by Eldred Bird
Where we choose to set our stories is an important decision. It can inform everything that happens in the story, from plot points and character development to pacing and mood. For this reason, I like to treat my locations as I would the characters in my stories.
Just like people, locations can have certain traits that bring out their personalities and influence the way our characters interact with them. Each location we choose has its own unique set of physical characteristics as well as a general feeling or mood that it gives off.
Let’s explore some of these traits and how we can use them to enhance our stories.
Setting type is the physical location where your story takes place. It can be a real location or a fantasy world. Maybe it’s all happening in your main character’s head, like a dream. Every location has its own personality. Even dream worlds have characteristics that impact the narrative and are often reflective of the person dreaming.
Another example might be an urban setting as opposed to rural. Both have their own obvious characteristics, such as population density, that sets them apart, but there are similarities as well. A big city might have a small-town feel, whereas a small town could be laid out to exude more of a big city attitude. The architecture and street layouts also lend character to a particular location. Narrow avenues with old-world cottages might add warmth and feel like an old friend, whereas tall glass-shrouded buildings and a maze of traffic clogged streets could feel cold, inducing stress and anxiety.
The physical terrain of a story’s location can have a major influence on how the characters interact with it and with each other. If a character is familiar with the terrain, they may see it as an ally working to give them an advantage over an opponent. On the other hand, it may be a hindrance, throwing obstacles in the protagonist’s path. Sometimes the terrain itself is the antagonist and the thing that must be overcome to reach a satisfying ending.
Climate and weather may sound like the same thing, but they are different animals. Climate is the long-term average of the atmospheric behavior of a particular place, whereas weather is more isolated—it’s what’s happening right now. I like to think of climate as a location’s overall personality and weather as its current mood.
Most writers use weather almost instinctually. We all know how a raging storm, or a gentle rain can set a mood, but there are so many other things we can accomplish if we anthropomorphize things a little. Fighting an angry wind or beating back the cruel rays of the Sun breathe life into weather and set it up as an opponent that must be vanquished if our hero is to succeed. Weather can also be fickle and turn on a dime, lashing out like a scorned lover or throwing a tantrum like a three-year-old child who doesn’t want to take a nap.
Climate is a little trickier and requires more thought. The long-term nature of climate is what dictates things like flora, fauna, and seasons. It also sets expectations in the same way a parent might explain what to expect to a child before entering a museum or attending a funeral. Of course, we all know expectations and reality don’t always line up. It’s in that gap where the best stories are born.
Just like terrain, climate and weather can become the main antagonist. Look at Jack London, for example. In many of his stories the main character is fighting with the physical world rather than another person.
The general attitude of the average resident adds to the personality of a location as well. Small towns can be friendly and welcoming, or gossipy and suspicious of strangers. A big city might have streets filled with a mass of worker drones moving as one, but hardly noticing each other as they pass. Here we’re assigning terms like friendly or suspicious to the collective, rather than the individuals.
The other forms of life in a location also add to its personality. Is the vegetation sparse or plentiful? Does it provide food and shelter, or create a barrier? Does your protagonist know how to take advantage of it? More importantly, does your antagonist know? What about the animals? Ask yourself the same questions.
When we combine the different aspects of a setting and treat them as different facets of a personality, we can see our location’s character start to emerge. As I’ve stated above, anthropomorphize different aspects to breathe life into the setting. This allows for a more personal interaction with the human (or alien) characters in your tale.
Now that our setting is a character, we can use it more effectively to help or hinder our characters. It can become an ally or an enemy. A great example of this is The Martian, by Andy Weir. Not only is the setting (Mars) hindering the main character, but it is also the antagonist. At times it seems like the planet is doing everything in its power to kill Mark Watney. It almost feels personal. Mars has become a character in the story, not just a setting.
This is by no means a complete list of location traits, but it should give you a general idea of how to look at your story’s location from a new perspective. Think of the ways you would build and describe one of your characters and apply those same filters to your location.
Every location has something that makes it unique. What sets your story’s location apart from others? Why does your story or scene have to take place in this particular location? Is there something here that is imperative to the narrative? Ask yourself these questions and you’ll be on your way to discovering your setting’s personality.
How do you treat your locations? Do you have any special tips or tricks for bringing out the setting’s personality? Share them with us in the comments!
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Eldred Bird writes contemporary fiction, short stories, and personal essays. He has spent a great deal of time exploring the deserts, forests, and deep canyons inside his home state of Arizona. His James McCarthy adventures, Killing Karma, Catching Karma, and Cold Karma, reflect this love of the Grand Canyon State even as his character solves mysteries amidst danger. Eldred explores the boundaries of short fiction in his stories, The Waking Room, Treble in Paradise: A Tale of Sax and Violins, and The Smell of Fear.
When he’s not writing, Eldred spends time cycling, hiking and juggling (yes, juggling…bowling balls and 21-inch knives). His passion for photography allows him to record his travels. He can be found on Twitter or Facebook, or at his website.
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I love doing this. The best examples I can think of are One for the Blackbird, One for the Crow by Hawker and Where the Crawdads Sing, by Owens. Both excellent.
Great examples, Laura. Swamps and marshes, and the people who inhabit them, have a a personality all their own. An amazing setting to weave a tale!
Good post. Re: weather and climate. I spent over 30 years in central and south Florida. If a story set there doesn't include the heat and humidity and invariable afternoon thunderstorms in the summer, I'm done with that book. Or, if it happens to encompass one of the few cold days and doesn't show how the characters react, credibility is gone for me.
Now that I'm in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, weather and climate are definite requirements for my books set there. Colorado has 4 seasons, often all in one day.
Having spent some time in Florida, I can totally see that. One of the reasons I like setting most of my stories here in Arizona is because we can have everything from Florida sticky hot to Colorado type snow, depending on where you go within the state.
Wow. It never occurred to me to use terrain as antagonist but I can see how that might work.
Years ago, we took a family vacation through New Mexico, a gorgeous state. One stop was at Sunspot, NM to see the observatory. The terrain is spectacular and the air alive with the minds of the many scientists that live and work there. However, at a little over 9000 feet in altitude, it was difficult for us Illinois flat-landers to adjust to the thin air. Altitude as antagonist. What a concept!
Climate as personality and weather as mood is a good distinction. I used this for character mood. Hannah, from The Hobo Code, brought sunshine or storm into a room depending on her mood. A real force of nature, that one.
I love that you're flipping it and giving weather attributes to a human rather than human attributes to the weather! It really paints a clear picture of Hanna's mood!
I love using the mountains of East Tennessee as my location, in part because I know it so well, but also because it's not just mountains. There are rolling hills, the weather can change by going down into the valley just a few miles away, good farmland, and more.
We were in the Sevierville area of the Smokies a few years ago. You could feel that the mountains had stories to tell!
Eldred, thanks for the thoughtful essay. I write about Huntington Beach -- Surf City, USA -- and that influences almost every aspect of the stories. I try to think about kids when my characters are outside. Here we have skateboarding on every paved surface, in addition to the usual shooting hoops and playing soccer. Main Street is crowded, with racks of t-shirts on the sidewalk, people carrying surfboards, and tourists with cameras. All of this is good for a sentence or two -- I have to be careful not to overdo it. I guess I have two tips: look at what kids are doing, and don't get carried away and ramble on like I have in this comment.
I've been on that main street, so I know exactly what you're talking about! I also agree about not overdoing it. I feel the same way when developing characters as well. There's a point when you can go too far and end up pushing the reader away instead of pulling them in.
Being born in a city where four seasons in one day are a distinct possibility - will comfortably fit into my stories. Melbourne Australia is my birthplace and I can hopefully weave this personality to make the reader sit up and take note. As well as the stark contrast of having lived the adventure of the 99% humidity of a Tel Aviv summer and what this does to your personality. You have the gift of descriptiveness, Eldred. Thanks.
Thank you, Sandra! I envy you your travels. It's so much easier to bring a location to life if you've had the opportunity to experience it yourself.
I love the article and I love the comments, too. Eldred you have clearly touched a chord with your advice and examples. My longtime interest in location as a character will step up to another level after reading this.