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Setting: to aid characterisation

Characterisation can be developed and informed by setting. A shallow and flashy personality can be reflected in the expensive but gaudy taste displayed in their surroundings. But also, it’s good to think about playing against type. Someone living in a penthouse worth multiple millions could live frugally with cheap food and little furniture, maybe moth-eaten clothes. This makes them more interesting and has the reader beginning to ask themselves all sorts of questions and start to pay attention. You would learn an awful lot about someone for example, if you had access to their home and got to rifle through their possessions and see their taste in music and books or boxsets.

Consider this short piece of writing:

The man’s wife had left him and he missed her.

It’s a first draft piece where the writer is merely telling themselves the story of what happened. Note the generic terms: man, wife.

Make the generic specific

We now need to consider setting to reveal something of the situation and the character. We need to see the scene in the movie of our mind. I’m going to say that again. We need to see it. Do not consider a piece of writing to be perfected unless the reader can see the scene. We need to create pictures on that screen in our heads and then try to convey these pictures to the reader. We daydream our scenes until we can see them for ourselves. This means making decisions about setting. Setting = props.

Make it simple + great

Consider this updated version of the first draft:

Jacob sat in a chair in his empty apartment, a plate of food untouched on the table in front of him, wondering why Rebecca had left him. He had become so angry he had turned to drinking far more liquor than was good for him.

Now we know from the plate of untouched food that he can’t eat, he’s so upset. This is much better. It’s showing rather than telling. However, what type of food he’s eating or what he likes to drink will say even more about what type of man he is.

Setting should answer key questions:

Where am I? When is this happening? Who is there?

Create telling (specific) details: dingy-white walls streaked with nicotine.

Key takeaway: Setting needs to create a picture in the reader’s head and reveal character.

Let’s apply more details and see what it does to that initial piece of prose.


The refrigerator, once state of the art, hummed its start-stop irregular rhythm. Jacob sat on a spindly, wooden chair, his bruised hands clenched in rage, hunched over the pitted Formica table. Darkness seeped in the windows until a cold breeze rattling the cracked panes signalled it was night.

He ignored the bottle of Jim Beam, just out of reach for now. It would be empty soon enough. One thought looped around his otherwise empty skull: Rebecca.

The refrigerator, once state of the art, may have been bought from new and kept a very long time. Maybe Jacob is from a generation where things were built to last.

Or, maybe Jacob is a younger man – in which case it may have been bought secondhand as there was no money for a new one or because it was a vintage style no longer made.

The spindly, wooden chair could be a cheap hard plastic chair from a Swedish retailer. This can also help with setting the time period.

His bruised hands clenched in rage could infer there had been domestic violence, or he could have punched a wall in frustration. The reader will start asking themselves these kinds of questions and will read on to find out the answers. You can then purposefully set these question hooks throughout a piece to keep the pages turning.

The old man might be drinking the bottle of Jim Beam because he has always done so. The younger man might be drinking it to follow a trend. Remember these choices we make in terms of setting and props can give us lots of ideas for developing character.

Setting provides signposts and symbolism.

It helps to create and build the pictures leaving room for inference on the part of the reader. The stop-start irregular hum of the refrigerator could infer a bad heart for instance.

If a character goes to their fridge include a telling detail – one that’s old and off-white says ‘utilitarian’, whereas a shiny new brushed metal one says ‘expensive’.

The terminology a character uses will also say a lot about them.

Ask yourself, would your character use the term jeans or slacks? What are their choices: Rock or classical? Cigarette or cigar? Cat or dog?

Let us see the contents of their fridge and the items on their shelves. All of these things will perform double duty: creating a picture in the reader’s mind, making the writing vivid and leaving space for the reader to form an impression of who your protagonist really is.