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How to Use Setting to Challenge Your Characters (& Make a Better Story)

Here are some ways to infuse your manuscript with meaningful and unexpected details that keep the reader turning pages.

Five authors can be given the same basic plot elements and through each author’s use of time and place the characters will develop differently and each story will unfold in utterly unique ways. For example—boy meets girl, hot romance ensues, parents intervene, boy and girl separate, they get new jobs, some how boy and girl end up together, happily. Set in New York City, 2015 each element of this “story” will be unrecognizable in the face of the same events plotted out in 1905 Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Attention to setting as a means of character development gives the author the chance to write an original story that leaves readers attached to the characters long after the book is finished.

Here are some ways to infuse your manuscript with meaningful and unexpected details that keep the reader turning pages.

This guest column is by Kathleen Shoop. Shoop holds a PhD in reading education and has more than 20 years of experience in the classroom. Her third novel, Love and Other Subjects, earned a Silver medal in the Independent Publisher Book Awards and received an Honorable Mention from the San Francisco Book Festival. Her second novel, After the Fog, (Silver IPPY), was a category finalist in the 2013 Eric Hoffer Book Awards. And her debut novel, The Last Letter, is a multiple award-winner, including a Gold Medal in the Independent Publisher Book Awards. Order her latest novel, The Road Home. To connect with Kathleen, visit:,, or @kathieshoop.

Kathie Shoop 2

1. Inside Out

One of the most rewarding parts of writing rich characters is playing with who they are deep inside and who it is they present to outsiders. [Like this quote? Click here to Tweet and share it!] In the novel, Life After Yes, Aidan Donnelley Rowley uses setting to shape her protagonist, Quinn, and tease the reader right from the beginning.

Because Rowley sets an early scene in a gym where it’s normal for a woman to have her male trainer touch and direct behavior Rowley is free to explore some of Quinn’s boundaries. Right from the get-go the reader knows Quinn is going to grow and morph and develop—well, hopefully. The picture of her at first is clear but not completely loveable. In some ways Quinn is telling us so much. Saying what she likes and doesn’t like, confiding her comfort with a man’s hands on her even though she’s newly engaged. But we readers know there’s an inner life, another side to this woman and we salivate to know that part of her.

We think, “This couldn’t really be who she is… Even with her seemingly overt honesty, there has to be more going on inside her, right?” It’s Rowley’s brilliant use of the gym and the norms that rule that setting that allow her to reveal something about her character that may or may not actually be “true” about who she is deep inside.

[Learn important writing lessons from these first-time novelists.]

2. Dress Her Up And Make Her Run

In many novels clothing and accouterments take on the role of setting as much as the brightly hued woodwork of Painted Ladies or heel-catching cobblestone streets. Clothing can be used to reveal character traits and hamper or help the protagonist’s progress toward her goals. In The Outcasts by Kathleen Kent, the book opens right into action. Lucinda is sneaking away in the middle of the night. “For days Lucinda had been greasing the lock and hinges of the door with a feather covered in lard, and she carried in her stays a key made from a mold of the German’s own key…” Like reading a thriller the reader holds her breath wondering if it’s possible for Lucinda to make it out of the bordello alive.

Kent describes the layers of dress Lucinda wears and shows her tiptoeing out of the dark house accompanied by screeching floorboards and shoes she deems impractical once it’s too late to change them. With every breath and detail of Lucinda’s escape, Kent masterfully shows a downtrodden, but brave, smart woman who is risking everything to get out of the brothel and start what we assume is a better life. Kent doesn’t have to say all that. She shows time, place, and character with every magic element. We know that by dressing Lucinda in the clothing that she does (and giving her epilepsy) that her progress will be hampered.

There’s a big difference between a healthy, modern woman stealing away in a pair of yoga pants and Nikes and what Lucinda will face in her flight to freedom. Choose clothing that works for or against your character, but think beyond the obvious constraints of time and place. Be purposeful as you ask the wardrobe to play into the setting or contrast the context you’ve developed. Make the clothes matter in a way that helps change your characters in unique and unforgettable ways.

[Learn 5 Tools for Building Conflict in Your Novel]

3. A Good Night’s Rest

Authors thrust their characters into settings that either confirm their personalities or challenge them to evolve. Part of the fun in setting a story is considering how and where characters will find respite. Where a character sleeps helps illustrate how he has been shaped, destroyed or possibly reborn.

The Road Home is set in 1891 and 1905. The places where Katherine, Jeanie and Tommy sleep helps ignite and illustrate their development. In the 1905 thread of the novel siblings Tommy and Katherine rest their heads in her bright, airy, well-appointed home. This comfortable backdrop anchors the characters and their current socio-economic status. When the reader goes back in time to 1891 a markedly different sleeping experience is shown. For example Tommy’s various boarding homes mold him into a young adult who finds that he is more comfortable sleeping in the woods than anywhere inside. Using his discomfort with the indoors and solace in the outdoors, he is given an experience that was markedly different than that of his mother and sister. In choosing the outdoors as his living space he is finally controlling his destiny. It is in the woods that the reader sees that Tommy is completing his transformation from a pampered child wakened by servants stoking his bedroom fire, to a young man who creates a home that suits his needs at that time. He is no longer spoiled or soft.

Play with your manuscript. Analyze how you are using the aforementioned aspects of setting to challenge and change your characters. You will love the results as you watch your words come alive on the page, surprising you at every turn.

Sidebar –Exploring inner lives/outer facades, character wardrobes, and sleeping conditions are just three ways to begin to layer your characters in exciting, memorable ways. Take some time during the first draft to collect artifacts (lists, photos or the real thing) related to your setting, your characters, their jobs, and homes. Which spaces matter to your story? Use those particular areas to show character development over the course of a scene or the whole novel.

Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:

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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer's Digest and author of the popular gift bookOh Boy, You're Having a Girl: A Dad's Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.

Follow Brian on Twitter: @BrianKlems
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