How Settings Make or Break Your Characters

Settings are powerful.  They are so powerful that when badly written, it can break the reader’s belief in the actions of your characters.  Ultimately a weakly developed setting can destroy the reader’s suspension of disbelief in the whole novel.  When well done, a setting supports the believability of even the most unusual behaviors of your characters.

This setting is about character development as well as location.  It is impossible to untangle characters from the settings that are the foundation on which the character’s whole life rests.  Setting has a huge influence on how the characters behave.  If that seems like a strong statement, read on.

Settings Have Rules

Setting helps makes characters believable.  Let’s take a second to talk about the non-character-related ways to break the reader’s belief in an unusual setting.  Imagine a setting as something very different from our own day-to-day world: a sci-fi Mars colony, 25 years after the colony has been established, but based on the technology we have today.

Settings have rules which have to make sense in and of themselves.  These rules also have to respect readers’ general knowledge and common sense.  For instance, here’s a rule that is true for Mars: “Mars is an astonishingly dry place.”  With today’s technology, colonists will not have been able to change the Martian climate in only 25 years.  Consequently, the writer would be unwise to stick this in a novel:

McCann opened his eyes to a gray, rainy day. “Oh, fabulous,” he muttered as he rubbed the sleep out of his eyes.

“Quit griping,” said his billet-mate Shariz. “At least it’ll wash the dust off the hab.”

You couldn’t write this because it is says it is raining on Mars.  Readers know that a reasonable Mars could not have rain in 25 years.  The reader’s would think “This joker doesn’t know the first thing about Mars!”  They will lose faith in the writer’s ability to tell a believable story.  How could you write a more believable setting?

Settings Affect Characters

This is something that is very important to know.  Settings affect characters.  
Sometimes people say that “the setting is like a character in its own right.”   The setting has indeed affected the actual characters in accordance with whatever rules go along with that setting.  Characters thus have a relationship with the setting as much as they do with other characters.  A good example of this idea is Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.  In this book and in the movie, significant time is spent describing the setting of Hogwarts Castle.  The rules of Hogwarts directly affect what the characters can do. 

How To Get It Right

When you choose to use an unusual setting, it will take extra work than when you write a story in normal day settings.  You have to borrow a page out of Einstein’s book and do a “thought experiment” about life in your setting.  You need to spend some time to figure out what all the rules of your setting are, and from them, decide what makes sense for how your characters would live, what they would eat, what activities they would do, etc.

A good place to start is by making a list of how your setting differs from our real life setting.  For example, if you were thinking about Mars, you might say, “It’s like here, but gravity is weaker.  There’s barely any air or water.  All you have is what you brought from Earth.  Instead of six billion people on the planet, there are only 54, and they all live together.”  If you feel it’s necessary, you might make a list of what’s the same, too.  If any of your items relate to people, make them about people generally, not about the specific characters you may have in mind for your story.  It’s not time to think about the story yet, not before you’ve got the setting firmly fixed in your mind.

Once you know what’s the same and what’s different, you’re ready to do the thought experiment.  Let’s take those Mars colonists as an example.  Let’s offer the further twist that our colonists have been completely cut off from Earth.  Perhaps a super-virus spread on Earth after the colony was established, wiping out Earth civilization, meaning there will be no future supply ships or new colonists.

Plot Elements

Use your knowledge about plot elements to make sure that your story reflects common short story conventions: exposition, rising action, climax and resolution.

It’s Your Turn

Now that you have learned how setting can affect the characters and the setting, it is time for you to start writing your own short story.  Before you think about what you want your story to be about, choose an interesting setting – something that is unusual and interesting. 

Start by brainstorming your story by focusing on the setting.  Think about the rules that apply to your setting.  Once you know your setting well, and you understand what makes it different than life today, then it is time to think about your characters, plot, and the rest of your story.  Use the writing process to brainstorm, organize, and write your story. 

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