Use Settings to Challenge Characters

Last summer the Writer’s Dig (Writer’s Digest online, 7/21/15) ran a guest column by Kathleen Shoop which talked about ways to “Use Setting to Challenge Your Characters (& Make a Better Story). It happens that I am reworking an historical novel which I researched and wrote parts of (opening, a few chapters, a DREADFUL screenplay) some years ago. I’m hoping it’s finally time to finish the work. The story begins with the early Celtic tribes who rose against the Roman incursions (not to mention Vikings and other marauders) in the first Century, A.D.

So what do I know about the setting? This is 1st Century A.D. I’m talking about.

Shoop wisely noted that a romance, for instance, will be much different if set in today’s New York City, vs. 1905 Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Attention to the differences in setting gives a means of character development which will ensure the author an original story, one that leaves readers “attached” to the characters long after the last page is turned. The key all in the infusion of details — meaningful and unexpected — that will help keep the reader turning those pages.

Shoop had several suggestions (each of which needs some explanation):

1. Inside Out

2. Dress Her Up and Make Her Run

3. A Good Night’s Rest

Details, explained:

1. Inside Out – who are your main characters on the inside? Whom do they “pretend” to be? If your Main Character (MC) tries to be something other than what s/he truly is, and that is made clear through the opening of your story, why the pretense? We may sense there is much more beyond the surface than s/he is showing. We may be puzzled by the way s/he acts, especially if we see some change or contradictions between what s/he says and what s/he does. What does s/he claim to dislike, yet allow to happen? Who IS this person? Really. And Deeply — inside. This is a good time to “play” with your reader’s early assumptions, give him/her a few surprises.

My Celtic heroine, a young girl only ten years old, has a twin of smaller build, and more timid demeanor. I could make them both a little reticent to begin with. Then, when my MC steps up to a challenge, she takes everyone (including the reader, I hope) by surprise. Now I have some serious purpose for this girl. What challenges will she accept? How will her demeanor change throughout the opening chapter or two? What about the sister, the twin? Is she also made of sterner stuff?

2. Dress Her Up and Make Her Run – “clothing and accouterments” take on the role of setting just as much as the countryside, the skyscrapers, cars in the street, hidden minuscule gardens in a city setting, etc. Clothing can reveal character traits, hamper (or help) the MC toward her goal. Clothing may impede a walk down the street, make noise in a quiet place, break down in some way: heels can break, straps break or tangle, reveal more than the MC wants during an altercation or accident, etc. Maybe you can choose clothing that is outlandish or which may fail her in a pivotal moment. Shoop suggests you “make the clothes matter in a way that helps change your characters in unique and unforgettable ways.”

My MC will be somewhat hampered on this step. It’s not as if she can step into the nearest boutique and buy something new to impress a handsome warrior. But she can do something different to it: wear a particular flower, tucked into her hair. Keep trinkets attached at the belt which no one else has. What are they? Where did she get them? Why are they always with her? and so on.

3. A Good Night’s Rest – authors put their characters into particular settings to accomplish specific tasks in the story. These places can “confirm their personalities, or challenge them to evolve.” How and where will your characters find respite? Where s/he sleeps “will help to illustrate how s/he has been shaped, destroyed . . . or possibly reborn.” Does your character prefer to sleep in a sheltered place: room, home, lean-to? Or is s/he more comfortable out of doors, where s/he is possibly more free and in control of his/her own destiny? What if that place of respite takes on a dramatic change? How will s/he cope with the change? Is it for the better or worse?

My MC comes from a family of note within one part of their clan, but they are not wealthy. And they are on the move. They will help build the typical Celtic shelter, but it will be a “permanent” building (permanent enough that they are still finding evidences of these circular “huts” in the British Isles). She will be at home in the outdoors, waking or sleeping. But when she marries a man who will become a noted warrior and leader of his Tribe, how will she cotton to being indoors so often, adjust to spending more time indoors than out, maintaining the home and “servants,” constantly having to prepare for guests — welcome or un?

Shoop’s last word of advice: “Play with your manuscript Analyze how you are using [these] aspects of setting to challenge and change your characters. You will love the results as you watch your words come alive on the page, surprising you at every turn.”

Just the thoughts which have come into my head while writing this piece have warped away from some of the things I’ve thought before. Hope it opens your eyes as well, to wider horizons and ways to use these kinds of details to rope your reader into your story and make him/her want to stay!