ruben Ramos says:

    This is my first time reading one of your posts, and I have a feeling that I’m going to keep coming back. I feel my setting is lacking at the moment, but I’ll be sure to use your helpful tips to improve on it.

    My story takes place in a war-torn, crime-riddled Chicago. Darkness is always present due to years of pollution, so the citizens have to travel by use of artificial light. Anyone who lives in the city is either a vendor or a mercenary as a normal working society has fallen. And worst of all, there are no women.

    During the war, women were either kidnapped or killed for unknown reasons by one of the two sides. The war spanned across every country, so the last surviving men of the world are simply waiting to die off. The protagonist’s role is to find the people responsible for the war and to try and find a way to save humankind; even if he has to kill someone.

  21. Most of what I write takes places in the fictional county of New Grace, South Carolina. It is certainly a character on its own, consisting of 2 large towns and 6 small ones, each with a character of its own.

    I keep myself, and my readers, involved with my town and its characters through my website
    NewGraceNews.com which is a fictional newspaper about my fictional people. (its also under my name). New Grace has an interesting history which is posted on my site.

    I do have a story that takes place in 2065 – it was really fun writing the history of the country – what happened between now and 2065 – is that history or future – :))

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