Using setting to develop character writer who’s been at this a while will tell you that in the best novels, setting, plot and character are intertwined. One cannot exist completely separate from the other, and they all influence each other to make a whole, interesting story.

This means that building upon one aspect of your novel often informs work you’re doing on other aspects. The history of your world, particularly the development of prejudice, impacts how your characters behave and are perceived. If one or more of your characters are in marginalized groups in the society you’ve created, they’re going to interact differently with other characters and be treated differently too.

Of course, how you can play with discrimination in fantasy settings and how that impacts characters’ lives is an article in its own right, maybe even a book.

What I’d really like to talk about today is something a little different: what you can learn about your characters by how they interpret setting. The details your character notices first–and how that changes based on their mood–can tell you a lot about your character: what they think about, how certain objects remind them of their past, how they feel about a certain place.

Today’s exercise is to write a scene where one of the major characters in your novel walks into a public space, twice.

The first time you write this scene, your character has just gotten some good news and is feeling great. What details do they notice? How are they walking? Do they often use large words to describe ordinary objects when a small word could work just as well? All these things say something about your character.

The second time you write this scene, your character’s had a really long day and is feeling down about their life and the direction it’s going in. Are the details they notice the same as the first time they walked into this room? Are they paying more attention to what’s going on in the room, or to how they feel? Does their mood change the language they use to describe things and people in the room?

When you’ve written both versions of the scene, compare the two and take notes on anything that leaps out of you: particularly poignant descriptions, a tendency to ignore their surroundings because they’re focused on themselves, a specific relationship with the place you chose to write about. Any small thing you notice about the character–or the setting, if you think it’s one you’ll use again–is worth noting.

What did you learn about your character today? Do you think it will help you write a better novel?

4 thoughts on “Using setting to develop character

    • dlgunn

      It is! I did something similar during a writing challenge this summer and was blown away by how much I realized about the character I did the exercise with.

  • Characters in films are what they say and do, but much of character in fiction comes from what the person observes and thinks (and what they don’t observe or think). Orson Scott Card mentioned this in his book about writing characters, but he referred to it as ‘attitude’ I think. I found this post when I was just searching around. It’s deceptively simple, but it works. Good stuff.

    • dlgunn

      Hi Sean,

      I’m really glad you found me! I definitely think attitude is a huge part of what we convey when we pay particular attention to how a character interacts with their setting–both overall attitude and attitude in the moment. After all, our own attitudes change from day to day. Our characters’ attitudes should as well.

      Thanks for stopping by!

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