Change Your Character’s Setting or Change Your Setting’s Character

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Diving right in, James Scott Bell says this about setting:

Here’s a major tip for setting: Think of it as another character in your book. Make it offer up possibilities of conflict and tension. Make it brood over the proceedings and exert influence. Bell, James Scott (2012-12-10). Revision and Self Editing for Publication: Techniques for Transforming Your First Draft into a Novel that Sells (p. 167). Writer’s Digest Books.

Now, while treating setting as character is nothing earth shattering to any that have researched writing, Bell does a great job of spelling it out. Great characters are dynamic. They change. Great settings can and should do the same. A writer can make this happen in a couple of ways: change the character’s setting or change the setting’s character.

Changing a character’s setting is as duh as it sounds. It’s also the easiest way to avoid complacency and inject interest in your story. Trapped in a sagging story? Road trip! Get your characters out and about. New locales do more than just spice up the storyline; they create new opportunities for conflict. Questing fiction excels at this: The Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit both take advantage to constantly introduce new settings. A reader’s enthusiasm comes not just from getting to know the characters, but exploring these new places and learning how our heroes will react to them. They aren’t just beautiful window dressing. They are active agents seeking to disrupt the heroes’ journey.


One of my favorite parts in The Hunger Games trilogy is in when they visit the other districts. It’s like finally meeting characters we’ve heard so much about. As readers we enjoy getting to know the world or worlds the writer has created or placed us in, and seeing what obstacles those new environments present. (Spoiler Alert-as if you didn’t know) In Catching Fire (Book 2 of The Hunger Games) Katniss and Peeta, visit District 11, the home of Rue, a young girl she allied with in The Hunger Games. Katniss delivers a heartfelt speech and some of the occupants show defiance to the Capitol by saluting her. Several who started the salute are killed. Rather than just give us a change of scenery, the author uses the scenery/unnamed inhabitants to create an event that develops Katniss’ character. A writer should always remember: setting in a novel is not just a stage dressing. It should be there for a reason: to act and interact with the characters.

Buuuttt, of course, not all stories lend themselves to an extravagant change of scenery, in which case…

The other option is to change the setting’s character. This works in stories where the physical locale doesn’t change. Not a bad thing. Maybe necessary. In middle grade lit, the main characters can’t drive. They may be limited by that or any number of other reasons. You may even read stories where the characters do travel, but many of the backdrops are so similar that travel does little more than provide the element of movement. Again, not a bad thing. Movement is most always good, but it doesn’t provide the added oomph of a location wardrobe change. Good writers use this to their advantage. They change the setting’s nature. A barren, desert can become a howling sand storm or be overrun by solar flares. A frozen tundra can become deadly with the onset of nightfall. Even a normal urban setting creates issues that can fight against the protagonist. Traffic, pollution, etc. The trick is to find something within the setting that can create an additional barrier for the protagonist to keep him or her from achieving the goal.

3timesIn Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage, the tiny North Carolina town of Tupelo Landing serves as a quaint backdrop. But Turnage uses it expertly as a character who won’t be ignored. She first uses a hurricane to tragically/magically deliver the MC, Mo LoBeau, to the town via a raging river. The reader never forgets that as Mo is always trying to use the river in her goal to find her “Upstream Mother”, her real mother the storm separated her from. Finally, in the end when the bad guys are closing in and Mo’s loved ones are misplaced, a hurricane comes back into play to wreak havoc once more and dial up the tension and heighten the conflict. In this way, the town and surroundings have a story that’s told. The setting becomes a character with its own arc.

In sum, treating setting like a character means that it functions like one–with goals, characteristics, and attributes that can be good, bad, or a mixture of the two. And like a character, what it should never be is boring.

Feel free to post some of your favorite settings and tell us why?

Twitter: @jdavidsonwrites





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