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Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Character’s Relationship with His Setting

Meg Moseley is still a Californian at heart although she's lived more than half her life in other states. Holding jobs that ranged from candle-maker to administrative assistant, Meg eventually contributed human-interest columns for a suburban edition of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Contemporary fiction remains her real love. The author of When Sparrows Fall, she lives in Atlanta near the foothills of the Southern Appalachians with her husband.

NR: To be entered in a drawing for Meg's book Gone South, leave a comment. The winner will be announced on Novel Rocket's Facebook page tomorrow. Be sure to like us there!

Making the most of a character’s relationship with his setting

I’ll never forget this classic advice from Donald Maass: Make it worse. If you want to hook your reader, ramp up your story’s tension by making things worse for your protagonist. Don’t let her get too comfy.

For a long time, I focused almost exclusively on plot events to add tension and conflict. I would dream up twists and turns. Action. Disasters and mini-disasters, preferably stemming from the character’s choices. Those are all good and necessary in the right doses, but lately I’ve realized that a story’s setting can be a very helpful tool in the “Make it worse” toolbox.

Let’s differentiate between small-picture settings (a cornfield, a boudoir, or a cantina) and big-picture settings (Nebraska in 2014, Paris in 1910, or the planet Tattooine). Although small-picture settings can also offer plenty of challenges for your characters, the big-picture setting can be fertile ground for story-size conflicts and tension.

Consider the wealth of material you’re given to work with in a story’s setting. Setting is more than time and place. It includes the social context or culture of the story as well as physical factors like climate, landscape, and the flora and fauna of the area. Combined with your other story elements, the setting can be a dynamic power that exerts pressure on your character and changes him.

At the same time, your character can and should affect the setting too. It goes both ways, and it may vary greatly depending on your character’s relationship with the setting.

Has he been there for a long time? Is he a native son? A contented native son or one who’s desperate to leave? Is he a critic of this place or is he one of its defenders?

Or is he an inmate of his setting? A character doesn’t have to be locked up in a literal prison to be a prisoner. He could be trapped in an abusive relationship, a rigid belief system, or a miserable job.

Or maybe your character is a newcomer to your setting. What kind of newcomer is she? Is she there on business, with no emotional connection to the place so far? Or is she a refugee who’s grateful to have escaped a worse place?

Maybe she’s an invader instead. An invader might change the setting more than the setting changes her. An example of this is Tish McComb, the protagonist of Gone South. A Michigander who moves to a small town in Alabama, Tish soon realizes she’s not exactly welcome there because the locals see her as one of those know-it-all Yankees. When she tackles the problem, she becomes a catalyst for change in the town.

Half the fun of writing the story was seeing the locals from Tish’s perspective and seeing her from theirs. Their opinions were decidedly different because each character had a different way of experiencing and processing the world they lived in.

Part of a character’s point-of-view may be dependent on his role in the story’s setting: native son, invader, or prisoner, for instance. He will perceive everything through his very individual POV, not strictly through the physical senses but also through his emotional filters. The reader will be influenced too, as he identifies with the character, so a character’s POV is more than just his “camera angle.” It’s also the reader’s window into the story world and into the character’s heart as he faces new troubles at every turn.

Many, many elements go into a novel, but I love the interesting combinations that unfold when I play with setting, character, and POV. They’re inseparable and interrelated.

The big-picture setting is one of the most important decisions you’ll make for your character. It’s the world he’ll live in for several hundred pages, so you’ll want to be sure—before you’ve written forty thousand words—that it’s the most appropriate world for him. A world that gives you every opportunity to make things worse.

Gone South

Leaving frosty Michigan for the Deep South was never a blip in the simple plans Tish McComb imagined for her life, dreams of marriage and family that were dashed five years earlier in a tragic accident. Now an opportunity to buy her great-great-great-grandparents’ Civil War era home beckons Tish to Noble, Alabama, a Southern town in every sense of the word. She wonders if God has given her a new dream— the old house filled with friends, her vintage percolator bubbling on the sideboard.

When Tish discovers that McCombs aren’t welcome in town, she feels like a Yankee behind enemy lines. Only local antiques dealer George Zorbas seems willing to give her a chance. What’s a lonely outcast to do but take in Noble’s resident prodigal, Melanie Hamilton, and hope that the two can find some much needed acceptance in each other.

Problem is, old habits die hard, and Mel is quite set in her destructive ways. With Melanie blocked from going home by her influential father, Tish must try to manage her incorrigible houseguest as she attempts to prove her own worth in a town that seems to have forgotten that every sinner needs God-given mercy, love and forgiveness.


  1. Great words of encouragement, Meg. Thank you for sharing some of your wisdom.

  2. Thanks Meg. This reminder comes just in time for my re-write. I am trying to make all the actions and responses be a result-or come out of-their character.

  3. Thank you Meg. Did you intend fro your words to come across as encouragement? They encouraged me, currently bogged down in some unending edits. I'll be looking for elements of setting to climb out of some of those ruts.

  4. Thank you for the wonderful post Meg. It is one for my "Keeper File".

    I would love to be entered to win a copy of Gone South. I love the cover too!

    Smiles & Blessings,
    Cindy W.

    countrybear52 AT yahoo DOT com

  5. Speaking of settings, my mystery is set in the West Virginia Appalachians! Nice to know you're from GA, Meg! And I read the blurb on your book and would be DELIGHTED to win it. I also want to read WHEN SPARROWS FALL someday soon. Please throw me in the drawing! heatherdaygilbert (at) gmail (dot) com.

  6. Great post! It makes me want to start a new novel right now. And it makes me see how many possibilities there are in my WIPs to up the tension through the setting.

    I haven't written in months--no time. But this post makes me want to get back to it.

    Your new novel sounds wonderful, too. I can't wait to read it!

  7. I was away from my computer all morning, so it was fun to come back to all these comments! I'm glad the post is an encouragement. I think setting is *so* much fun to play with, in the planning stages of a story.

  8. Thanks for a terrific blog, Meg. My WIP is set in a nature reserve and you've made me realise what an important role this setting can play in my book.

    Please enter me in the draw

    Many thanks

    Ruth Ann

    ruthanndell (at) mweb (dot) co (dot) za

  9. I love to write outdoor settings like your nature reserve, Ruth Ann. They can change so much with the weather, the season, and the time of day or night. The critters that live there could add some tension or action too, even if it's not quite on the scale of Indiana Jones and his fear of snakes.

    I think it's just plain fun to play with possible combinations of characters, settings, and various elements of the settings.

  10. I'm almost done with Gone South. I LOVE it. :) Great post.

  11. Couldn't agree more on the the importance of setting. Jack London, Hemingway, Mark Twain--we could go on and on--understood this.

    Suzanne Collins used setting effectively in The Hunger Games. George R.R. Martin is masterful at it in his Songs of Fire and Ice series.

    One of the best visual uses of it I've seen lately is the Masterpiece Theater series, Downton Abbey. I just posted an article about this myself:

    Writers who overlook the importance of setting do so at the peril of the story. They cheat the reader, too.

    Thanks, Meg, for this wonderful reminder not to overlook it.

  12. Jim, you're so right. Classic novels are classics because they're the complete package of good writing. Setting is an important part of the package.

    Now I'm off to read your article. Thanks for giving the link.

  13. Thanks for sharing your excellent tips, Meg. This was a good reminder that I need to add some depth of setting to my current work in progress. I tend to focus on dialogue a lot and forget that the people need a place in which to talk. (smile)

  14. I do that too, Maryann. I'll often start with talking heads. That's as good a starting place as any other, but things don't get interesting until I decide on a setting. It becomes something for them to interact with while they're also interacting with each other.

  15. The Tale of the Sawtelle Dogs does this as well. Setting is great in that book (as well as POV and character!!)


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