Your setting is a living character

Make your setting a character. 

I’ve recently learned this and think it’s advice that I can follow, and plan on following, as I go through revisions of my latest book. In my current MS, my setting feels dead, a stagnant detail that a reader can’t really envision. So as I edit my MS (again) I’m going to be focusing on bringing setting to life. Making my setting a character seems like sound advice.

Being of a science/skeptical background, I of course had to do research on how to bring setting to life and if viewing your setting as its own character is enough.

Turns out, it is and it isn’t.

One of the goals of writing the setting is to find the unique setting elements that matter to your characters, and possibly, to your readers. A setting is alive when its elements, its objects are interwoven with emotions. Think of people: it’s not just their actions, their personalities or behaviors that make them them, it’s also their emotions, their responses to events or circumstances within their environments. The same goes with settings: it’s not just the objects that make the setting, it’s the emotions attached to the objects, or the emotions characters feel towards the objects.

That is, the setting is alive when its details are experienced not only by descriptions, but also by the way the characters experience those details.

Setting should also challenge your characters. Not only physically by, say, having to climb a mountain. But also socially and emotionally, perhaps spiritually if it fits into your book. Your characters should have a dynamic relationship with their setting. Just as you interact with, and react to, your environment, the same goes for your characters.

One thing I’ve thought of when editing, and as I learn more about how to write, is that making your setting a character isn’t enough. At least, not in the way I was initially thinking about it. I think sometimes in my own writing, even if I approach the setting as a character, it’s easy for me to approach it as a dead character. I have to remind myself that setting needs to be alive, be passionate if it fits with the story. It’s not enough to describe the objects and details and emotions regarding a setting; you have to also make the setting have its own mind, be its own main character. 

…You have to also make the setting have its own mind, be its own main character 

Your setting should be both an agonist and an antagonist for your characters. That is, your setting should both simulate and frustrate your characters. Your environment both stimulates and frustrates you, so why shouldn’t the same happen for your characters. They’re people, too, you know.

Your setting should both stimulate and frustrate your characters.

*Note: This article was originally published on January 19, 2016 and March 26, 2020.

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