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.

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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 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. Thanks for this website. It has become my go to resource to remind me of things I already know and to learn new things.

    As per this article, I like to think of setting from a dramatic irony perspective. The protagonist whose main trait is that he is afraid of snakes, for example, might end up on a straight flight to China. On that flight there are going to be a whole lot of “motherf#cking snakes”.

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