Characters can gain power from their settings

Table of Contents

Donald Maass offers a lot of advice on writing a book that breaks out a career in Writing the Breakout Novel. In his first chapter he gives scenarios of writers with ongoing careers, already published, but sliding downward. He calls himself the agent who gets the 911 career call when the author’s latest novel doesn’t get picked up.

The problems which Maass offers up also have solutions in the book. Settings have a psychological weight that characters can use.

You can deepen the psychology of place in your story by returning to a previously established setting. You showing how your character’s perception of it has changed. A useful principle for making place an active character [in your story] is to give your characters an active relationship to place—which in turn means marking your characters’ growth or decline through their relationships to their various surroundings.

Haass has a good handle on how to do this, since he says it’s not as easy as it sounds. “Go inside your characters and allow them a moment to discover their feelings about the place into which you’ve delivered them.”

You can also find a nice workshop exercise on this technique in Now Write! It’s a collection of exercises created by authors. The Character of Setting is an exercise all about creating atmosphere. It also shows how to use tone to affect how a reader sees a character.

Former WLT program director Michael Noll talks about this in his new book The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction. He uses a passage from Donna M. Johnson’s Holy Ghost Girl to illustrate how a character finds meaning in the things that surround her. “As real people,” he says, “we travel through a variety of places every day. But all of us have a handful of places that feel like home. Those are places where we are our best or truest selves.”

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