Guest Post: Kimberley Griffiths Little on Deepening Character with Setting

By Kimberley Griffiths Little

By the time you’ve written several manuscripts, most writers begin to realize that you’re either a Character Writer or a Plot Writer. Meaning that the jump-start in your brain comes from a particular character that inspires you–or a tidbit of a plot, some sort of quirk or danger in the world.

Me, I’m a setting writer. Beautiful plantations, medieval cities, unique terrain, are a springboard of ideas. Setting inspires me deeply. When I feel that tingly magic of a certain place oozing through my soul, I dive into my research with arms stretched wide and then nearly drown, surfacing only to hit more libraries, buy more books, do university or special collections research, and interview local folks to explore it as fully as I can.

Of course, character and plot intersect constantly. They are the two most talked about novel elements.

But which comes first, plot or character?

It’s the chicken-and-egg phenomenon. Which is more important? Is our main character the most important element in our stories or books; their personality and relationships and motivations? Or is it plot, the problems, the personal journey, and the very cool adventure we’re weaving together?

Character and plot do go hand in hand–but to me they are very much the same because you cannot have one without the other.

“Your novel is the story (plot) of a person (character) and how they grow and change (character) during the course of the events (plot).”

So you may be wondering how setting intersects with character and plot? Does setting really matter? Isn’t it one of those elements that can be added later, or decided at any time, and does it actually play a crucial role?

Well, try getting away with that to any science fiction or fantasy writer! World-building (setting) for a believable science fiction story can take months or years and is an integral element in a can’t-do-without-it -way for the world and plot elements to make sense.

Think of Harry Potter without Hogwarts, “Mad Max” without Thunderdome, or Jane Eyre without Lowood School, or Katniss without District 12.

Your characters simply cannot be floating “somewhere” in time and space. We’ve all read novels where the story takes place in an undefined or made up city. Any Town, USA. Maybe the state is named, maybe not. The characters and plot of a story set in the Bronx is going to be completely different than Tucson or San Francisco, the plains of Kansas, or the swamps of Louisiana.

Stories I wrote eons ago were like that—set Anyplace, Someplace, I’mNotSureWherePlace—and they weren’t very strong stories. My characters did not come alive, they weren’t three-dimensional people, and my plots just didn’t matter that much because where was everything happening? Some cliff? Some desert? Some shopping mall? A vanilla person living in a vanilla environment having a sort of vanilla adventure. No offense to vanilla lovers out there!

Setting, is the place your characters were born, the place they live, the neighborhood, house, specific city and state.

Checklist of How Setting Influences Your Character and Plot

  1. The type of person they are, their personality, likes/dislikes, fears, habits.
  2. The family they have, the neighborhood/town/city/state they live in.
  3. The problems they might encounter.
  4. Other people who influence them–for good or ill.
  5. Their religion and belief system.
  6. The culture/quirks/mannerisms of the setting.
  7. The nuances of your character’s dialogue, their inner thoughts and problem solving.
  8. How your character(s) view the world.

All these elements spring from setting.

In a book that takes you to a place you’ve never been before…. When the author brings that place–that location–alive, setting often become its own character. You can practically feel the setting, taste it, touch it, hear it, and smell it. When a book does that, the reader is truly transported to a new world and is able to get inside the main character in a whole new way and on many different levels.

Adventures in Setting

Over the years, I’ve practically become an amateur historian or anthropologist. I love to see new places, to experience what the local people do, find out what they eat and wear, what they think and believe, discover the types of families they have, their environment, work, dialect.

Twelve years ago when I first stepped onto a boat on Bayou Teche, Louisiana, I knew I was in a completely new and magical world. I’ve returned so often that now I stay with local friends I’ve made. I’ve visited every small town in Cajun country, eaten the food, talked with everybody I can at stores, gas stations, restaurants, and museums. I’ve danced at several fais-do dos, visited schools and graveyards and homes.

I also make sure I’m out in those bayous and swamps every time I visit, too. It is deeply magical and satisfying to me. I breathe the air, feel the sun, take in all the sounds and smells and sights.

It’s gratifying when local people read my books and think I was born and raised there. I want to punch the air and shout, “Yes! I did it!”

Examples of how setting works:

The house and town and environment of Livie Mouton from The Healing Spell (Scholastic, 2010, 2011), affects how she sees the world, her relationship with her parents, her religion, the way she speaks, her favorite foods, her summer bedroom in the galerie, as well as the things she does (like hiding a baby alligator, going to visit the priest to light candles for her comatose mother, or visit a Cajun healer to find out how she can bring her mamma back to life).

The bayou setting also affects the way her older sister gets married, the worldview of her aunt who comes to visit, and the relationship she has with her rival cousin.

So setting affects the plot as well as character in huge, meaningful ways.

In Circle of Secrets (Scholastic, 2011), my character Shelby did not grow up on the bayou, She’s a “town” girl. She’s never been in a boat, never lived in a swamp cabin (or so she thinks!), and she’s homesick in this strange and wild environment.

Shelby’s background affects how she thinks, her opinions, how she interacts with the people of Bayou Bridge, and it greatly affects the relationship with her mother. Shelby’s experiences affect the plot in huge and meaningful ways. Especially when she ends up alone in a boat and finds herself in the middle of the bayou during a deadly storm. How does she react? What are her fears? How will she survive?

For years and years, I wrote as a setting writer, while every other writer talked about starting from character or plot. I thought I was doing something wrong. Backwards. Now I realize my gut instincts were good for me.

I’ve also noticed that setting has a bigger role than ever before in new books, and I’m happy to see it. I think full realized settings brings stories and characters alive in more meaningful and exciting ways.

In the comments, please share some of the books you love where setting stood out to you as a reader or a writer.

Or share some of your own adventure stories in setting, and how it’s shaping your story and characters in new ways.

Cynsational Notes

Kimberley on Kimberley:

Every time Kimberley Griffiths Little starts a new book project, she tends to make a lot of chocolate chip cookies—which don’t necessarily need baking to gobble up from the spoon . . .

She is the author of five novels for middle-grade readers. The Healing Spell (Scholastic) was chosen as a Bank Street College Best Books for 2011 and won The Whitney Award for the Best Youth Novel of 2010.

Her newest novel, Circle of Secrets, was recently released and two more novels are forthcoming from Scholastic.

Kimberley adores research trips, anything ancient and mystical – which will manifest itself in deliciously romantic ways in her recently sold YA trilogy to HarperCollins, pitched as the YA version of The Red Tent. Kimberley’s thinking it might be time to switch to non-fat yogurt for her writing sessions.

17 thoughts on “Guest Post: Kimberley Griffiths Little on Deepening Character with Setting

  1. Kimberly, thanks for getting me kick-started this morning as I made some notes about setting and answered for myself how my setting is affecting my characters and plot.

    Oh, I have so many favorite settings:
    The oyster shell road in Tater, Texas in Kathi Appelt's Keeper felt like a real town that I could really drive to. I want to find my way to the magical island in Eva Ibbotson's The Secret of Platform 13, if I could just find the gump. I love when a writer can make their setting feel so real, you want to go find it yourself. Who hasn't wanted to find platform 9 and 3/4 in Kings Cross Station?

    I tend to use familiar settings, but change them up just enough that someone won't find a particular intersection and then be able to catch a mistake. If there's just a bit of fiction, I feel safe. Cynthia knows a bit about this, I'd say!

    Thanks for getting the gears going this morning.

  2. Kimberley,
    I'm so glad you stuck with hour gut instincts as a setting writer! You're stories are rich, distinct and as you say, your setting takes on character of your own. Your post was a wonderful way to start the day and kick start the thought process!

  3. Meredith: So glad this was helpful! Cool idea to change up a familiar place, too. Like alternate reality books, such as Victorian Steampunk.:-)

    Caroline: Thanks so much, and glad to know we're similarly inspired!

    Tere: *Love*, Tere! I thought I was alone for so many years . . . and good luck with your submissions! Look forward to hearing about a big, whopping sale.

    Pamela: Wow, thank you, Pamela, you are a sweetheart. And happy to know I could kick you today, LOL!

  4. Kimberley,
    I too am inspired by setting. Though mine is more historical setting than actual place. It is the time period that captures me, followed by the buildings/technology/etc. I must say, like you, my biggest inspiration is chocolate chip cookies. Hmmm – Nano leads to diet-o!

  5. I just got home from Critique Group and an editing session on my YA novel. I am most definitely a "setting writer" like you. Thanks for the encouragement and insight into how this can actually be an asset. Now I need to go work on my plotting…

  6. M, I'm thrilled to hear that you're already applying Kimberley's post to your writing. Agreed on the setting for Kathi's Keeper. She's arguably the queen of this in southwestern fantasy.

    And yes, I love the familiar that is not quite. Turning corners imagined, but seemingly just out of sight.

    Caroline and Tere, I'm likewise a setting writer. I think most fantasists are, but I also drew heavily on the Chicago and small-town Kansas settings for Indian Shoes and Rain Is Not My Indian Name respectively.

    Christina, I'd count both time and place as setting. And yes to cookies, too.

    Gilmores, good luck with that plot.

    Janice, I love how setting can inform character–including putting a character in a setting that is new to him/her. Stretching comfort zone…

  7. Kimberley, thanks again for sharing your thoughts, and congratulations on your success! You're not only a talented writer but a dear pal, and it's an honor to showcase your awesomeness to my readers.

  8. Just what I needed to know to give me hope for this NaNo book.

    Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge with us. I can't believe, in all my years of writing, I've never learned the importance of setting until now.

    And the best part? It sunk in!
    Very excited to jump back in. You rock!

  9. What a great post. I've always used setting as my jumping off point, too. After living several years in the middle east, the desert appears frequently in my stories. Its uniqueness has definitely affected the way I write. I'm curious where you took the first picture in your post? It looks similar to towns I saw in the ME. Thanks again!

  10. Golly Gee Whiz, what fantastic comments! many thanks to:

    Christina: Yay for cookies!

    The Gilmores: I'm honored to have inspired you – well, and your amazing crit group!

    Janice: Love getting inspiration!

    Deb: Wowza girl – I'm "print-worthy!"

    Lesli: GO NANO! That is awesome and I'm cheering your success! You rock!

    Kimberly: You've lived in the Middle East?!? – so jealous – we have to TALK one of these days! – I *just* sold a YA trilogy to Harpercollins set in ancient Mesopotamia about the Bedouin's women's world and belly dance and the goddess temples! The picture in my post is Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico where I live. It's a 2,000 year old village set on a 400 foot mesa about an hour West of Albuquerque. Really awesome and magical. One of my favorite places in NM and with dear friends who live there. I've used the desert a lot in my previous stories, too. Probably because I live here – The Land of Enchantment. 🙂

  11. Deb, so glad you enjoyed the post!

    Lesli, good luck with nano!

    Kimberly, I love the desert, too. I've never lived there, but as a visitor, I find it so peaceful.

    Taffy, I'm likewise a huge HS fan!

    And Kimberley, thanks again for sharing your wisdom, and congratulations on your success!

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