Climate and geography can effect a character’s life in a variety of ways, and making use of those impacts can help you create a fuller environment.
The most basic ways that climate affects a character is adjusting everyday details like choices in clothing, what activities are available, possibility for adverse conditions, feelings toward weather or impacts on mood, and ability to spend time outdoors.
On another level, climate can effect a character’s worldview. For example, harsh climates often create harsh existences. Characters must struggle against the elements for survival as well as regular human problems. This can create physically and emotionally tough characters. Easier, softer environments may mean a character is less prepared for harsh situations or has a more optimistic or positive outlook.
Climate also affects the hobbies and skills a character might develop, as well as what opportunities or knowledge he or she might have. You won’t find many year-round ice rinks in the hot, Southwestern United States, but in colder northern states many children grow up playing hockey rather than soccer.
Being vague about climate is not a substitute for research and planning, so don’t just ignore it. Not only will you miss out on opportunities to create a character with more depth, your scenes may feel a little lackluster.
What part of the world a character inhabits affects a wide variety of setting aspects.
The physical location will determine what types of plants and animals live in the area. It’s hard to have an alligator as a means of disposing of a body in Idaho, but an all-too-real possibilities in coastal Louisiana.
Geography al effects characters’ access to other areas, such as living in an isolated cabin in winter where the plows don’t maintain the roads, or different types of ecosystems. Physical location will also determine what dialect a character uses, though you don’t want to overdo it with regionalisms or colloquialisms in dialogue.
It’s also important to consider whether a geographical location has pronounced or “drug-in” views on politics or religion, a unique culture, or social structures that are not mainstream, and whether or not a character will fall in line with those aspects of their location or not. Researching these setting aspects also offers up great opportunities to make the setting more unique and memorable.
Manmade geography should also be considered when developing a setting’s geographical location. Dams, buildings, and monuments not only change the natural geography but can influence how man’s influence on nature is perceived.
Dig into the climate and geographical location of your setting to see what elements can be used to enhance the setting, characters, and story.
Setting can help determine the mood and atmosphere of a story. These should vary throughout a story when the setting and other factors change.
First, a few definitions, because it’s easy to confuse these elements”
Mood is the emotional feel of a scene, created through specific language meant to put the reader is a specific emotional state.
Tone is the way the author expresses their attitude toward the setting and scene through their use of narrative devices such as description and vocabulary.
Atmosphere is the combination of mood and tone, and is created through the author’s specific attitude or approach to writing a scene.
Carefully consider the words you use, the tempo of your sentences, and the point of view and perspective used when writing a scene.
How a setting is described can change the way both readers and characters perceive the scene and how characters interact with the setting. If the scene has a fearful element, characters will move through it more slowly and the reader will read more slowly so as not to miss anything.
Description also helps to develop the tone of a scene. Use words that match the atmosphere you are trying to create. For example, a bird who chirps creates a different feel than one who squawks or caws. Textures, smells, and lighting can also be used to create a specific mood and tone. Use all five senses to fully develop a scenes description.
Description of the covered bridge in Sleepy Hollow has a much different feel than description of the Love Lock Bridge in Paris. A well-worn blanket suggests it has been used and cherished while a threadbare blanket suggests lack of funds and support.
Match sentence tempo to what is happening in a scene. Use a quick tempo for an intense or frightening scene by writing shorter sentences, using high-impact words (single descriptors rather than multi-word descriptors), limit extraneous details not absolutely needed, stay focused on the action, and avoid long sections of dialogue.
For slower tempo scenes, focus on using longer and more fluid sentences for calm or contemplative moments. Description and internal dialogue can help slow the pace when you want the reader or character to pay particular attention to something, or to give the reader time to process the scene more fully.
Certain types of action can change the tempo of a scene as well. Fast or frantic movements create anxiety or a feeling of need. This may include things like searching for something, running, shifting, or pacing. If, however, a character in engaged in slower movements, a calmer feeling will pervade the scene. Low-tempo actions may include reading, lying on a couch, strolling, folding laundry, or cooking.
Point of View
Consider which point of view will create the right feel for a scene. First person is very immediate and can cause emotions to feel more intense and immediate. First person also puts the reader in the middle of the action or emotion as it is happening. For romances or personal stories, this ca help the reader feel they are experiencing the story with the characters and create a stronger atmosphere.
However, first person may be too much for some topics or events, such as those which may have triggering effects for some readers. First person can also be too limiting if the reader needs to know details happening around the character but not necessary within his view or awareness.
Third person provides distance and an wider view of events, but also has it’s pluses and minuses. Third person typically allows for more thorough description because the character does not necessarily have to be physically taking note of scene details in order to share them with the reader. It can also provide a buffer between the story and reader when there are difficult subjects or events. If the emotions or actions of a scene need to be close to the reader in order to set the right atmosphere, third person may provide too much distance and weaken the mood and tone.
There will, of course, be different types of scenes throughout a story that might have conflicting point of view needs. Consider the story as a whole and determine which will work best for the majority of scenes and be flexible with other scenes.
Time is an important factor in the development of setting because it is linked to so many other aspects of a setting.
Time and Technology
These two elements are intricately connected because technology changes with time and getting the pairing wrong creates anachronisms the reader will most likely notice. Technology can also impact the events of a story, such as being able (or not able) to contact someone easily by cell phone or the ability to find needed information.
When writing in your own time period, or one you have lived through, it’s easier to get the technology right. Any time you venture from familiarity, take the time to thoroughly research what was available in a time period. Not only will this create a more realistic setting, readers can develop respect for your hard work and you will increase your credibility when readers learn new things about a time period.
When writing crime, technology is critical to get right in order to be believable. Don’t just consider when a technology was developed, but also when it became widely available in cities and rural areas and what public perception of specific technology was during that time. DNA profiling became available in the early 80s, but required a much larger blood sample than is needed today and was more limited on what it could determine. It was could also be more hindrance than help in trials because so few members of the public understood what it was and either didn’t understand it or distrusted it even into the 90s.
Time and Society
Time also factors into self-perception and social rules. Self perception is all too often closely linked to how others treat a person. Throughout time, minority groups have been treated with varying degrees of respect and equality. Consider how the experience of a 1950s black woman applying for a professional job would be very different from a white teenage boy in modern times. The different way they experience life impacts how they see themselves and what trials and they will face.
Time period also limits opportunities for certain races, genders, religions, and other groups. Be sure to research historical rules, laws, prejudices, and customs of a time period. Elizabeth Blackwell was a British physician and the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States in 1849, however it wasn’t until the 1972 Title IX of the Higher Education Act prohibited federally funded schools from discriminating based on gender.
Time should also be considered in sports, education, and careers. It’s important to know how long it takes to become a lawyer, professional athlete, business mogul, PhD, etc. and plan your timeline and the ages of your characters accordingly. Steer away from “genius” or “prodigy” characters unless absolutely critical to the story. This overused trope doesn’t hold the appeal it once did. If you must have a 22-year-old billionaire, it’s much more realistic that he or she inherited that wealth rather than built it on his or her own.
When writing in any time period other than the present, don’t forget to consider other aspects like fashion trends, politics, generally available knowledge, and other elements that are dependent on time as well.
Place and location impact a story by how characters interact with the setting and how it shapes their worldview.
Go deeper than just city, suburbs, or country when locating your character within a fictional world. Consider both place and location. Place is a broader term that defines a space or an area, while location is a more specific point where a specific town/neighborhood/building/etc. is physically located. So a place might be the mountains, while Emerald Lake is near Estes Park, Colorado is a location.
Place can also describe how a person lives within a space, such as an empty desert or isolated cabin. Defining place in this way can help you establish how it will impact the story and character. For example, living in seclusion limits interactions with people but may shift a worldview to one more peaceful and patient. Living in a bustling city may give a character energy and enthusiasm to achieve a dream.
Location can be used to create physical limitations and/or opportunities for a character as well. A character in search of an opportunity to share his art with others will have more opportunities in a city or town that values art and has a strong artist community. A character in search of a job outside of agriculture might face a great deal of frustration and disappointment in a small town that mainly relies on ranching for financial support if she is stuck there and can’t explore other locations.
Place and location should affect the story and characters differently depending on the situation. Consider how the same location of a small town with a close-knit community who has strong conservative values would have on a character coming home. A character coming home after a stint in prison for drug possession will be received and affected quite differently than a character who returns to announce an engagement and acceptance to law school.
Location also has an affect on a character’s thoughts and behaviors. Walking into a twentieth-floor office for a first day on the job may inspire anxiety and cause him to make mistakes while going out with friends for a fun night might inspire confidence and excitement.
Interactions with other people change in different types of location and choices may even be very different. Hanging out with people a character has known all his life makes him feel comfortable and let his guard down, maybe to the point of revealing something he wouldn’t or shouldn’t tell anyone else. Meeting someone on vacation could lead a person to inflate their status or lie about certain aspects of their self or life because they believe they will never see the person again.
Place and location almost act as another character in the way they can influence both characters and story. Carefully consider both to use them to their full potential.
Social environment is an important aspect of setting and should be considered when developing characters who will inhabit that setting.
The social environment a person exists in affects his her thoughts, actions, and decisions. Consider the following aspects and how they will affect characters and story.
While an individual character’s education level is important in developing her dialect and way of speaking, it’s also important to think about the general level of education that exists within the setting. Areas with lower education levels may rely more on superstition, experience, or generational knowledge. Areas with higher education levels will turn toward academic knowledge, research, and expert opinions. Education level can effect choices, options, and modes of problem solving.
Social structures in place within a setting can effect resources available to a character or the community. Settings that lack strong social structures such as access to healthcare or education can be a source of struggle or limit options. When effective and easy to access structures are in place, the setting may provide support and help.
Similar to social structures, the presence of absence of social institutions can help or hinder character options and choices. The five basic social institutions are family, economic, religion, education, and state. Consider how the presence of absence of each of these effects how a character exists or moves through a setting.
A character’s social status or class will play a part in their worldview and many other aspects. It’s also important to think about how the general social status or class of a setting impacts the overall story. A setting that it predominantly high, low, or middle class will operate by different rules than a setting that is more mixed. If there is a large divide between classes, there is potential for strife between classes and movement between classes can be a source of conflict.
Social circles exist in every setting, but the impact they have on a story of character varies. Consider whether circles are fluid, stagnant, or restrictive within a setting. Whether or not a character belongs to a circle, is always separate or outside a circle, or desires to change circles will effect how they exist in that setting.
Linked to the importance of social circles, the solidarity that exists within circles can effect a character or the story arc. A strong group of friends or family gives support and encouragement, and may lead a character into occasional trouble. Friends or family who are flighty or unreliable may turn on a character or leave him stranded when they fail to follow through. Faith in social groups will allow the character to move more confidently in the setting while perpetually questioning how much a character can count on others will make her more hestitant within the setting.
Natural vs. Artificial Environments
The physical type of environment a character exist in will determine what types of experiences he will have, what relationship to surrounding she may experience, and whether the environment is supportive or antagonistic toward his goals. Each type has pluses and minuses. Artificial environments may grant access to advance resources while creating a disconnect from nature. Natural environments can be plentiful and physically invigorating, but they are also unpredictable and unstable.
Deterministic vs. Nurturing environments
Settings can be constructed in a way that pushes a character toward a specific role or outcome, or it can encourage exploration and growth in a variety of directions. Deterministic environments often breed feelings of rebellion and mistrust of authority while nurturing environments act as a resource for discovery and expansion.
Lastly, the network of resources and support systems available to a character within a setting can have major effects of the story and the way the character exists in the setting. Limited networks offer minimal support, even if it contains one or two strong elements. They are far outweighed by elements that are not supportive or discourage change and growth. Personal networks may include family, friends, work or professional resources, education resources, healthcare resources, and more.
Setting has several major components, most of which are at least somewhat interconnected.
It’s important to consider all aspects of setting and how each element will impact the story or characters.
The social environment a character inhabits affects their place in society, how she view herself and how others view her. It can impact confidence and expectations the character holds for himself or that others hold for him. A social environment can be encouraging and supportive or destructive and hindering.
It’s also important to consider the stability or chaotic nature of a social environment. Instability may breed disillusionment and rebellion while stability encourages things to stay as they are and may either be peaceful or boring.
Where a character lives or was raised will impact how she thinks and what she values. Consider how the land and nature has impacted her life, or how a lack of either may create a sense of fear or longing.
Location also helps determines what hobbies, skills, or habits a character might develop. City dwelling requires different survival skills than country living and classical ballet may not have been an option in a small, rural town.
Place is also important in determining what a character has learned to value. Aspects to consider include, family bonds, responsibility or duty to the community, obedience to elders or leaders, respect for other cultures, etc. Think about what experiences a particular place would have available that will influence developing values.
Time period plays an integral part in creating an accurate and believable setting. This is easier when dealing with the modern world, or a time period you personally experienced.
When writing in a time period not modern or not personally experienced, it is important to thoroughly research the technology, politics, fashion, slang and speech styles, important historical events, differences in geography or town/city structures, etc.
Every time period develops its own social and political culture that is created by a variety of factors. Become familiar with those factors in order to accurately portray a specific time period.
This type of research is also important to know because it will impact the character. Certain concepts and ideas were not widespread or commonly understood in one period versus another. Some ideas, freedoms, or information were simply unavailable in certain time periods and will affect how a character views his or her self or the world.
Whether mimicking a real setting or creating a fictional one, mood and atmosphere need to be considered in order for a scene to connect with the reader in the way you want it to.
Determine what type of mood and atmosphere will best serve the scene, then break down what will help create the right mood and atmosphere. Factors may include, weather, decor, time of day/night, sounds, lighting, colors, formal or informal environment, other people in the scene, topic of conversation, and more.
Weather and geography can influence both the storyline and a character’s thoughts or actions. When writing a scene, consider whether the climate and geography will help, hinder, or remain neutral.
A neutral climate or geography will have little to no impact on the events or actions of the scene. In this case, neither is usually mentioned more than in passing.
A helping climate or geography will provide support to the purpose of the scene, whether that be physical, emotional, or mental. Good weather and a pleasant geographical area can further deep thinking, romantic opportunity, or clam reflection. Bad weather or rough geography can also be a help if it pushes the story in the desired direction (seeking shelter together or providing strenuous activity to clear the mind).
A hindering climate or geography will frustrate a goal or action, through ultimately continue to advance the storyline. A storm might knock out power when it’s needed most or a swampy landscape might make tracking a suspect slow or impossible. While actions or goals might be temporarily hindered, they should also provide opportunities for progression and growth for the character, such as overcoming a fear or physical limitation.
A character’s political views and cultural background greatly impact how he sees himself or the larger world. It is important to consider how a town’s or region’s politics and culture intersect with a character’s goals, decisions, relationships, career choices, etc. Some areas have strong and specific cultures, which are often intertwined with political ideals. Other areas have more general cultures and political ideals, so individual family culture and politics may play a bigger role in a character’s development.
Young minds are highly influenced and the political and culture environments a person grows up in helps to shape their personality and worldview. A major point of conflict in a story may revolve around overcoming closely held views as a person grows older, experiences a new culture of political view, or faces a personal crisis.
Fully exploring these aspects of personality and character development can help you create a deeper character that connects with readers on a more profound level.
History should be considered on a personal, local, and macro level when developing setting.
A character’s personal history with a setting can deeply effect how they view that location and may change some aspect about their personality when they are in that location, such as going how to an abusive environment.
Towns or neighborhoods have specific histories as well. How a neighborhood developed within a larger city might have to do with its ethnic or racial background, or may be more closely linked to career or trade. Natural disasters or community tragedies will also affect the culture and atmosphere of a place.
On a larger scale, major events within a society should be considered when developing setting. What changed about New York post-911 or in elementary schools during the COVID-19 pandemic? What are the lingering effects still seen in New Orleans form Hurricane Katrina? Has the BLM movement changed the way some town and neighborhoods interact with police or racial groups? Some authors choose not to address such issues in order to avoid dating a story, but that often proves impossible. If an large-scale issue impacts setting, thoroughly research the issue in order to portray its effects realistically.
There are two main types of setting: backdrop and integral.
Backdrop settings are not terribly important to the story. The scene utilizing a backdrop setting could take place almost anywhere without changing the general dynamic or meaning. They are often transition scenes where minimal information is exchange or some detail or piece of information is revealed to the reader.
These are settings like hallways, cafes, sidewalks, etc. The allow for quick entry and exit and are often familiar settings to the reader, so they need minimal description or attention. Not having to spend page space on setting description or explanation allows the focus to stay on the content of the scene.
Integral settings are settings where time and place influence the theme, character, and action of a story in some way. Animal Farm wouldn’t be the same if set in a shoe store. The way the setting influences a scene should be somewhat obvious, in the sense that the characters being in the scene feels right to the reader and the details of the setting help the reader more fully experience whatever is happening.
These types of settings need more in-depth description and development. Take the time to point out important details that bring the scene to life, such as the cleanliness of the room, how dim or bright it is, does it feel oppressive or free, colors that reflect personality, etc. Don’t describe every detail, but do point out those that help the reader get to know the character better or interpret what is happening or what information is being given more fully.
Integral settings are usually recurring settings or settings used for important scenes in the story. When these settings are first introduced there will often be more detail and focus on how the setting affects the character or mood. This type of detail isn’t necessary every time the characters visit the setting, however. In repeat scenes, only mention details that have changed, ones you think the reader may need a reminder of because they will play an important role in some way, or those that a character may have missed or missed the significance of before.
Description of settings should most often be kept at a minimum. Give enough detail that you feel confident that reader can form a basic mental image and let them fill in the blanks based on their own experiences. Trying to hard to force the reader to create an exact mental picture of a setting is exhausting for the reader.
Remember to evaluate what type of scene you’re working with before adding description and details.
Setting is not just a location for characters to interact.
Setting is critical to a story’s success for several reasons:
Setting affects how a story progresses. Location can be a hindrance to or facilitate story progression. If a character is taking a physical journey, setting can be used to created physical obstacles, such as a hot desert with a long stretch of no services or fellow travelers when a vehicle breaks down. It can also provide an environment for success, such as a calm and peaceful park where a character can collect her thoughts after a stressful or traumatic moment.
Setting can also affect a character’s worldview and mindset. When, where, and how we grow up shapes us. Consider the differences in how two characters may think and act when one grew up on an organic farm and volunteered at a no-kill pet shelter and another character grew up on a ranch where animals provided food and income and nature was often seen as a enemy to survival.
Setting also helps to establish the atmosphere of scenes and affects reader perception of events. Picture a character walking down the aisles of a bookstore. How does the experience differ when the shelves and books are nicely arranged, there is plenty of light, and cheery music is playing in the background, compared to if the store is dark and musty with scattered stacks of book, the only sound the character’s footsteps and those of someone following him just out of sight? Details of the setting can make all the difference in how an experience will be perceived, both by the character and the reader.
Setting also affects the characters’ choices and actions, depending on how it impacts the scene or story. If a character has a clear view of escape from a dangerous situation, she will most likely take it. If, however, her view is blocked by other people or objects in the way, the decision will take longer to make because she has to consider multiple options. The possibility of a wrong decision or inaction increases. Also consider how a room filled with people all staring, waiting for an answer will provide more pressure to give in or lie as opposed to a one-on-one meeting in a welcoming and bright office.
Lastly, setting can also act as a character, either as an antagonist, such as in a survival situation, or as a protagonist, such as a garden that provides solace and comfort to an introverted person who fears the unknown.
Carefully consider the details of setting and how it will impact all elements of a story.
Setting is not just a location for characters to interact. It should be relevant to the story and/or scene.
Setting affects how a story progresses. Location can be a hindrance to or facilitate story progression. Consider how the chosen scene can be interacted with by the characters, how it might change actions or decisions, or how it affects the characters in the moment.
Setting affects a character’s worldview and mindset. When, where, and how we grow up shapes us. If a scene momentary, this may not apply, but a scene that is used multiple times or is a main feature of the story should have some kind of impact on how the character sees the world, themselves, and others as well as how they think and make decisions.
Setting establishes the atmosphere of scenes and affects reader perception of events. A guy on the street waving at a character standing in her bedroom will be perceived very differently depending on whether it’s a nice sunny day in summer or it’s a stormy, rainy night where no one should be out and about at midnight.
Setting affects characters’ choices and actions depending on how it impacts the scene or story
Setting can act as a character, either an antagonist or protagonist in some situations like survival stories or when the weather, climate, or location significantly impact how the story progresses and the character develops.
There are two main types of setting: backdrop and integral
Backdrop settings are not terribly important to the story most of the time. These are incidental settings chosen because a scene needs to take place somewhere rather than out in the ether. These types of scenes could take place anywhere without changing the dynamic or meaning, such as hallways, cafes, sidewalks, etc. These normally need minimal description or attention.
Integral settings are settings where time and place influence the theme, character, and action of a story in some way. The story and characters would be different if the setting were changed. For example, Animal Farm wouldn’t be the same if set in a shoe store. These settings need more in-depth description and development to integrate them into the story and character experience fully. These types of settings are usually recurring settings or settings used for important scenes in the story.
When choosing settings, consider their impact on the story and characters.
It’s always good to review the basics before diving deeper, so let’s talk setting. Setting has three major components: social environment, place, and time.
Social environment will impact the thoughts, actions, and decisions of the characters. A child growing up in an extremely conservative/liberal home will see things differently than someone who was raised more moderately. Place will impact the story by how the characters interact with it and how it shapes their worldview, as well as physical limitations (i.e. an island vs. and mountain town.) Time factors into not only technology, but in self-perception and social rules. A 1950s woman would be much different than a teen in modern time.
There are also two main types of setting: backdrop and integral.
A backdrop setting is not terribly important to the story. The scene could take place anywhere, but happens to be taking place in that spot. This may be a hallway, sidewalk, nondescript café, etc. These settings need minimal description and attention.
An integral setting is one where the time and place influences the theme, character, and action of a story in some way. Animal Farm wouldn’t have been quite the same if it were set in a shoe store. These settings need more in-depth description and development and may even act as an antagonist, such as in survival stories.
Setting also helps set the mood and atmosphere of a story. The description and the way characters perceive it and interact with it should help develop that tone. The covered bridge in Sleepy Hollow has a very different feel than the Love Lock Bridge in Paris.
When describing setting, Show Don’t Tell becomes very important. Please, please, please don’t spend paragraph after paragraph describing the setting to your reader. Let the reader explore the setting with your character in a way that reveals insights about the character or story.
For example, you can say something about family dynamic by having a teen look through the half-empty kitchen cupboards for cereal that’s on the verge of going stale. It’s a simple detail, but it says a lot about how this teen is living. A character looking in her closet and staring a the only two dresses she owns while getting ready for a job interview informs the reader about her financial situation without having a long discussion about it.
Use setting to help tell readers a story rather than telling the readers where the story is happening.