Wherever I Lay My Hat – 5 Ways Setting Affects Your Characters


We may all be unique snowflakes, with our own little DNA stamps, shining our brilliance on the world. But that’s only part of it. We are also shaped by when we are born, where we are born, our socio-economic status, and the people who do or do not love us.

I recently wrote about how you can use setting to advance your plot. In this post, I want to talk about how settings have shaped and continue to shape our characters.

Five Ways Setting Affects Your Characters 

  1. Certain characters will always be found in certain settings. It is true that people tend to group with others who are most like them. For example, wealthy, snobbish, status-conscious people will populate the tables of a new five-star restaurant. People who need to make money will serve them.
  2. Settings shape your character. Where people come from shows us how they will act in these settings. For example, if your rich customers in the restaurant were born in a stylish home in the city, they will probably feel at home. If the customers were born in a poverty-stricken neighbourhood and made their money winning the lottery, they will probably feel out of place. As William Faulkner said, ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past.’
  3. Settings can change your character. Being forced out of comfort zones into new places for extended periods of time will probably change your characters. Humans resist change. If you shift the boundaries, your character has to act, react, and adapt. Petronella Oortman is completely out of her depth in The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton. It is 1686 and the country girl arrives to become mistress of a luxurious home in bustling Amsterdam. She has to change to survive.
  4. Settings can set your character apart. Characters who come from an unusual place will always be perceived as different, whether they are different or not. A person who grew up on an island without access to the Internet will be different when he or she sets foot in
    the city. A city slicker will be viewed as odd by the island inhabitants. Dr Joel Fleischman, a New Yorker is the outsider when he arrives in Cicely, Alaska in the TV series Northern Exposure.
  5. Setting as a character. Sometimes a city or a house or a room can be so integral to a story that it becomes as real as any of the characters. Ian Rankin uses Edinburgh to menace, to hinder and to help the characters in his Rebus series. Emma Donoghue uses the room in Room as the place that both protects and imprisons Jack and his mother.

Never underestimate the way in which you can define your characters by the places they have been and where they end up.

If you want to learn how to write a book, join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg or sign up for our online course.

by Amanda Patterson

© Amanda Patterson

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This article has 3 comments

  1. JazzFeathers

    Loved this article! I do think setting is a very important part of the story, because, as you said, it does affect the cuilding of characters and the way they act and react.

    I love that quote from Faulkner!

  2. Anthony Ehlers

    Excellent post, Amanda. I just read a great essay from Eudora Welty on time and place in storytelling – and this echoes a lot of what she says.

  3. Amanda Patterson

    I’m glad you both enjoyed the article.
    I would love to read the essay, Anthony.

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