Book Settings as Characters

A book’s setting can be a huge draw for your audience and can set the tone for your whole book. I mean, are we talking flower leis and bikinis, cozy cabin and hot chocolate, or bullets flying through a sophisticated cityscape?

Book Settings: 3 Things to Consider

The way you design a setting for your book is done the same way you design any other character: by matching it to your book’s tone, theme, and practical considerations. Think about how you’re using word choice, and what role the setting will play in the story.

    1. Tone.
    2. Theme.
    3. Practical considerations.

Or, to put it a less textbooky way, what feels right? Let’s take a closer look.

1. Tone

When I was writing my upcoming romance, Unbreak Me, setting came first because it was part of the inspiration for the book. I was struck by how the rebuilding of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina was a perfect visual metaphor for the healing of a woman after trauma. And not only that, I loved the idea of a woman coming to terms with her trauma in a city filled with people who had all lived through some epic sh*t. They weren’t strangers to hard knocks, but this is also where they invented the jazz funeral, aka dancing in the streets on the way home from burying your relatives. Or actually, just dancing in the street to celebrate or protest any old thing.

Book Settings Pride

Photo by Juliette F on Unsplash

The city has always had a touch of magic to it, a joie de vivre despite its many challenges and sorrows, from yellow fever to floods, to a brutal history of corruption and racial discrimination. This was the kind of place where I could set a book about some dark, gritty realities, and have it take on a sparkle of hope in the midst of all of that. Toss in a bawdy joke and a simmering pot of gumbo and it felt perfect!

In other words, New Orleans was a match for the tone and theme I wanted to bring out.

2. Theme

When you’re thinking about your next book, consider how a small town might provide a great container for the quirky cast of side characters you have in mind. Or how a big city bodega could provide the same gathering place, with a little more urban sophistication and hipster sensibility. How an old-fashioned couple might fit well on a horse ranch, or perhaps caretaking a string of cozy lakeside cottages somewhere with heaps of trees and flowers.

Think of the kind of places your target audience is sticking on their Pinterest boards, and set your book there.

As part of the tone, underline and enhance the impact of your setting by the word choices you use in your descriptions.

You build your scenes with multisensory imagery: with what your character sees and picks up and plugs her nose to avoid, and pretends not to hear, and what she gobbles off the waiter’s tray when her mother-in-law isn’t looking. But even more than using the five senses, you need to think about the atmosphere you’re building with word choice.

For a heist book or FBI-centered romantic suspense, my descriptions are going to have shorter sentences, with more staccato, professional terms. For a college-based friends-to-lovers, my descriptions are probably going to sound more modern, casual, maybe even with a hashtag or two.

Remember, nothing exists in a book except through the words that you put there, so your word choice in describing a setting can matter even more than the setting itself.

Just think of how a cabin in the woods can be chainsaw-massacre creepy, or cozy and romantic with a flickering fire and a fuzzy throw blanket. Wow, I’m using a lot of cabin examples. Possibly might be time for a little vacation, Michelle, eh?

Okay so tone, check. Theme, check. What about practical considerations?

3. Practical Considerations

Book Settings Consideration

Photo by Kaboompics .com from Pexels

For Unbreak Me, the wounded female character I had in mind was a horse trainer who had been isolating herself on her family’s ranch. Um…this presented a problem. New Orleans has many things, but there is a distinct shortage of horse ranches. However, this turned out to be a strength. My heroine in Unbreak Me is white, and my hero is African-American (Haitian Creole, to get specific to the NOLA roots of his ancestors).

One of the things I wanted to dig into in the book was how multicultural relationships are different types of challenging depending on where you’re located and what your family and community dynamics are like. By starting on a Montana ranch, I got my horse fix, and I got to show the different attitudes of people in a very non-diverse, predominantly white area with a western rural feel. Then, in the second half of the book, the couple ended up called back to New Orleans, where they faced a whole different set of challenges from his urban, close-knit African American neighborhood.

In this case, the practical considerations of the setting became part of the conflict. Never more so than when the couple had to decide where they wanted to live, since their homes and families were thousands of miles apart.

In most cases, practical considerations dictate where you can or can’t set a book.

For my rocker series, I needed a place with a thriving indie music scene, so I was pretty much immediately drawn to Austin or Portland. My characters liked biking everywhere, so Portland it was! For my serial killer WIP, I needed to not stick the killer in a crowded urban area, because it’s really so much harder to get away with murder when there are pesky cameras and people all over the place.

In Conclusion

So, you’ve chosen a setting that matches your book’s tone and themes, and you’ve worked through the practical considerations. You’ve thumbed a sticky note up on your office wall that says, “Michelle says REMEMBER WORD CHOICE=TONE”. What else do you need in order to write your setting as a character?

Just like any other character, decide what ROLE your setting will play in the story. Is it simply something nice to look at in the distance, like one of those photographer’s backdrops you roll down behind you for your senior pictures? Is it going to be an antagonist, like snow in a survival story? Or a catalyst for love, like snow trapping a couple into a mountain cabin (Yes, I managed to work in one more cabin example. This is my article and I’m mad with power!).

Book Settings Cabin

Is the setting going to be an ally? For instance, forcing a couple together on the same subway line, or providing a culture of acceptance and love for a LGBT couple fleeing their close-minded hometown.

My advice is mainly to think about this and plan ahead, so you’re mindfully using the setting to support your creative vision instead of just having it sort of plopped in as an afterthought like, “Oh wait, where were they again? Kansas, probably. Sure, Kansas.” But the possibilities are endless! Your setting can play as many different roles in your book as any character could.

Also, it never hurts if it’s pretty.

Michelle Hazen
Michelle Hazen is a nomad with a writing problem. Years ago, she and her husband ducked out of the 9-to-5 world and moved into their truck. As a result, she wrote most of her books with solar power in odd places, including a bus in Thailand, a golf cart in a sandstorm, and a beach in Honduras. Currently, she’s addicted to The Walking Dead, hiking, and Tillamook cheese.
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