In most novels, the setting falls into one of two camps. Either it’s so magnified it’s practically a character itself (think Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities), or it’s an afterthought that doesn’t offer much else in terms of storytelling.
Any writer who finds themselves in the latter camp is missing a serious opportunity.
Where an event takes place can radically change how the characters—and the reader—interpret and respond to it. A fight between lovers will result in two very different outcomes if it happens in a secluded alley late at night or outside of a church on Sunday morning. And that’s just the first layer. The meaning of the fight takes a very different shape if the secluded alley is where they broke up years before or the church is where they first met.
Setting offers context into the characters’ past, present, and future. It can serve as a reflection of their current emotional state or a foreshadowing of what obstacles are to come. It creates tension, adds depth to the narrative, and gives the reader clues into the characters’ inner worlds. In other words—an emotionally charged setting can change everything.
Knowing how to deepen a story through setting is a skill every writer should learn. So, if you want to master the art of character emotion, here are some tips for using place to your advantage.
A great way to use setting to enhance character emotion is through symbolism. You can take their inner struggles, past traumas, secret desires, or current conflicts and manifest them into the physical landscape. For example, a character who is struggling with their identity might get lost in a mirror-filled room that reflects their fragmented sense of self.
Symbolic settings allow for a richer exploration of the character’s psyche and story themes. Just make sure the symbolism is subtle and not too on the nose. If it comes across as heavy-handed, it takes away from the emotional impact.
Another effective way to use settings is by creating contrast. This means placing your characters in an environment that is completely opposite to their emotional state—and thus elevating the intensity of what they feel. A contrasting setting could even trigger deeply buried emotions, leading to a breakthrough or breakdown for the character. For example, a character who is pushing down their grief might find it unavoidable if joyful celebrations surround them at a carnival.
By placing characters in unexpected settings, you can heighten their emotions and create more tension and conflict within the story.
Use sensory details
The devil is in the details, especially when it comes to setting and character emotion. The sights, sounds, smells, and textures of a place can evoke strong emotional responses in your characters. Think about how the sound of waves crashing on a beach can bring back happy childhood memories for one character while triggering traumatic flashbacks for another.
Sensory details not only allow readers to immerse themselves in the story fully, but they also add depth and nuance to your characters.
Don’t just describe the setting for the sake of painting a picture. Make every detail count by embedding meaning into your descriptions. This goes beyond using symbolism and sensory details—it’s about finding connections between the character’s emotions and their surroundings.
C.S. Lakin calls this creating “connected settings,” where the environment intertwines with some element that holds meaning for the character. Giving a place personal significance to a character can significantly influence their emotions and actions, making for a more impactful story.
Need Help Creating Emotion-Driven Settings?
If you’re struggling to incorporate setting into your story in a meaningful way, don’t worry. There are plenty of resources and tools available to help you master the art of using place to drive character emotion. I recommend the following:
- A Writer’s Guide to Active Setting by Mary Buckham
- Setting: Elements of Fiction by Jack M. Bickham
- 4 Ways to Choose the Right Story Setting by Helping Writers Become Authors
Sometimes, it helps to workshop setting ideas with a trusted partner. If that’s more your speed, check out my booking coaching services. I offer 1:1 customized support for authors of all genres and skill levels who want to reach the publishing finish line.
No matter where you are in your novel writing journey, we’ll work together to create emotionally charged settings that will bring your characters and story to life. So don’t neglect the power of place in your writing—use it to make a lasting impact on your readers.