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Setting as Character by Jill Elizabeth Nelson

Setting is crucial to our storytelling. It is not a flat, static backdrop against which our characters move and speak; it is a living, fluid element with which our characters interact much like another character in the story.

Setting can and should provide conflict and obstacles and challenges to the characters, as well as orienting the reader to a place and time. Setting must integrate with the action of a story, not pause it. Setting should stimulate reader emotions just as do characters and situations.

Setting as Conflict/Obstacle/Challenge

The most obvious examples of this function for setting are stories that focus on man vs. nature. Entire novels and screen plays have been devoted to characters battling the sea and/or creatures in it (Moby Dick) or characters pitted against a storm (the movie Twister) or an earthquake and/or series of natural disasters (the movie 2012).

To a lesser but as vital degree, all settings should contain elements of conflict, obstacle, or challenge to the characters. Otherwise, why set the story in that place and time? For example, a historical novel may present unique obstacles to characters in the form of the mores, values, and expectations of that time period. Or a novel set in a certain country must take into account the culture of that country, which will aid or hinder the progress of the characters toward their goals.

Name an example of setting as conflict, obstacle, or challenge in your current WIP (work in progress).

Is there any way you can take greater advantage of the opportunities for conflicts, obstacles, or challenges inherent in your setting?

These are questions we will examine and discuss in my upcoming Savvy Authors course entitled Setting as Character. You can find out more here.

Setting Integrated with Action

Setting description should never stop the forward flow of the story. Don’t have a character walk in and case the joint, giving an item-by-item description of what he or she sees, smells, hears, etc. This stops the story dead in its tracks for a glob of details that will have little or no interest value for your reader until these details become integral to the action.

Describe the setting as the character experiences it for him or herself. Make the character interact with the setting (like a stage actor using props). Don’t explain what something is by telling the reader the definition, show the reader what it is by putting the item into context as the character uses it or views it or smells it or tastes it or hears it or feels it.

Where have you successfully integrated your setting with the action of the story?

Where has setting clotted into static description, and how you intend to fix the issue?

Setting That Stimulates Reader Emotions

The “Dark and Stormy Night” principal can be used to great effect in our novels. While avoiding clichés, the location and setting conditions (such as weather) of our scenes should be used to best advantage to set the mood for that scene.

Setting descriptions should also stimulate the senses—all five of them. Make sure that you don’t confine yourself to the Big Two: hearing and sight. Some of the richest sensory stimulations come from smell, touch, or taste.

Finally, give attention to ways that setting details can spark emotions unique to your character and situation. Does looking at a certain color of sky evoke a poignant memory (but don’t get bogged down in back-story)? Does an object in the room draw loathing or dread from your character’s heart? Does a smell evoke longing? If the emotional reaction from your character is believable and warranted in the story, it will stimulate your readers’ emotions in similar ways.

How have you employed setting to set mood, stimulate the senses, or evoke emotion?

All of these functions fit within four basic purposes for setting in our stories:

  1. To orient the reader
  2. Set mood
  3. Provide a platform for action
  4. Provide opportunities for character development

Which of these functions do you think is the LEAST important?

If you said number one—to orient the reader—you would be correct. Notice, I didn’t say that reader orientation is unimportant. It is basic and essential, but unless the function of reader orientation is combined with at least one of the other elements, then setting has become sterile. It will bore the reader, which is the cardinal sin for a writer.

Are there places in your manuscript where setting is sterile? How will you go about fixing these?

With these criteria and exercises, you should be able to take your setting to another level of vibrancy.

Jill Elizabeth Nelson-SmallJill Elizabeth Nelson is an award-winning author of mystery and suspense. She writes what she likes to read—tales of adventure seasoned with romance, humor, and faith. Jill speaks regularly at conferences, writer’s groups, library associations, and civic and church groups. When teaching classes for writers, she delights in bringing the Ahah! moment to her students, so they can make a new skill their own. Jill and her husband live in rural Minnesota where they raised four children and are currently enjoying their grandchildren. 

Visit Jill on the web. Her most recent release is Shake Down from Love Inspired Romantic Suspense. Her bestselling handbook for writers, Rivet Your Readers with Deep Point of View is available at Amazon.


Rivet CoverAbout Rivet Your Readers with Deep Point of View:

Would you like your readers to live your stories, not merely read them? Deep Point of View anchors your readers inside the point of view character(s) of your novel. This handbook shows you how to perform the transformation from ordinary narrative to deep narrative in clear, easy-to-master steps. You are invited to sweep your writing to the next level with a technique that creates immediacy and intimacy with your readers and virtually eliminates show/don’t tell issues.




As a child Angel Leigh was quite often found curled up with her nose buried in a book. By her teen years, she was writing as much as she was reading. ...