When Place Is a Character: How Setting Can Serve as a Catalyst for a Story

by Catherine Drake
published in Writing

In some fiction, authors describe a place down to the color and quality of the dirt. In other books, specifics on the setting are barely incorporated and the goal is to infuse just the right amount of detail of place to connect it to the character’s journey.

Personally, I had a crush on Vermont long before I was able to make it my permanent home. The list of things I love about the Green Mountain State is long—billboards are illegal and there is only one area code. It was the first state to grant women partial voting rights (in 1880), abolish slavery (as a republic and a state), and legislate same-sex marriage. It also has the nation’s highest ratio of dairy cows to people, and Montpelier is the only state capital without a McDonald’s. There are absolutely no skyscrapers in the whole of Vermont. And, thanks to the Right-To-Dry-Law of 2009, Vermonters’ right to hang their laundry out to dry is protected by law.

All of that to say, before I had any other characters clearly defined in my novel, The Treehouse on Dog River Road, I knew the story would be set in the town of Waterbury, Vermont. In the book, Hannah is on a quest to search for a new job and a new place to live and she commences that search while living in Waterbury for the summer to care for her niece and nephew. Hannah not only falls for the boy-next-door, but for the town of Waterbury—the people, the landscape, the vibe. 

The novel revolves around the burning question, where and how can I make my best life? And, place is a critical aspect of Hannah’s search.

Crafting a Sense of Place

Writing about a place is a great way to convey a character’s identity and illuminate their priorities. Describing the physical attributes of an urban area (congested land use, weather, traffic patterns, access to shopping and activities) contrasted with a similar description of a small town (sparse population, open space, lack of entertainment and quirky customs) can inform readers about how the characters perceive the world, as well as their internal struggles. 

Often, without a strong tie to place, the theme can be lost.

The world looks different depending on where you see it from, who you see it with, and when you see it. Simply put: the emotions that someone attaches to an area based on their experience is known as a sense of place. In writing, a character’s relationship with the setting can be used as a mirror for the character’s values, perceptions, and emotions. A strong sense of place can be a lens through which a character is known. 

Here are some things to consider as you write about place:

Townies, Newbies, and Tourists

Our historical and experiential knowledge of a place greatly impacts our essence as humans. When you tell someone where you grew up, it gives the first impression of one’s background, whether that impression is correct or incorrect. 

When setting a character in their hometown, the character will have years of history with that area and interact in a much different way than a character who has been dropped into the same place and experienced it for the first time. Places can become invisible to characters who have lived there all of their lives, while visitors can become enchanted with a place without knowing its true soul.

How’s the Weather?

Any book set in New England must have a good amount of discussion about the weather. No one talks about spring without calling it what it really is: “Mud Season.” 

Weather impacts everyone. It cancels plans and spoils events. Days of glorious weather on vacation are imprinted in one’s memory. 

Emotions and weather are intertwined, but beware of clichés…do we really need another romance reunion scene set in the rain? Research the local weather patterns for your setting and see how they might propel the story.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

What it takes to get from one place to another and how characters bear the journey can say a lot. 

Travel can be hard or easy or stressful or fun, informing a reader of a character’s personality along the way. In the first book of the Harry Potter series, before we ever get to Hogwarts, we get to take a ride on the Hogwarts Express and so much is revealed.

What’s That Smell?

Sensory information can be incorporated into a story and bring a place to life. 

Growing up, I lived near a seldom-used train track, and twice a day, I would hear the rumbling, ground shake, and engine noise as it passed through, throwing off a faint whiff of diesel engine fumes. Both sounds and smells can trigger powerful memories and whenever I hear a train whistle, I immediately think of playing in the backyard of my childhood home. 

Think about the sounds and smells of your setting to enhance the depth of the world you created.

Can You Hear Me Now?

Not every place in the world has the connectivity that authors may experience where they live. It is difficult to write contemporary fiction without keeping current on an area’s 21st-century communication technology resources. I needed to have my two main characters unable to communicate for 48 hours, and it was near impossible to explain away why they didn’t just call or text. As technology evolves, it will be more difficult to deal with communication lapses.

Much like in Aesop’s fable, “The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse,” different characters perceive the same place in different ways and a writer can use that to their advantage in expanding their characters. 

If you can’t get to the place where you are setting your story, devote some time to digging deep to uncover as much detail as possible. 

If you can visit the setting of your story, take inspiration from walking the streets. I strolled the streets of Waterbury observing the people and stopped in the library, the hardware store, and other places featured in my book. I ate in the restaurants and swam in the reservoir. Each time I visited, I looked at the town through a different character’s eyes and discovered new things along the way.

A Short Prompt on Place

If you’d like practice on making a setting come alive, take some time to write the story of your relationship with where you are living right now and see what you learn about your own sense of place.

Tell us in the comments: Have you ever experimented with crafting a sense of place?

Catherine Drake lives with her husband in Stowe, Vermont. The Treehouse on Dog River Road is her first novel.

Catherine fell in love with Vermont when she moved there shortly after her wedding and is still starry-eyed for the state, saying this about the people and culture: “People have a greater understanding that the land shapes us and that we must rely on it to survive. Farms, cows, being outdoors, and Maple Syrup are BIG.”

While she has lived up and down the east coast in rural, suburban, and urban areas and traveled extensively throughout the US, Catherine feels there is no equivalent to Vermont and has devoted The Treehouse on Dog River Road as a love letter to it.

Catherine was inspired to tackle the subject of work/life/love balance in today’s world after having witnessed scores of young women look for meaningful careers after college.

You can find her on her website or follow her on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.

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