We’ve talked a lot about developing layers for your characters, building the character arc and using supporting characters to increase the conflict in a story. Today I’ll discuss how setting can bring in yet another layer to your characters.
Setting encompasses time period, geographic location and even social status, but most of the time it describes physical locations. All people have places that mean something to them, good or bad. You may remember where you made your first home run, had your first kiss or the swing set where you fell and lost a tooth. Going to those places evokes memories and emotions.
You probably also have places you feel comfortable and safe : your home, a favorite park, a coffee shop you frequent. You may also have places you consider your territory: your office, your den, your car.
Now let’s give each of your characters places where he feels safe/happy/comfortable and some reasons why. These may or may not also be his territory, and if someone else approaches he may feel threatened or protective.
In my book Crush, which I’ve been using as an example for many of these articles, Simon the accountant feels at home in his office. He loves his work and focuses most of his energy there. When we move Simon out of his office he gets a little uncomfortable. Austin, the winemaker, loves spending time in the vineyards—outside in the sunshine—where he can connect with the vines, the soil, the grapes. He brings Simon here, but Simon’s not comfortable in Austin’s world at first, then gradually as his feelings for Austin change, so does his enjoyment of being outside.
Let’s take another example: Austin is wealthy and has a large house full of antiques. Simon watches his money and his apartment is small with furniture just a notch above Ikea. When Simon is at Austin’s he’s overwhelmed by the luxurious surroundings and feels out of place. This will spill over into his interactions with Austin, not just when they are at Austin’s house.
Simon’s house is comfortable for him, but when Austin visits, Simon feels self-conscious that he doesn’t have nice things. He’s not threatened by Austin’s presence, but by his perceptions of Austin’s attitudes—even when they are wrong. Setting a scene in Simon’s house automatically sets up tension and conflict between these two characters, even when the scene does not contain conflict in dialog or action. Simon is off-guard and defensive, and Austin doesn’t understand why. It sets the scene up for some great dynamics no matter whose POV we choose.
Let’s sum up ways to build characters through setting;
1. Give each character a zone where he feels comfortable. You may want to introduce that character in his comfort zone, if you want to paint a strong personality picture for the reader. In Crush, Austin’s first appearance has him running from his own office and financial issues and out into the vineyard where he feels safe to think about what’s going wrong with his business. Provide reasons for why the character feels comfortable in this place. Write them down in your character notes and circle the location so you can set specific scenes here late.
2. Give the character zones of discomfort and reasons why. Remember these and use these settings for scenes you want added conflict or tension for the character. Sometimes these can be much more interesting and provide added insight to character and back-story, without info-dumping. Show a character’s discomfort in these settings, and you’ll eliminate a lot of telling and explaining. Spend some time constructing these zones and reasons for the character’s behavior.
If you write suspense or thrillers, you’ll want a lot of these uncomfortable zones and plenty of reasons why they make the MC uncomfortable. Think about Vertigo: the main character, Scottie, is afraid of heights. Hitchcock shows us this with an opening scene where someone dies as a result of his fear. High places are a setting where the character is uncomfortable. One key scene in the film is when he’s again in this zone of discomfort, which sets up the tension before anything even happens.
Send the character into these zones to up the suspense and danger, both internal and external, depending on the type of stories you write. Readers love to see characters pushed into danger zones and will keep reading to see how they handle the situation.
Like the article about character weakness, you can spot the trend: give your characters problems and pile on some more. If your character can overcome his fear/hatred/etc of the danger zones, then it becomes part of the character arc. What event forces him to do that? See how the setting plus solid characterization almost writes the plot for you?
3. Explore how each character acts when someone enters his comfort zone. Does he welcome the others? Does he feel territorial? Use these responses again for increased tension and conflict. His response will differ for each other character. Which supporting characters are part of his “team” when he needs to protect his zone, and which represent an additional source of conflict?
4. How does each character act with respect to other characters’ comfort zones? Is he aggressive, knowing he’s not welcome, but entering anyway? Is he timid and waits for an invitation? Does he fail to act out of respect for someone else’s zone, with negative consequences.
5. Force your characters out of their comfort zones and force others to enter someone else’s zone to increase the drama.
6. Keep some places neutral. Setting scenes in neutral places means neither is at an emotional disadvantage.
7. Have a setting which is a comfort zone for one character, but a danger zone for another. A person who was bullied in school will have a different reaction to a visit to his old high school than the quarterback jock for whom the school represents wonderful memories.
A beach sounds idyllic, but what if one character’s little sister drowned on a Hawaiian vacation? It won’t make a nice vacation spot for these two when one has a negative reaction to a place that’s generally a comfortable or pleasant zone.
I’m sure you can see lots of ways to work with these zones to add additional dimensions to your characters and stories.