In storytelling, our number one job is to make readers care. We want to ensure that our fiction captivates them on many levels and that our characters seem like living, breathing people who continue to exist in readers’ minds long after the book closes.
So how do we do this?
Well, it may not seem like the obvious choice, but the setting can be one of the best tools through which to organically reveal truths about your characters.
Here are two quick tips on how to use the setting to characterize your cast for readers:
Choose Emotionally Relevant Locations
As the gods of our own little universes, we have the power to choose literally everything. But when it comes to the setting, the decision is often a halfhearted one—since the setting is just a backdrop, right? Wrong.
Every character has a history of blissful interludes, toxic run-ins, embarrassing moments, and traumatic episodes. And long after these formative events have been forgotten or buried, their settings will continue to hold significance for the characters involved.
For instance, let’s say that after being out of the romance game for a while, your heroine has agreed to go on a first date, and you need to decide on a setting.
Instead of falling back on a generic location for this scene, brainstorm some possibilities that hold significance for the character. Maybe her date has asked to meet at the same café where her fiancé once dumped her. Or in the park where she was mugged. Or at the bar where the guy she’s been in love with since tenth grade works as a bouncer.
Any of these settings can work because they’re already emotionally charged for the protagonist.
A first date can be difficult in and of itself; experiencing it in one of these places is going to heighten the character’s emotions and bring back old memories when she’d rather avoid them, ensuring that she won’t be at her best. When it comes to the important scenes in your story, complicate matters for your protagonist and tap into his or her emotions by choosing settings with personal significance.
Get Personal with the Details
Showing rather than telling is the most powerful means of providing insight into the personality of your protagonist and other cast members. Rather than explaining your characters through boring chunks of narrative, hone in on the personal details within a given setting that will tell readers about the people inhabiting it:
I surveyed Rossa’s spotless kitchen. Dishes in their racks—sparkling. Wooden counters—scrubbed to a stone-like smoothness. Rossa herself—hair perfectly arranged, clothes crisp even at this hour, the frivolous fall of lace at her throat. I crossed my arms and couldn’t help wondering, again, how she and Dad could be meant for each other.
Here we have a scene that says loads about its owner. Rossa is meticulous when it comes to tidiness—both for her home and herself. You get the feeling that she values propriety and appearances. And we learn something about the narrator, too: she isn’t so concerned with all of that. She disdains it, in fact, and doesn’t seem to like her Dad’s love interest very much. All of this we’re able to infer from the simple description of a kitchen.
Personal spaces can be quite telling. Make them do more than simply set the scene by zooming in on those details that reveal something about your characters. And for those vital scenes in your story, put your cast members on edge by thoughtfully choosing the settings—ones that add an emotional component or will up the stakes. Resist the temptation to settle for a generic setting and start putting your locations to work for you and your characters.
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her latest publications are all about settings: The Rural and Urban Setting Thesauruses showcase over 200 different possible story locations, highlighting their associated sights, sounds, textures, tastes, and smells so authors can effectively describe them for readers.
Becca is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find her online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.