golen pens and ink on notebook

Is Setting as Important as Character or Plot?

Karin Kallmaker Craft of Writing


The author has to pay attention to the setting in the same way as a character, give it the same analysis and deliberate use as any character in the work.

Is it a main character, a secondary character or an incidental one – once the author decides that, then the work to be done is clear. If setting is a main character – one that opposes and challenges the characters (as in a woman in a struggle for survival in a snowstorm) then attention to believable, recognizable detail is crucial.

Having experienced it directly will help describe and bring it alive, but traveling to a location isn’t always practical. Therefore, research is important; first hand accounts of a region can be really helpful. I like to read as many as possible and synthesize. My novella “Cape Wrath” is set at the northernmost point of the Scottish mainland, and I’ve never been to Scotland. I hope the UK readers don’t realize that! To prepare, I read online journals from people who had hiked there, online newspapers (crime beat is always informative) and .gov sites (try a local elected official).

All gave good glimpses into the economics and environmental concerns of residents (as opposed to tourists and tourism agencies, also useful sources). I didn’t rely on one source, but read many to build a natural, inspiring understanding of the location. It’s not as good as having visited, but it was, I think, sufficient to the purpose.

Several visits to Hawaii helped wonderfully with writing stories set there but I still went to as many local sources for accounts of day-to-day life as I could when I set an entire novel on the Big Island. However, driving in Hawaii is the only way I came to understand a basic tenet of Hawaiian outlook – their pity of the mainlander in a hurry.

Open Quote Mark featuring Starry Night

When driving, the locals give a little wave that says “That is so sad, you’ve got some kind of rush, oh no, you go first…you poor, poor thing.”

Settings don’t have to pop off the page, though, especially the ubiquitous ones. Too much detail can exhaust a reader and mislead her about what really matters to the story. The bank where a main character stops for some cash and we’ll never see again, can be simply “a bank.” Who doesn’t know what a bank is like, generally? A few well-chosen words can enrich the story.

For example, is the bank fancy or run down? Bristling with guards or palatial? Does she think nothing of going there or does she dread it because she’s late on her house payment? Does she know the people by name or does she like the anonymity? And so forth. Such minor nuances are the background color of the novel’s larger tapestry, supporting the plot and illuminating the characters.

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