This is an extract from my book, How to Write Believable Characters. Out now!
When it comes to settings, you have several options: they could reflect your character’s personality, they could influence how they feel, or they could become characters themselves.
The house they live in is the perfect example of this. Someone who lives in a very orderly house is likely to want a lot of control over their life. You can further show this by the way they interact with other people—do they try to tell them what to do? Is it a statement or an order, over a request?
A messier house can reflect a messier mind. Or a mind with too much going on and no real focus.
An alternative for someone who feels out of control could be to have an overly tidy environment—they keep their home pristine as they feel the rest of their life is falling apart. It’s a way of exerting control when they feel like they don’t have any.
Other places they hang out, like a coffee shop, can be indicative of the genre you write in. Coffee shops and restaurants are huge parts of the romance genre, and in fact many books because you’ll find few people who don’t visit them at least on occasion. You’ll struggle to find a character in an epic fantasy novel hanging out in a coffee shop, but you might find them in a tavern.
To bring your characters together, consider where they’re likely to hang out. Where would they meet for the first time? What about the last? The place characters meet can lay the foundation for their relationship or act as a metaphor if chosen correctly.
There are some obvious ones, like students meeting at a bar or a house party. If you wanted something less obvious, maybe they meet when they go skydiving or volunteering for a charity. The possibilities of places where your characters can meet for the first time are endless.
The setting for a conflict scene can be an interesting one, too. An argument in a supermarket will play out very differently to one at home. Or what about one in a kitchen, with someone who has violent tendencies and is around a lot of knives? Don’t forget your setting in a scene like this—they help to break up or increase the tension.
Romance scenes can also play out differently depending on the location. People are always going to be more relaxed when they’re at home, but what if they’re in a bar and the person they’re making out with is more comfortable than they are with PDAs? Would they be prepared to sneak off to a toilet or a quiet alley to do the deed, or would just the thought of it put them off completely?
The way your character responds to the situations they find themselves in, whether that’s by chance or because of another character, will drive your plot forwards and force your character to arc. However, this only works if they’re faced with settings or situations that make them uncomfortable such as an argument in a public place or getting fired from a job they’ve had for thirty years.
Small towns and big cities
The overall setting of your story is also important. Is your story set in your local community? Is it set somewhere you’ve visited before? Or somewhere you’ve made up?
If it’s somewhere you know, great! You’ll be able to bring it to life really easily.
If it’s somewhere you haven’t visited before, make sure you do as much research as possible. What’s it look like? What does it smell like? What’s the culture like? Consider how it’s different from where you live or where you’ve visited before. Places like New York and London can feel like characters themselves in your book if you describe them in the right way.
If you’re writing a fantasy or sci-fi novel, the world in which your story is set needs to come to life for the reader to understand the character’s responses to certain situations, particularly if they’re different to what happens in your target audience’s culture. World building is a whole different topic, so I don’t want to go into too much detail about it in a book about characterisation, but a vivid and three-dimensional world is significant in these genres. Memorable fantasy and sci-fi comes from vivid worlds and characters first and foremost. Just think of how many popular sci-fi and fantasy franchises have been forgiven for their overcomplicated or poor plots because their audience was invested in the characters and the world in which they lived.
Even if you don’t write fantasy or sci-fi, you’re likely to have to do world building. For instance, I have my own fictional pop culture in my What Happens in Hollywood universe as it allows me to reference things without them becoming dated. It also allows things to happen in the stories that couldn’t if my characters were real people. That’s often why politicians are fictional in stories including them, too.
When doing something like this, it’s about taking what you need of what’s real, then using creative license to turn it into what you need for your story. Crime and hospital dramas do this all the time—characters don’t wear scrubs when in the morgue, they don’t wear shoe protectors or gloves at crime scenes, or women have long hair dangling over their faces. That’s all kinds of wrong in real life, but on TV, some producers prefer how things look if they take some creative license.
Setting as a source of conflict
Your setting can be just as much of a driving force as anything else in your story, so never underestimate it.
A story set in a small town compared to a big city will have very different repercussions for a character should they make a mistake. If someone cheats on their partner in a small town, even now, it could harm their reputation. If it happens in the big city—unless it’s a tight-knit circle or they’re a person of influence—it’s unlikely to make much of a difference to them.
One of the reasons Gilmore Girls is memorable is because of the unique small town it’s set in. Not only are the characters within it fun and quirky, but so are the events that are regularly held within the town. Each event has its own backstory, which fleshes out the world, and the events are almost always used as a way for some sort of drama to kick-off for the mother/daughter duo. One that’s always stuck with me is when Rory goes through her first breakup during a twenty-four-hour dance marathon. The dance marathon setting heightens the tension between the characters, as does the sleep deprivation, leading to Rory’s first boyfriend to dump her in a very public way. Creative settings like this help to make these important events more memorable and gut-wrenching than if they’d happened in an everyday setting.
Another way to use setting is to write a series that doesn’t focus on characters, but on a place. Sherryl Woods, who writes Sweet Magnolias and Chesapeake Shores has done this, starting off with the series focusing on one family or circle of friends, and over time, extending it to include people who move to the town and befriend the characters the reader already knows. Since series will always be an easier sell than standalone books, this is a clever marketing tactic. The small-town life can be an idyllic one for people who live in big cities, particularly when you add in romance, which is another reason shows like Gilmore Girls are popular.
Setting in historical fiction
The setting of your novel can be about more than just a place (or several places). It covers time, too. Historical fiction is anything set before the 1960s. That definition may well change as time goes on, but for now, that’s what it is.
What a thirteen-year-old girl went through at school in the early 2000s is different to what a thirteen-year-old girl went through in the 1940s, or even now, in the 2020s. The world changes at a rapid pace, and as writers, it’s important we’re aware of this, because this context—this setting—influences what our characters experience, and how those experiences shape them. An ambitious girl in the 1940s is going to provoke a different reaction to an ambitious one in the 2020s. And if they’re your target audience, you have to reflect both what the reader expects to see, and historical realities.
Writing about what life was like during times in history can be challenging. You can’t cover everything that was problematic during a particular era. You only have a set amount of words, and the words you use should push you to cover what’s relevant to your characters and your book’s theme. If you have a subplot that isn’t related to your theme or your characters, just because you want to highlight an injustice from that period, it’s not going to sit right with the reader. It will feel forced, contrite, and rushed.
Lin Manuel-Miranda said that he didn’t cover slavery in Hamilton because there wasn’t room. He couldn’t have done it justice in a two-hour musical. It would have diluted Hamilton’s story and failed to show the horrors of slavery. A story dedicated to slavery, on the other hand, would be able to cover it in more depth and provide more realism.
You’ll never be able to cover everything about a particular historical period. Someone writing a book about 2020 wouldn’t be able to cover Brexit negotiations, COVID-19, and Black Lives Matter in one books, nor should they try to. If they were all covered in one book, it would water down the message. The same applies to historical fiction.
Readers of historical fiction want accuracy. Perhaps not to the point of the faeces-encrusted palaces of Louis the XIV or King Henry VIII, or even how they spoke, but things like what people wore, the jobs they had, and societal expectations. Use the information that’s relevant to your story, and that adds detail. Those details are what will bring not only your story and your characters to life, but your setting, too.
Read the rest of the book
How to Write Believable Characters is out now from the following retailers: