author, creative writing, writing

Using Setting to Develop Characters

I’ve been reading a lot recently about setting and how important it is to a story. I’ve spoken before about finding the perfect setting for your novel, and the impact it can have on the plot. But the main topic I’ve been focusing on recently is how writers can use setting to develop their characters.

We all know that crafting characters isn’t just about defining their physical traits, or even outlining their personality. There’s more to it than that, and setting can help you show more about your characters and who they are in a subtle way.

The places they choose to be
You can tell a lot about a person from the places they choose to be. Here are some ideas and examples.

  • Home Life
    • Somebody who chooses to live by the sea may like the calm and the fresh air
    • Somebody who chooses to live in secluded countryside may like the quiet, the nature. OR they may be on the run, hiding, determined not to be found.
    • Somebody who chooses to live int he city may be ambitious in the career, energetic and always wanting something to do, fond of the bustle and different cultures and lives intertwining.
    • What sort of home do they choose to have? A cosy apartment, a swanky manor, a rustic beach hut?
    • How do they choose to live? Are they messy or tidy? Do they keep everything in neat order or do they let the garden overgrow until it’s more of a jungle?
  • Holidays and Vacations
    •  Does your character like their vacations to be relaxing, peaceful, tranquil?
    • Does your character prefer to take breaks somewhere fast paced, with lots to see and do?
    • Do they like to stay close to home, to avoid flying  or because they get home sick? Or do they prefer to be as far away from the life they know as possible?
  • Work / Career
    • Where do they choose to work? Do they love the systems and organisation of an office, or do they prefer something artistic and spontaneous?

You can begin to see how choice can tell you a lot about a person and therefore a character, and their choice in setting is a big one.
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The places they’re forced to be
So, just above we spoke about the places people/characters choose to be. But you can also learn a lot from where somebody is forced to be, and this is where conflict comes in, and creates a dynamic in the plot.

  • Entrapment 
    • Are they forcefully and physically trapped somewhere? A prison, a hostage situation?
    • Are they trapped somewhere in less extreme measures? Maybe a boarding school that they hate or a hospital they are too sick to leave?
    • Characters can be trapped by circumstances. Afraid to leave somewhere, bound by a duty to care for somebody else, etc…
  • Somewhere they HAVE to go as part of their journey
    • In fantasy, horror, sci-fi and adventure novels this is often a major conflict in the story. Do they have to visit a dark and dangerous place because it’s a key part of their journey/adventure?
    • It’s also common, particularly in thriller/crime novels that somebody may have to visit a place from their past, and it’s so important to the situation their in, they can’t avoid it.
    • Consider why they hate the setting, and why they would only ever go if forced to.
  • Somewhere they’re forced to stay due to lack of money
    • Talking about choice in the first point is a real contrast to those who don’t have such luxury. Are they forced to stay in a dead-end job because they need the money? Forced to live in a squat because they’ve no means to rent their own apartment? These are all very shaping factors for a character.

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The places they run from
Sometimes people leave a place due their circumstances. It’s another fantastic way to drop hints or clues about a character. Where have they run from? Their school, their home, the place they grew up? And more importantly why? Was it full of bad memories? Are they in danger? Or perhaps they’re the one who has done something terrible, and they need to escape and hide before anybody finds out. novel writing (12)

The things they notice in/about a place
This is one of my favourite ways that writers show readers more about their characters’ personalities. What do they notice about a place? What don’t they? Take London for example. Two very different will view the city differently.

If a character focuses on the vibrant red of the buses, the way the sunshine hits the buildings, the colourful clothes of all the people from different cultures, the sweet smell of street food, the sound of people laughing…you may be telling the reader that person loves London, or that they are happy, or an optimist.

If a character focuses on the grey concrete slabs, the soulless glass buildings, the roar of the traffic, the smell of drainage and rubbish bins, the people pushing and shoving in the busy streets…you see the same place as the above, but through a very different perspective, which tells you the character is in a place they hate, or they feel afraid, or they are simply downright negative!

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How do you use setting to show the reader more about your characters?

I’d love to hear your thoughts so do comment below,
Until then,
Keep writing,

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28 thoughts on “Using Setting to Develop Characters”

  1. I think your examples, M.L, show how setting influences the mood of the story as well as developing character. I use a lot of dialogue for characterization. Including unusual interests, habits, eccentricities, collections, and hobbies can also help to flesh out a character.

    Liked by 1 person

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