Using Setting as a Character: a Tip for Novelists

MaryLu TyndallGuest Blogger: MaryLu Tyndall @MaryLuTyndall

Choosing the right setting is just as important as choosing the right characters, plot, and dialogue. Setting grounds your readers, helping them to experience the action and drama more effectively. But it does so much more than that! A setting can be so vibrant and alive that it becomes one of the characters in your story, assisting or hindering your protagonist in achieving his/her goals.


Setting as Friend

A beach at sunset or a hike to a tranquil waterfall can provide nearly as much comfort and encouragement as any good friend. If your hero has just defeated a dragon, don’t send him to a lively night club or a bull fight. Turn his setting into a place where he can recuperate and reflect, where he can hear the voice of God in the breeze.

Setting can also aid the hero in his quest. A jungle or a crowded bus station can hide the hero from his enemies just as easily as quicksand can devour them.

Setting as Antagonist

Just like a villain, the proper setting can introduce conflict, cause trouble, or thwart the hero’s plans. Consider a vicious storm, a flood, a moonless night that blinds the hero, a jungle where he gets lost, bumper-to-bumper traffic that keeps him gridlocked, an earthquake, rock slide, etc. These settings take on a life of their own, and do everything in their power to keep your hero from succeeding. You’ve heard it said that if your scene is falling flat, have someone pull out a gun. I say transport your scene to a setting filled with conflict.

Setting as Mentor

Like a wise old sage, setting can also be a mentor. Perhaps your hero must learn something before he can move on. Have him wander into a library, an old book store, a cave with ancient, mysterious writings on the walls, an archeological dig, a museum. Or perhaps your hero must survive some ordeal in order to move forward such as climb a mountain or cross a river to overcome his fears and gain the confidence he needs to achieve his goals.

Setting as a Shadow for Your Protagonist

A shadow is anything or anyone that reflects your hero’s deepest flaws. If your hero has an alcohol problem, put him in a bar where he can watch what alcohol does to others. If he’s a control freak, put him in prison. If he’s selfish, put him in a homeless shelter or soup kitchen. If he’s greedy, place him at the New York Stock Exchange. Use the appropriate setting to open his eyes to his own flaws.

Setting as a Model of What the Protagonist Wants to Be

A church, a mission trip, a charitable foundation, free medical clinic, the palace of a wise king, the courtroom of a just judge, and a loving home are all settings that can provide an atmosphere that fosters qualities to which the hero aspires.

How about using setting as a shapeshifter, a joker, a symbol of the hero’s past, a guardian? Choosing setting as a character is only limited by your imagination!

As an example: Let’s say you’re writing a breakup scene between two of your characters. Now, imagine the difference if that scene were set: at home in the living room, in a crowded restaurant, on a ship out at sea, on a ski slope, a shooting range, a fencing match. Each setting becomes a third character that determines how the scene will play out.

Setting can be a dynamic, breathing character that can either assist or hinder your hero. So, choose wisely, and you’ll add an entirely new dimension to your story.

Can you think of any favorite scenes in books you’ve read where setting is an important character? What about your own writing—how have you incorporated setting this way?


MaryLu Tyndall’s latest novel, Veil of Pearls, releases July 1 and is available for pre-order at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and

A Christy Award finalist, MaryLu Tyndall dreamt of tall ships and swashbuckling pirates during her childhood years on Florida’s Atlantic Coast. She holds a degree in Math and worked as a software engineer for fifteen years before testing the waters as a writer. Now, while writing her eleventh novel, she manages a home, husband, and six kids while battling three cats who have decided that her keyboard is the best place to sleep.

Visit MaryLu at her Blog, Facebook, or Twitter.

  1. Interesting! I especially liked the part about putting a breakup scene in different settings; I hadn’t really thought about how the setting could affect the conflict.
    This post made me think of Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. The different places in Spain are definitely important to the story, especially the bullfighting scenes.

  2. I just finished Katie Ganshert’s Wildflowers from Winter and there was a scene when the hero and heroine were forced into the same home during a raging blizzard. Their moods mirrored the swirling snow, falling temperatures and blinding visibility, bringing them to a clashing encounter.

    I love creating setting as a third character in my own writing. One of my favorite love scenes in my WIP takes place between my hero and heroine who are kept apart by their circumstances, but forced to ride out a violent Minnesota Thunderstorm alone together. The romantic tension mounts as the rain comes down in sheets against the window panes, the thunder rolls across the sky and the lightning illuminates their surroundings.

  3. Thank you for this! Great list!

  4. Perhaps the greatest story for the setting being its own entity is “To Build a Fire” by Jack London.
    Hogwarts, Middle-Earth, and the ocean in “Moby Dick,” and a seemingly harmless hotel in “The Shining” all have their own distinctive plot bending characteristics.

    I’m a fan of using weather that blocks vision, hinders travel, and threatens life and limb.

  5. Excellent advice and a reminder how important settings are, thanks MaryLu! I found that they are particularly vital in Russian literature – just think of War and Peace! And when I write, settings are an integral part of the plot: characters react to it, seek certain places, want to be here rather than there…Aren’t we all like that? When we set out on vacation, don’t we always chose the place where (we think!) we ant to be?

  6. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser says:

    In Herman Wouk’s “The Caine Mutiny”, the USS Caine is certainly a character in its own right. A ship long past its prime, intended for the dirty, dangerous, and unglamorous job of minesweeping, its deficiencies and discomforts have an almost planned malevolence that shape the characters of the wartime crew – and eventually helps precipitate the mutiny against the unbalanced Captain Queeg.

    The interesting thing is that the ship’s maddeningly irritating decreptitude forges strength of character – the mutiny possible saves the ship (and crew) in a typhoon. Later, some of the crewmen who have been “nurtured” by the Caine save her once again, when the ship is hit by a kamikaze off Okinawa – while another, the Caine’s new captain, fails his test of courage.

    At the novel’s end, when the Caine is brought to Hoboken for scrapping, the last main character remaining active in the narrative, Willie Keith, feels an almost personal sense of loss – which is never described as such, only appearing as the shadow cast by his memories.

    The ship’s name was chosen with care – the Caine is named after the first outcast of human history, and forms a sense of community, held together by the common bond of adversity – a community of outcasts. Something of a surrogate father!

    • Andrew, I haven’t read The Caine Mutiny, but you’ve made me want to by your descriptions! A great example.

      • Andrew Budek-Schmeisser says:

        It’s one of the finest novels ever written. Wouk created characters that are unforgettable, and a setting that draws you in – which perhaps will give you a desire to learn more about the historical background.

        It’s also interesting that one of the main characters is a writer (writing ‘the great wartime novel’ novel as his duties on the Caine permit).

        When you read it, look to the dimensionality of personality in the characters. They’re as far from being stick figures as any you’ll find.

  7. What an interesting post! In my own debut novel, BABY GRAND, New York City — specifically, the way people walk and drive and live there — does serve as a model for what my heroine, Jamie Carter, wants to be (or needs to be). Rather than reactive, or passive, she must learn to take control of her own life, make her own decisions. And it is there, right in the heart of the city, that Jamie is abducted, and the only way to survive is to trust and rely on herself. Thank you for posting! :)

  8. carol brill says:

    I, too, really like how your breakup scene examples show the lesson in this blog so clearly.
    One of the things I admire in Adriana Trigiani’s writing is her palpable sense of place. Whether it is small town PA in Queen of the Big Time, or New York or Italy in several other novels, she creates settings that pulsate and enrich the story

  9. Thank you for this post. I just finished a conference on June 9th with Geri Krotow and Linda Cardillo where they talked about setting as a character. You’ve given good examples showing how setting can be used as characters. Thank you so much.

  10. Walt Mussell says:

    One of my favorite authors, Karen White, has a series of books set in Charleston where the main character is a woman that can see ghosts. The ghosts are attached to certain places and need the main character’s help to “move on.” For example, in one of the books, there is a scene in a bridal shop where the main character’s best friend picks an eighty-year old dress that had never been worn for her own wedding. The ghost that shows up in the bridal shop is the one that was supposed to have worn that specific dress but didn’t due to death from an illness. The ghost had been hanging around for eighty years, just waiting for someone to finally wear her dress. Each ghost in the series brings a piece of their own time in history to the scene.

    • Walt, Charleston is one of my favorite cities.. I’ve got 2 books set there… This ghost story sounds fascinating. :-)

      • Walt Mussell says:

        Thanks for letting me know about the Charleston stories.

        I checked out your website and saw the books set during The War of 1812. I love that time period. What drew you to that as a setting?

        • I was doing general research on privateers and found some very cool stuff about their role in the War of 1812, which led me to Baltimore of course because they sent out the most privateers of any US city… which led me to discover how the British burned Washington and the attack on Fort McHenry.. and well, let’s just say I was very intrigued. Just had to write a series about it!

  11. In Jeanette Windle’s book, The DMZ, the Colombian jungle is a life altering character. The hero/heroine must make their way out of some of the most dangerous terrain on Earth. The way she writes, you’ll have sweat pouring down your back and will want to reach for the DEET and the water.She was a missionary in South America and man, can that girl paint a picture of the jungle!

    In my WIP, I use a dark, moldy, filthy dungeon as a setting. I creeped myself out writing it.

    • Oh, I love stories set in jungles!! There’s so much you can do with that setting. The series I’m working on now is set in the jungles of Brazil. :-)

      • Oh wow! I spent the summer of ’84 all through Brazil, starting in the jungle and hour from Manaus. Hot. HOT. H-O-T. And the bugs? HUGE.

        • You did? Wow. I may have to pick your brain. My story follows a group of disgruntled Southerners who left the south after the Civil War to start a Southern Utopia in Brazil.. Huge bugs, eh? I hate bugs. LOL.

          • Sure,I’d be happy to tell you all about cockroaches the size of shoes, tarantulas that go THUMP on your shoulder. Green tree pythons that go T-H-U-M-P in your head and strangle you before you can yell for help. Fire ants by the hundreds that walk in perfect little lines. Trails that meander deep through forests, whose trees reach right up to heaven. Heat so heavy and oppressive that you can see it…

    • I want to read your book when you’re done. Anything with a dungeon is right up my alley. They are, IMHO, one of the greatest metaphorical devices in literature.

  12. You’ve given me an ah-ha moment.

    I could never figure out how to make every word count with setting.

    I knew I needed setting, but you’ve shown me how to use it effectively.

    My favorite settings have probably been in Robin Jones Gunn’s Sisterchicks books.

  13. marion says:

    First 50 or so pages of WIP: constant sunshine (except at night, of course!) It’s Egypt, after all.

    Then there’s a sequence of scenes where the early-morning river mist is rising and getting dense. A sizeable chunk of pages. Didn’t realize the contrast was so strong until I read through for second revision. Relieves the sunny boredom, for one thing. But, just as one mystery is resolved, palace politics becomes pervasive and disorienting, like the mist.

  14. Sue Harrison says:

    Thank you for this post, MaryLu! I’m particularly intrigued with your ideas of setting as shadow and as mentor.

    I’m doing research for a novel set in my home state of Michigan and so am reading some award-winning non-fiction that will help me get into the setting. I love seeing a setting not only through my own eyes but also through the eyes of others who have a viewpoint very different from mine.

  15. In my first WIP, my setting is an all-male dorm in a major state university. The main character runs it and lives in it. She’s a female grad student and a new Christian. The setting creates a few conflicts right there. One being that she’s the only woman. The other that she’s new at the faith, but it clashes with the “thought process” rampant at the university. My favorite scenes in the ms are in a small piano practice room, where first she helps one of her residents play Chopin, then later, he helps her with a song she’s written.

  16. Some of my favorite settings:

    P.E. Island in the Anne of Green Gables series.

    The moors of England in many stories — from Wuthering Heights to The Secret Garden.

    Mr. Rochester’s home in Jane Eyre.

    China, in Pearl Buck’s novels.

    The American prairie — as seen through the eyes of Laura Ingalls Wilder and Willa Cather. It’s not quite the same imagined by all the rest of us who never experienced it! (Though it’s fun to do.)

    To me, the best books for setting were written by people who loved the place. The details just resonate the right way.

    • I fell in live with China through Pearl Buck, she was such a good writer. She really was a master.

      My MIL and I got kicked out of “Green Gables” for sitting on the furniture.

    • Great examples, Kristen! I truly never thought about the prairie and Laura Ingalls, but how true that it impacted her, her way of looking at things, and her life.

      • Oh, and of course Maycomb County, Alabama, from To Kill a Mockingbird. Hot, sticky, slow summers. I can relate! And since I’m an NC girl, anything by Kaye Gibbons or Clyde Edgerton — they have quirky characters and different plots, but the setting just feels like home to me.

        Jennifer — I’d love to visit Green Gables. Never been to Canada.

    • The moors in Wuthering Heights came immediately to my mind as well. I can almost hear the wind as I type.

      • The moors — the only thing I even liked about Wuthering Heights. But I think that’s why I kept reading — I loved the way the landscape and the characters mirrored each other. Otherwise it was just a well-written ode to depression and hopelessness. :)

  17. Jeanne says:

    Wow, I loved all your suggestions for using setting as a character! I’m still figuring out how to do this, but you gave some fabulous suggestions here. Thanks, MaryLu!

    There are a number of books with fabulous settings. Off the top of my head, I read some books by Brock and Bodie Thoene many years ago set in post WW2 Israel. I felt like I was right there with the characters as they walked through their stories, fighting for causes and trying to stay safe.

    In my current WIP, one setting that I like is having my hero, who’s convinced he can’t dance in a dance studio trying to please his wife.
    Thanks again for sharing your insights, MaryLu. :)

  18. Hi Everyone! Wow. I really enjoyed reading all your comments. This is a well-read, intelligent bunch! :-) I loved the examples you pulled from your own work and from books you’ve read. Many of them brought to mind settings from great literature of the past as well as gave me ideas I’d never considered. Setting has always played a huge part in my books, particularly when my scenes have been set on a ship out to sea. (as many of them are) There’s so many things you can do with the weather and waves and the ship itself to create a character that really adds depth to your story. I’m so glad the post helped you all, perhaps even sparked an idea in your current WIP. :-)

  19. Got me thinking about Old Man RIver in Twain’s books, particularly Huckleberry Finn. Also L’Amour’s use of the desert in a few of the Sackett books, almost like it’s alive. Recently read one or two of the “Serge” books by Tim Dorsey. Great use of the Sunshine State as both plot device and character.

  20. Anna Labno says:

    Hi MaryLu!

    How have you been? Is Rachelle your agent? :)
    Your descriptions are really great. But I’ll never forget the sea water when the heroine was sinking. :)

  21. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser says:

    One of the vital factors in making setting a character is accuracy and fidelity to detail, along with internal consistency. The cliche, “Write what you know”, is never more true!

    Most of Andrew Greely’s novels are set in Chicago – when I finally had the chance to visit that city, I fancied I could feel the place inhabited by his characters. The details of the setting rang true, and WERE true.

    The opposite – inaccurate detail – is surprisingly easy to pick up, and can ruin an otherwise wreck a good story. Just one insignificant-seeming piece of information can make a difference. James Bradley’s “Flyboys” (yes, nonfiction) is an unfortunate example – he made an error in nomenclature that undermined the setting of an important, harrowing story.

    Something like that points out the need for thorough research – and also a need for publishers to employ editors with adequate background knowledge to handle their assignments professionally.

    One thing I think a writer should never do is take the attitude that “most of my readers were not involved in WW2 (or have never been to a rainforest, or whatever), so they won’t know the difference”.

    Probably true, but readers can be surprisingly diverse in their experiences, and those who do know will share their discovery of inacurracies in Amazon reviews! More to the point – faked detail can be surprisingly easy to pick up even for those who don’t have the specific experience.

    Readers are sophisticated, and you should never underestimate them, nor talk down to them.

    • I couldn’t agree more, Andrew. Which makes writing historical novels all the more difficult because the time machine hasn’t been invented yet. (that I know of. LOL) However, lots of good research can definitely make up for that, including reading literature written in the time period your novel is set in. Many of my novels are set in the US deep South and in the Caribbean and I had the privilege of growing up in South Florida, which aided greatly in my description of the tropical weather and the sea.

  22. I love the ice cave scene in Beth Vogt’s “Wish You Were Here”. Um, yep, perfect setting. Perfect scene.

  23. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser says:

    It works in film, too…if anyone remembers the dreadful John Wayne movie, “The Green Berets”, the last scene shows the Duke on a beach at the end of the day, with the sun sinking into the sea…

    Very evocative, but for that scene to be accurate, the earth would have to change the direction of its rotation.

  24. SC Author says:

    This actually helps a ton, because my book is in and underwater setting! I can see how the use of sunlight/darkness would really set the mood. It’s awesome to think of it as another character, and it really does act like that. Love the new perspective!

  25. Fantastic post! I really enjoyed it! My first thought (and someone has reference Hemingway) was Old Man and the Sea. As a kid, I didn’t get it. Age and experience are fantastic lenses for understanding, and the book and epic struggle has never been more real than now. Thank you, MaryLu.

    • Yes Laura, great example! So many of those classics we read as kids now come to life as adults, don’t they? This discussion prompts me to go back and reread some of them. :-)

  26. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser says:

    This is a GREAT topic, and the responses have given me – and I’m sure many others – a lot of scope for consideration in our own work. Thanks, MaryLu!

    To throw in another two cents’ worth…setting is also defined by character interaction.

    An example, from song…a lot of you are probably very familiar with Casting Crowns “Voice Of Truth”. There’s the line about David, where he’s surrounded by “the sound of a thousand warriors, shaking in their armor, wishing they’d have had the strength to stand”.

    Paints a picture in you mind, eh? It does for me. Unfortunately, for me it’s a howler.

    Soldiers in the Bronze/Iron Ages in the Middle East tended to be semi-pro, and veterans of many fights. Violence was a way of life. Very few combat veterans (I know from experience) would actively want to ‘stand’, especially in an odds-against sword fight. (The heart of courage lies in standing nonetheless.)

    Re-writing the line to read “…shaking in their armor, wishing they’d have had the sense to stay home” would be a LOT more accurate, though not quite as inspiring. But it would have been more effective in creating a setting of latent violence and dread, which would have been more effective in highlighting David’s act of faith.

    As a counterpoint, look at Coldplay’s “Viva la Vida”, in which setting is beautifully accomplished by the line, “…(I) sweep the streets I used to own”. You see lonely streets, littered, and a solitary sweeper…once a king. Makes for cold chills!

    • Words are so powerful. You change just one little phrase in a sentence and it evokes an entirely different visual and mood. I guess that’s what makes us writers…our fascination with the power of words. :-)

  27. In my contemporary gothic novel, Amber Dreams, I use the setting of the “Whispering Meadows Estate” as a character. It contains secret passageways that the antagonist uses for his purposes. My heroine hates the mansion as it’s drafty and creepy. It was fun to set it up as a character. Great post, thanks MaryLu!

  28. One of my favorite settings is Mount Doom in The Lord of the Rings. Frodo, exhausted both physically and spiritual, has to climb this steep, dark, jagged volcano. He’s thirsty and the heat is almost unbearable. To have overcome so much and be so close to accomplishing his mission, then to have this nearly insurmountable obstacle, I love it!

    Thank you, MaryLu, for this great post. When I’m writing, I am aware of the importance of setting scenes, but I hadn’t thought about to the degree you’ve describe. I’ve thought of setting as antagonist before (such as when Janie in Their Eyes Were Watching God has to survive a hurricane and a flood), but I hadn’t thought of setting as friend or mentor. Your explanation is quite helpful and thought-prooking.

    In my current WIP, I have a character who has three phobias. One is a fear of hospitals. Towards the beginning of the novel, he suffers a head injury and wakes to find himself in a hospital room. He has an IV and a catheter, so he feels tied to the bed and has to pull the catheter out in order to free himself and escape. There also is a graveyard that is important in the story. Although it is gray, neglected and lonely, it is the main character’s place of refuge, so it is setting as friend. It also is setting as mirror, although I hadn’t planned that consciously.

    Thank you again. Blessings! :)

    • Ah yes, Mount Doom.. a perfect setting to test poor Frodo’s endurance and commitment to see if he was made of the stuff heroes are made of! Great point.
      And I love that your character wakes up in a hospital all tubed up when that is his greatest fear. :-)

  29. Kathryn Elliott says:

    I’m drawing a blank on the title, but I remember a war/romance where the characters only used the formal parlor to visit with callers after someone died. In the last scene the reader assumes the hero is returning safely from war – the cook prepares the “Lords” favorite dishes, wife dresses in her best gown, sounds like a big welcome home party. And then….the butler announces the first guests are waiting in the parlor – so sad.

    And now, not remembering the title will bug me all day!

  30. Setting as a character, hmmm? Yes, it does have a huge bearing on relationship, doesn’t it? Thinking and rethinking some chapters.

    • To answer your question Cherry, yes, I did. Along with my elderly, completely deaf mother-in-law, I was encouraged to extracate myself from the Green Gable Historic Site for the unpardonable, unthinkable, unCanadian CRIME of sitting on a couch. We did NOT know it was an exhibit!! I just thought it was a couch. That was for sitting one’s…pockets… on.
      So guess to has to sign to her MIL that we sinned and fell short of the glory of Anne???
      We still laugh oursleves silly about our crime spree.

  31. I think in order to really make settings into characters, you have to give them at least an illusion of agency or consciousness as well. i.e. If your character is wandering through a dark jungle on a moonless night and trips, it’s not just because it’s dark and the surface is uneven, it’s because the setting is conspiring against him. It requires a slight shift in the way the setting is described, but it can be very powerful.

    Of course, it can also be interesting to set a scene in the opposite place one would expect to suit the mood. For example, a character could receive bad news on a bright and sunny day. And then that provides further opportunities for the writer to change the readers’ perception of that setting, perhaps by making the sun seem threatening or scorching the life away, etc., which could prove very interesting.

    • Interesting way to look at it, Kristin, but I agree, the setting can’t be flat, it must be written almost as a living entity without coming across too bizarre.

  32. TNeal says:

    When you write about setting as a character, I think of several Dean Koontz novels where the weather sets the mood for the scene.

    In my own novel, “Dark Eyes, Deep Eyes,” the afterlife journeys of two men, the settings, heaven and hell, determine the storyline directions for the characters.

    Readers have commented as much about the settings as the characters.

  33. Sandra Peut says:

    Great, informative post, MaryLu. I’ve just written a guest blog post on a similar topic (creating compelling settings –, but I wish I’d read yours first, lol!

    I’ll definitely be applying some of your tips in the rewrite of my current work-in-progress. :)

  34. Christine Kyle Moore says:

    This was very helpful. Thank you.

Site by Author Media © Rachelle Gardner.