Tuesday, December 6, 2022

When Setting Doubles As A Character in the Book You're Writing

by PeggySue Wells @PeggySueWells

Characters in a story think, feel, and act. When a setting acts on the story, the setting takes on a character-like role. 

Settings come in four types: passive, active, like a character, and when the setting is the story.

Setting is
  • Time 
  • Place
  • Surroundings
  • Mood
  • Cultural nuances
  • Historical period
  • A backdrop for a story

While a passive setting is nearly invisible such as 
  • In the cockpit
  • Beside the waterfall
  • Under the table

A setting can be as three-dimensional as a character.
  • The Atlantic Ocean is a force to contend with for the nineteenth century whaling ship, Pequod, in Moby Dick.
  • Wonderland is a perpetual curiosity Alice must survive in Louis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
  • The High Uintas Wilderness is a wildly unforgiving force to contend with in Charles Martin’s disaster romance, The Mountain Between Us. 

Settings that function like a character exhibit moods, reactions, and responses. 

For instance, the novel Chasing Sunrisetakes place mostly on St. Croix. From manchineel trees to hurricanes, the setting continually interacts with the characters, often forcing our hero to decide between two bad choices.
  • As three-dimensional as a character, St. Croix is
  • Moody. Warmer temperatures dictate clothing, foods, and activities. 
  • Reacting. Air pressure, temperature, wind, and the movement of the surrounding sea determine availability of fresh water and the frequency of destructive hurricanes.
  • Limited. There are only two cities on St. Croix, no freeways, and a single airport with few flights.
  • Contained. As an island, there is a clear beginning and end to the area. Depending on weather, distance, and convenience, the island is isolated from resources.
  • Responding. Immediately off-shore is the mile deep wall, and environmental conditions for sea life including coral reefs and an abundance of conch. On shore, the island is one of the few places nurturing the poisonous manchineel tree.

“Manchineel are usually found near the beach,” Jerry intoned. “An attractive tree with shade and apples, but they are very dangerous.”


“Deadly to everyone except a species of land crab.”

Michael thought about the intrepid little crab holed up in the tree stump.

“The fruit is fatal if eaten,” Jerry continued. “Columbus discovered the danger after several of his men died.” 
Michael examined the damage the sap caused to his hand. “If it’s so dangerous, why not get rid of the tree?”

“That’s just as dangerous.” Jerry shook his head. “Maybe more. The tree and its parts contain strong toxins. Standing beneath the tree during rain may cause blistering. Cutting the tree gets the poisonous sap everywhere. Burning the tree causes blindness if the smoke reaches the eyes. Inhaling the smoke blisters the nose, mouth, and respiratory system.”

“Flippin’ nuisance,” Michael groused. 

The islanders call themselves Cruzans and speak a lyrical Creole dialect consisting of English with heavy influences of Portuguese, French, Danish, and Dutch.

Having been owned by six different cultures, St. Croix reflects the styles and customs of their history from the remnants of 200 sugar plantations to the calypso drums and dancing mocko jumbies. 

The steel drums beat an intoxicating rhythm and four mocko jumbies made their long-legged entrance. Dressed entirely in white, each wore a wide-brimmed hat over a masked face. Below a flowing blouse, loose cotton pants extended for yards from the dancer’s waist to the floor. Balancing on stilts ten feet high, the mysterious entertainers gamboled among the tables. 

“They look like the Ku Klux Klan on stilts,” Bryce observed.

“Mocko jumbies represent a spiritual, ancient African art form,” Elise explained. “They are an icon of Virgin Island culture.”

Towering above their audience, the limber mocko jumbies expertly spun, skipped, and swayed to the irresistible beat of the calypso music. Like a frolicking daddy-long-legs, one of the troupe circled their table. 

Where can you place your story so that the backdrop is so interactive that the setting is as three-dimensional as a character? 

Tropical island votary and history buff, PeggySue Wells parasails, skydives, snorkels, scuba dives, and has taken (but not passed) pilot training. Writing from the 100-Acre Wood in Indiana, Wells is the bestselling author of thirty books including The Slave Across the Street, Slavery in the Land of the Free, Bonding With Your Child Through Boundaries, Homeless for the Holidays, Chasing Sunrise, and The Ten Best Decisions A Single Mom Can Make. Founder of SingleMomCircle.com, PeggySue is named for the Buddy Holly song with the great drumbeat. At school author visits, she teaches students the secrets to writing and speaks at events and conferences. Connect with her at www.PeggySueWells.com, on Facebook at PeggySue Wells, and LinkedIn at linkedin.com/in/peggysuewells

Featured Image: Photo by Harry Cunningham on Unsplash


  1. You are a master a creating settings!

    1. As writers, we are always learning and honing our craft. Thank you for your kind words.

  2. Where is your current work in progress set?

    1. I'm wrapping up book 3 in the Marc Wayne series, Unnatural Cause, that takes the reader to Jellico Tennessee for the site of the worst troop train wreck in the US, the Secret City, and a stop on the island of Edisto. Thanks for asking! Where is your WIP set?