While copy editing at work, I came across a quote by Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) that hits on something important about the intersection of setting and character.
land and air is. Anybody
is as the sky is low or high,
the air heavy or clean
and anybody is as there
is wind or no wind there.
It is that which makes them
and the arts they make
and the work they do
and the way they eat
and the way they drink
and the way they learn
“An American and France”
(1936), n.p.; line breaks added
Where you are makes you who you are.
At a recent picnic, my friend Shareen spoke of loving to visit the American West and feeling most at home in wide-open spaces under an endless sky. She grew up in Africa's vast grasslands. And she made it sound so very compelling. But alas, I'd feel exposed and terrified in Shareen's grasslands. I grew up in a river valley surrounded by mid-size eastern mountains and lush forests. She'd likely feel claustrophobic and oppressed where I feel safe and free.
What feels safe or good or beautiful or desirable is something shaped in profound ways by setting, by milieu (that is, the larger context of social relationships within a setting). Whether your character wears her nails natural or paints them black, fire-engine red or pale mauve is shaped by where she comes from. Whether he drinks Coors or Courvoisier is likewise due in part to his milieu.
Granted, we live in a very mobile society. People often leave their home settings in young adulthood, never to return. But Stein draws us back to the truth that "you can take the boy out of the country, but you can't take the country out of the boy." In the best characterizations, the person's roots will show, often in subtle ways--a silent head-bow before a meal, the secret stash of CDs, an odd rock used as a paperweight.
As you develop characters, remember to think about where they come from and how the current setting fits or doesn't fit with that early experience. Let that homeland be the filter through which they imagine and make mental associations and draw colorful metaphors and similes. Let it shape their choice of housing and hobbies and confidantes.
What are some of your favorite characters shaped by their setting? How might you try to show setting shaping your characters?