Exploring Character and Setting at the Same Time

Sometimes, either before you begin a novel or between edits of a novel, you realize you need to learn more about your characters or your world before you can dive into the main story. Although it might be tempting to rush into the story, it pays to do this work so that creating the next draft is less painful. In order to maximize efficiency, I’ve found a way to explore character and setting at the same time.

This doesn’t include research. While learning about your setting always informs what your characters are like and how they react to things based on where they’re from, research rarely leads directly to new realizations about characters.

What does lead to new realizations about characters is free writing. But how do you use free writing to learn about your setting at the same time?

It’s easy. All you have to do is ask your character a simple question about the world, country or city they’re in. Ask them about their neighbourhood. Ask them about their favourite type of food–is it rare where they are or common? Where is it from? Ask them any kind of question you want that has to do with the world around them, and start writing out their answer. Let them inform you about their world. My best scenes have been written when I felt like I was channelling a character and that is your goal here: to channel the character.

This exercise works well to reveal both character and setting because, frankly, the best way to learn about a world–especially one you’re created yourself–is by putting yourself in the shoes of someone who lives there. So, if you’re trying to explore your characters while getting a better understanding your world, try asking your characters one of these questions:

1. What is the biggest festival of the year in your town/city/kingdom?

2. What grows best on the farms near your house?

3. How do you celebrate your gods?

4. What are naming ceremonies like in your town/city/village?

5. Who is the nicest person in town?

6. Who is the meanest person in town?

7. Do any of the local lords have bastard children?

8. How does your town/city/village draw tourists?

9. Who is in charge of your town/city/village?

10. Do you like the person in charge of your town/city/village?

These questions are just a small sample of the hundreds of questions you can ask your characters to find out more about the world you’re writing in and to get used to listening to them and channelling them. Think of it sort of like journalling for your character. As you might use a prompt to work with in your journal–say, ‘my favourite childhood book’–use these questions to work with your characters. You’re bound to make new discoveries along the way and soon you’ll be used to writing in each character’s voice. Best of all, you get to see your world from the eyes of someone who actually lives there.

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