Wednesday, July 10

Posted by Laurel Garver on Wednesday, July 10, 2013 12 comments
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.

After all anybody is as their
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
and everything.

--Gertrude Stein,
“An American and France”
(1936), n.p.; line breaks added

To paraphrase--
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?


  1. "What is the quality of light here?" - it's a question that a former writing teacher of mine used to write on the margins of my papers, meaning, "show what the character is feeling about their environment" which is another way of showing setting through the perspective of character.

    I struggle with setting still, and I appreciate this post, as a reminder that I need to visualize the setting, and discover how it shapes my characters.

    Thanks Laurel!

    1. How a character reacts to a setting is also a function of where they come from and what feels comfortable. Consider it a two-for-one when your character reacts to a setting--you show something about who she is and where she comes from simultaneously.

  2. I love this post. I've never thought of it this way before. Most of the time my characters are from the same place the novel occurs, but not always.

    1. Even siblings growing up in the same household will experience that setting differently depending on their relationships and temperament. I think it would be especially interesting to explore those differing experience in the "same" setting.

  3. I've read many fantasy books where setting is treated as a major character in a novel. Can't have mermaids without water, and even though they are swimming instead of walking, everything about the characters and their surroundings is mingled.

    I imagine a contemporary novel can be developed the same. Skateboarders, surfers, park rangers, sailors, military, even a beauty queen is shaped by their lifestyle, and to a greater degree, their childhood environment.

    A really good author can make setting as important as the skills and abilities of the MC and the supporting characters.


    1. How every kind of character interprets what's good or bad where they are at any given moment is shaped by the setting they come from. I agree that contemporary authors often don't consider this to the degree that some genre authors do--fantasy is a good example. Historical is another.

  4. Good points. Easiest to see the effect familiar surroundings have on a character when they're taken out of them, I think.


    1. Absolutely. Our sense of what is good and comfortable is often undefined until tested in a setting that feels bad and uncomfortable.

  5. Great post. I've heard writers say that setting should be treated as a character. I think that's true--the setting should be so integral to the plot that the story couldn't be set anywhere else.

    1. Right, and as a character, your humans will have a particular relationship with it (the setting). It sustains them, baffles them, is hostile to them.

  6. I never thought in terms of safety tied to a character's setting but I think I can use that insight. I was raised in the dense trees of the east coast, but feel most at home in the open skies of the west; I feel claustrophobic going back now. But there are other parts of NY that have stayed with me: the bird calls and the mistiness and of course the vibrant fall colors.

    1. Oh and I meant to tell you I mentioned your book today on my blog!