Friday, April 19, 2019

How Your Setting Can Affect Your Characters

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Your setting can help you craft better scenes. 

Setting is an often underused tool. We all create one, usually more than one, but we don't always take advantage of what the right setting can do for our novels--the setting is just "a place where the novel takes place," not something crafted to serve the story.

This is a missed opportunity, because setting can bring out subtleties in the story and deepen an entire scene. It can evoke both character and reader emotions.

Let's say you have scene where you want your protagonist to feel uncomfortable, because she's confronting a co-worker who just stabbed her in the back at work, and she dislikes both the co-worker and confrontation.

Where would you set it?

The most obvious choice is at work, since that's where she interacts with this person. If you were picking a spot for yourself in this same situation, you'd likely do it somewhere familiar, because you'll want a position of strength for this confrontation. But in a novel, that means the protagonist will be in familiar and safe territory. It'll help keep her calm and lessen her apprehension of this meeting. Calm and safe are not the emotions we want for this scene, so the setting is doing nothing to help us.

So let's move this meeting to a location that puts the protagonist at a disadvantage, so the stakes go up and the tension is raised. Instead of work, let's choose a place that makes her uncomfortable as well so the setting reflects the emotions we want both the character and the reader to feel.

(Here's more on Creating Story Tension: Rooms with an Unexpected View)

If she wants to do this in private, we'll force her to confront her co-worker in a public place where anyone might overhear. If she's a recovering alcoholic, we'll send her into a bar where drinks are flowing heavily. If she dislikes kids, we'll make her attend a birthday party for twenty-five ten-year-olds.

If we use the setting to push the emotions of the protagonist to new heights, we'll also make her goals harder to accomplish. 

It'll add more conflict, and raise the tensions since it's far more likely something will go wrong.

(Here's more on If You Can Make it There... How Setting Can Affect Your Story)

Look at the settings in your scenes and ask:
  • Does the setting reflect the emotion of the character?
  • What emotion would make the protagonist's goal harder to accomplish? Is there a setting that evokes this emotion in the character?
  • What emotion would add more conflict?
  • How would the opposite emotion affect the scene?
  • What is the worst setting for a scene to take place in? What happens if you move the scene there?
  • What setting would push the protagonist out of her comfort zone?
  • What setting would give the antagonist of the scene the advantage?
  • What setting would put the protagonist at a disadvantage?
Seize every opportunity setting offers to affect the mood and tone of the scene. The right sense of place can layer in emotions and create conflict to deepen a scene and make a character really have to work to resolve her goal.

What settings have affected you emotionally? Why? 

Find out more about setting and description in my book, Fixing Your Setting & Description Problems.
Go step-by-step through setting and description-related issues, such as weak world building, heavy infodumping, told prose, awkward stage direction, inconsistent tone and mood, and overwritten descriptions. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Setting & Description Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Choose the right details to bring your setting and world to life
  • Craft strong descriptions without overwriting
  • Determine the right way to include information without infodumping
  • Create compelling emotional layers that reflect the tone and mood of your scenes
  • Fix awkward stage direction and unclear character actions
Fixing Setting & Description Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting immersive settings and worlds that draw readers into your story and keep them there.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound


  1. I don't do this nearly often enough. It's a very solid tip. Thanks for the reminder.

    1. Most welcome. It does make writing description and setting more fun.

  2. This is an awesome post and comes at the perfect time for me! I'm about to write a pivotal scene and now I have a way to make it way more intense. Thank you! I'm a huge fan of your blog.

    1. Thanks! Glad it found you just when you needed it. Hope the scene goes well!

  3. Posted this blog on two of my teaching writing wikis. Thanks!

    1. Aw, thanks! I appreciate all the links you post for me and the blog :)

  4. Thank you so much for sharing this. I didn't really think about setting this way but you are exactly right. You have so many wonderful tips on this blog, you are really helping me a lot :)

    1. My pleasure, and I'm so glad the blog is helpful. The different perspective really helps know what to do with your setting and how it can be more than just descriptive details. everything has meaning so it ties the whole scene together better.

  5. You just solved a problem in my WiP! Thank you! Changing the setting will help a lot.

    1. Oh good! Love when an article helps someone. Good luck with the new setting!

  6. Hi Janice
    Excellent point, thanks.
    One of the things I love about writing fantasy is the freedom to create entire worlds that add layers to key scenes.
    I think you can use scenes in conjunction with memories, also. Taking the protagonist somewhere that carries emotional baggage, due to what might have happened there previously, can help to heighten the emotional stakes within a scene.

    1. I love that about fantasy as well. The world is often what comes first for me. Memories are huge. I did that with Shifter a lot, actually. Thanks for bringing it up!

  7. Thought you made some great points and I agree that a setting brings out subtleties in a story and can deepen the scene. Great post.

  8. Here's an idea: what if things about to go haywire due to the MC's hubris? In that case, would it be better to put him in a setting that calms him and gives him the illusion of control?

    It's first-person, so I'm struggling with not pulling this setback out of left-field, but not making it too obvious, either. If it's obvious, he's an idiot for not realizing he's about to get captured.

    1. If that's what you want from the setting, sure, go for it. There are no "rules" for this, just different ways to use your setting to your advantage. If he thinks all is well, you could make things seems that all in indeed well, and then have things go haywire.

      I'd suspect that dramatic irony or some solid foreshadowing would help you here. If there are clues for readers to know things are not as in control as the MC thinks, then they'll be waiting for things to go wrong and that can keep the tension high.

      Or if you wanted it as a surprise, you could make the hints more subtle so they only become clear after the event has happened and readers suddenly see that old information in a new light.

  9. Hmmm...I'll go reread your posts on dramatic irony and foreshadowing. I trust my group to help quite a bit, too, so that's a good boost!

    I like the idea of more subtle--I loved "The Thief", which hinged on subtlety--but I'm not sure if I could pull that off. You've given me some food for thought; thanks, Janice!

    1. Hope you find the answer in one of those articles. And if you like the subtly, go for it. Worst case it doesn't work, but you might surprise yourself and pull it off.

  10. This blog is really awesome....

    I have to write an essay about how the setting both infuences the characters and larger aspects of the story. I am thinking about the great gatsby and the epic of gilgamesh becuase thats the book we read....
    Can u advise me on some things that might help me?

    Thanks, i greatly appreciate it

    1. Thanks!

      I'd suggest looking at the questions I posed in the article and seeing how they apply to the Great Gatsby and Gilgamesh. Maybe look for similarities between the two stories in how they use setting and characters, even though they are very different types of stories.

      Good luck with your essay!

  11. Very useful for newcomers to literature field!!! Thanks..

  12. Love this post & I tried it. My character is introducing his new girlfriend to his family when the ex showed up. Since he's not married, she feels she still has a chance. She wants to reconcile with him in the privacy of his room then stay for lunch like before. He insisted on them talking in the dining room. The result is her discomfort at not being able to influence him with drama like before (the kisses, the promises, the tears, etc.). Meanwhile, the new love is being consoled (asked to trust him) by his grandmother until the ex is gone. After they have time to calm down, the 2 lovebirds talk it out & their faith is strengthened.

  13. thanks so much for this! I'm a highschool student writing exam papers about how setting affects characters and the bit about how setting makes goals harder to accomplish got me a whole extra paragraph!