Characters & Setting Part II

Characters & Setting Part II

by Lisa Paitz Spindler

In Joanne Reid’s article "How to Write a Novel in 10 Weeks" the section on setting can be summarized in two sentences: "Do not write travelogues and write what you know."

She’s right in that you should not include the vast majority of the research you’ve done for your novel in your novel. Research is for the writer to immerse herself in the topic and become so familiar with it that the details in the story seem "natural." You may know that ancient Celts lived in round houses and that the ends of the principal rafters were set into a slot at a 45 degree angle, but unless it’s fundamental to your plot in some way, your readers don’t really want to know.

According to Jack Bickham in THE ELEMENTS OF FICTION WRITING: SETTING, setting ". . . is not merely the physical backdrop of a tale." He says that "it may also include the historical background and cultural attitudes of a given place and time, the mood of time, and how the story people talk." Bickham also cites the author’s style, a period’s traditions and the kind of story the author wishes to tell as equally important in comprising what we typically call "setting."

Setting is integral to a story, but if you can lift a detail of a story out of its current setting without missing something fundamental to that story, then you’re not using setting to its full potential. Reid mentions this in her example of her mystery novel set on Prince Edward Island: "I tried writing it set in a city but it didn’t work because the whole point of the novel is the insular, isolated, cloying aspect of small town/village life."

Consider Shakespeare’s play ROMEO AND JULIET set in Verona, Italy, in the 1500s and its revisualization into the 1996 movie ROMEO AND JULIET with Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio. If setting is so important to story, why does this remake work? Because the setting is as fundamental to the original play as it is to the remake — for this story to work the actions of these two characters have to be shaped by their setting. Whether it’s two rival families in Verona, Italy, or two rival gangs on Verona Beach, CA, a basic part of the setting is the presence of two rival groups and our star-crossed lovers are caught in between them.


Kim Kay in her Suite 101 article ‘It’s Your World: Setting Your Novel,’ lists four purposes of setting in a story:

  • Plot Advancement
  • Consistency and Unity
  • Increase Tension and Set Mood
  • Illustrate Character

For example, think of the classic Gothic story of young governess traipsing through a dark house during a storm. The Gothic elements of a dark, possibly haunted, house and the storm outside are parts of the setting that contribute directly to the suspense, tension and mood of the story. The fact that the heroine is walking around the house illustrates something about character. Her searching in the dark for her eight-year-old charge moves the plot forward and the house itself is a package of sorts which ties of the pieces of the plot together.


"Worldbuilding" is often a term used when describing the process of creating a world, solar system or galaxy in science fiction and fantasy writing, but it can apply to any kind of fiction writing. Even if your world is set in 15th Century France, you’re still creating a new world, albeit one based on history instead of fantasy. One of the best worldbuilding resources on the Web is Patricia C. Wrede’s Worldbuilder Questions:

Even though Wrede’s questions are geared toward science fiction writers, any fiction writer should be able to answer most of these questions about his or her story. Some of the topics Wrede lists that are important to any story are:

  • Arts and Entertainment: Do your characters go to the opera or the drive-in?
  • Architecture: Do your characters live in a Georgian mansion or a condo?
  • Calendar: Do your characters celebrate Lammas or Groundhog Day?
  • Daily Life: Do your characters spend their day on the family farm or working in a cubicle?
  • Fashion and Dress: Are your characters more comfortable wearing silk or denim?
  • Transportation and Communication: Do your characters travel by horse-and-buggy or car?


One of the best way to reveal or illustrate your setting is to dish out information about your setting in small amounts. Several paragraphs in a row describing the setting will very likely be skipped over by the reader because exposition and description interrupt the plot and slow the pacing of the story. So keep it short.

Remember to only mention details that serve one of the four purposes above. If it doesn’t advance the plot, unify disparate plot pieces, increase tension, set mood or demonstrate character — cut it out. It’s hard, but your story will be better for it.

Kim Kay suggests beginning with the five senses by choosing a scene from the story and sprinkling it with scents, light angles or how something feels against the skin. We experience our world through our senses and so should your reader. According to Diane Ackerman in A NATURAL HISTORY OF THE SENSES:

"Most people think of the mind as being located in the head, but the latest findings in physiology suggest that the mind doesn’t really dwell in the brain but travels the whole body on caravans of hormone and enzyme, busily making sense of the compound wonders we catalogue as touch, taste, smell, hearing, vision."


1) From Patricia C. Wrede’s Worldbuilder Questions, answer questions in three categories. If you having trouble choosing, try starting with Arts and Entertainment, Daily Life and Transportation and Communication.

2) How does the setting in your story affect your plot? Your characters? Does your main character have a special attachment to a specific area or house/building? Why?

3) What social or religious traditions do your characters practice and why?

4) Choose a scene from your story and incorporate one detail about each of the five senses. Does your character notice any particular scent? How do her clothes feel against her skin? Is the light bright or dim? If she’s eating, what does the food taste like? Are there any important noises in the scene?

5) How were you shaped by where you grew up or where you live now?

6) Can you think of a story or movie that is fundamentally tied to it’s setting?


Ackerman, Diane. A Natural History of the Senses. Random House, 1991.

Bickham, Jack. The Elements of Fiction Writing: Setting. Writers Digest Books, 1993.

Kay, Kim. ‘It’s Your World: Setting Your Novel,’ Suite 101,

Reid, Joanne. Write a Novel in 10 Weeks: Characters & Setting,