This Business of Writing

How Setting Influences Your Characters

In The Craft of Writing on February 11, 2010 at 12:39 pm

As I performed my research for this article, an idea came to me I should have visualized long ago. That is, setting serves as much more than a mere vehicle to cement my readers in the time and place within my story. It is a psychological force upon my characters. In contemporary writing, setting stands as an influence that acts upon the characters.

Readers now know that in life, environment is part of what molds one’s personality and their background is among the many factors that help to shape who he is. Further, they understand one’s choices in life indicate the “real” person within. It’s psychology 101. Therefore, the successful author will use setting as an indicator of personality.

To put this in perspective, consider these examples. We’ve all known someone who drove a red convertible and someone else who drove a used Pinto. Without doubt, these people possessed differing personalities. With this in mind, consider how a murdered parent might push the child toward a life or good or evil. Will a coonskin cap show a wanderer’s proclivity to the hunter’s life? Will the slums of Elizabethan England act upon the street rat to make him a thief. How might an American woman be influenced if a book was set in a Muslim nation? All these aspects of setting play upon the personality and mind of the characters.

How might a writer go about presenting setting as a psychological force? I see it in subplots. In my current manuscript, my hero’s parents are murdered when he is a child. This event then determines his choice of careers. Further, this subplot takes him to places in the world he would never otherwise visit and force him to commit actions he would never consider had he not become an orphan. Further, I wanted to use a pocket watch as a subplot. My hero purchases this when he is a young man with the idea he would bequeath it to his firstborn son at the appropriate time. He never has children. What happens to the pocket watch? It becomes a symbol of those unrealized aspects to his life.

All this behooves the author to look at his setting as even more authentic, more realistic than ever before. Readers will pillory an author for these kinds of errors, so a thin setting is no longer acceptable. Caution and adequate research is necessary, now more than ever.

Setting is more than place and time. It’s a power that creates your characters and influences their lives. Get to know your setting as you would your main characters and your novel will be the better for it.

Until we meet again, I wish you only best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze

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  1. […] There’s one of these techniques many authors don’t understand well, so I’ll give it a bit of special attention. Consider number ten, your setting. Setting is much more to your novel than simply a place and time. It is as powerful as any component of your novel and can shape your characters to a great degree. So, too, it gives strong hints as to their personalities. For example, compare a warrior living in the second century to one living in the twenty-first. Don’t you think they’ll have differing outlooks toward war, even though that theme transcends both time frames? Give your setting serious consideration as part of the development of your characters. You can read more about setting in this ARTICLE. […]

  2. Nice point. I think of setting as like another character, in that characters may have a relationship with it. Also, it can be a metaphor for themes of a story – or even a great big beautiful metaphor on its own, like the icy wastes in Kevin Brockmeier’s The Brief History of the Dead.

    • Afternoon, DirtyWhiteCandy,

      I’d love to know where DirtyWhiteCandy came from – very clever.

      You’re correct in your outlook as to setting. It has much more impact than many think.

      Thanks for your comment.

      Patrick

      • Dirty White Candy… sounds very modern, doesn’t it? In fact, it is one of the first delicacies sold by the Fortnum and Mason food emporium in eighteenth-century London. Imagine Dr Johnson indulging in a nibble. I used it as the name of my blog because it reminds me that people of all eras and backgrounds have surprising depths and funky tastes; a streak of unsuspected adventure beneath the surface; something unpredicted we suddenly relate to. And because inspiration comes at random from the most unexpected places.

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