Read just about any lasting masterpiece, and you will see that authors treat the setting as a character. Like any fully developed, three-dimensional fictional person they write, they give the setting certain traits. They give it backstory, personality, even dynamic power over the outcome of the story.
Most of us understand that the “setting” consists mainly of the time and place. Time and place, however, are relevantly defined by the characteristics unique to them. That means “setting” encompasses everything from the physical landmarks to the political backdrop of the story. Here are five simple, specific ways to utilize this wider understanding of the stage you set as a writer and create a truly immersive experience for your reader.
Settings and characters both have backstory.
Settings, like every fully developed character, have backstories. They have history. They have origins, defining events, even conflict. Whether we’re talking about a fantasy realm or a rundown town of the old American West, there aren’t just things in the background. There are things going on.
There are things remembered, for better or worse—by the community, and even the land itself. History makes real marks, after all, does it not? Statues of the revered or those who wish to be revered; craters and rubble from war, mysterious ancient ruins. Even a distant mountain may have a name that brings to mind some local legend.
Setting, as a character, has personality.
A finely executed setting has a character all it’s own. Is it vibrant or dreary? Rustic or edgy? When I read the descriptions of the scene, does it feel cozy and mysterious—or perhaps chaotic and happening? How does the place feel?
Furthermore, what does it hate? What does it love? Does it have a favorite food? (Every region does!)
Culture, too, sets a fine stage of action. You may write a singular, normative manner of life for your region. You might also weave the complex push-and-pull of opposing values where multiple culture meets. Either way, the place your character acts within, they must also react to—and the surrounding place and people, whether in detail or in passing, must also react to your character.
They both need physicality.
Now, this may seem to go without saying, but to treat your setting as a character, you’ve got to engage the senses. We’re talking sight, smell, sound, touch, taste, wherever you can work them in. A good setting needs more than a mere description, however. A setting, like a character, comes alive when viewed through the particular lens of another. Does your protagonist see the place as beautiful or wretched? As oppressive or as a pinnacle of enlightenment?
Don’t just tell me there are lots of tall, swaying trees. Tell me how it feels to pass underneath them. Do they unveil the bitterness of a peasant unallowed to hunt within their shade? Are they a provision from above, meeting the needs of people or animals? Do they hide danger or offer shelter? As you tell me what the forest looks like, whisper of it’s relationship to the person seeing it.
Which brings us perfectly to…
They interact with one another.
I’ll say it again. The place your character acts within, they must also react to, and vice versa.
Every opinion your protagonist has of their surroundings, of their culture, of their leaders or the wider events that have lead to shaping this moment, works in reverse. The prevailing opinions of the human setting can come out in shocked or sideways glances. Nature itself can be friendly or hostile.
The key point here? For the setting to feel real, it has to actually affect what’s going on. It should help to shape what the characters feel and how they plan. It should work for them or against them (or both). Otherwise, all you have is a pretty portrait of your characters on a plain-colored background. Thus, instead of DiVinci’s The Lord’s Supper, we’re looking at an elementary school picture day photo.
They’ve got stakes.
In some of the more personal stories, like coming-of-age or romance, this may be one of the more subtle ways to treat setting as a character. In your classic hero epic or spy adventure, this rises as a top element. Either way, the setting of a good story has stakes all its own.
What do I mean by that? In the same way your protagonist has something to lose and something to gain, the outcome of their story will have a wider impact on the world around them. That world may be as big as the globe or as small as an immediate family. It could be a matter of kingdom-wide cataclysm or the difference between one clan’s eternal shame or triumph.
What the world around your character stands to lose determines the scorn or esteem they are treated with. It determines where help comes from and where to watch for betrayal. It determines how the map itself—the cities or forests or solar systems—plays out in favor of or against our hero’s primary mission.
Please. Treat your setting as a character!
Once you’ve begun to write your setting as a character, you will be astonished at the richness of story it unveils.
About the Writer: Kathryn Tamburri (@KathrynTamburriAuthor) writes clean YA epic fantasy novels which seethe with slow-burn romance. You can find more of her writing tips on The Devo Blog at KathrynTamburri.com, and learn from her publishing journey by subscribing to her fun author newsletter!