Posted by: Kathy Temean | June 27, 2019


Series: MFA For Breakfast


Setting as character. To an experienced writer, this idea may sound familiar. But what does it actually mean? We may have heard of it. We sort of know. Now, let’s deconstruct this concept, so we can use it to the fullest in our stories! 

Let’s think back: what makes for deep, interesting characters?

The protagonist’s wants and goals fuel the action and propel the story forth. Their changing beliefs define their personality. The antagonist’s attempts to thwart that desire can increase the stakes and mount the tension. The change, internal and external, that our hero experiences determines the narrative arc. And their physical appearance can give the reader hints about their deeper self, their challenges or their identity.

All of the above can be applied to the setting.

First, let’s start with what’s on the surface: physical appearance.

Young Jack constantly pushes his glasses into place in The Magic Tree House chapter books series as he and his little sister travel through space and time in the magic tree house. It’s almost like Jack is adjusting his vision, to better handle whatever crazy landscape his travels bring him to. Harry Potter can’t get away from his lightning-shaped scar no matter where he goes. That scar and its cause are reminders of Harry’s magic heritage, constantly reminding readers of Harry’s yearning for love and his struggle against Voldemort.

My protagonist Sonya Solovay in Castle of Concrete is short. She is always working not to slouch. Those features are a part of her and are important. Her height makes her the perfect “damsel in distress” Russian girl who gets “rescued” by charming wanna-be champions. This puts her in a position where she needs to struggle and grow into someone bigger than that, short stature notwithstanding. As for her efforts not to slouch? That is meant to demonstrate her desire and challenge in becoming “freer” even as her country struggles for the same things.

So how can setting have a defining physical feature?

Think of your story’s centerpiece.

Where are most of your important events seem to be happening? If your story had a heart, where would it be? What is your Hogwarts, your tree house?

The centerpiece of my novel is “castle of concrete,” which is a construction site where Sonya likes to spend a lot of time, the way an American teen might hang at a playground. The place is a metaphor for the collapsing communist Russia in the midst of 1990s perestroika, a word that means “re-building.” As Sonya kisses a boy for the first time and dreams of her own personal freedom between concrete partitions that will become the walls of someone’s apartment one day, her setting’s own future is uncertain. Will the country turn toward democracy? Or sink back to the familiar darkness of the old regime?

This brings us to desires and challenges. Just like all your characters, setting too can have them.  It can have wants and goals. Or at least you can see it that way if you see a place/time/social context as reaching or striving.

A dystopian society is reaching toward freedom from oppression — or maybe torn between wilderness and civilization. A dangerous mountain peak? Maybe it wants to be left alone, in peace, from the meddlesome humans! A deep lake could want to hide a monster under its surface. Modern America’s deepest yearning might be peace within itself, the healing of divisions.

Our protagonist’s backstory, their childhood, often comes to define who they are. Sometimes the past is something the protagonist tries to return to; more often, especially in young adult fiction, the past is something to run away from. The history of your setting is its backstory. Bring it in, let it define the course of your narrative. Better yet, let it mirror your protagonist’s journey.

In Castle of Concrete, Sonya wants to get away from her quiet childhood in Siberia where she was a shy outcast, missing her faraway dissident mama. When at 15 years old, she reunites with her mother at last, she is determined to shine this time.

“A smoky Siberian city. A quiet classroom. The gossipy neighbors on a bench, suddenly quiet at my approach. Me always quiet, too quiet, with too many feelings and things to say. It’s all behind me now, or it should be.

I promise that Sonya the Shadow has stayed behind, like the latest nothing city she inhabited, like the self-suffocating crowd she left on that train. Look out, Moscow Region, for the new Sonya Solovay! This isn’t wishing like before, not some childish dream, this is a promise.

For all my faults — you know, the cowardice and unremarkableness and such — at least I always keep my promises.”

What is your setting’s relationship to its backstory?

In Castle of Concrete, 1990s Communist Russia’s yearning to get away from its dark past is also shown through various details.

In the same scene as above, where Sonya first arrives to Moscow in the novel’s opening, the city’s history and present intertwine as Sonya steps off the metro and onto the street.

“The Moscow sky greets us with light rain and fresh exhaust smells — wonderful, bewildering big city smells — wonderful, bewildering big city smells that make me giddy. A giant tower of a building evokes the grandeur and the terror of Stalin’s times. Its top looks needle-thin from the distance, its shoulders broad. Its concrete facade is massive and real. Other buildings, older ones, show off their balconies and tall narrow windows, their ancient yellowish paint tinged with noble dust.

Traffic roars and rushes past us along a boulevard as wide as a sea. New Life, loud and stinky, throws possibilities in my face.”

As you write and revise, ask yourself, how does the time, place and social context of your story reflect your main character’s own journey?

If your setting were a character, would it an antagonist or an ally? What are its goals? What is it trying to believe in? How is changing? Where is its living heart?

Katia, Thank you for all the articles you wrote to help all of us. They were all excellent. And thank you for sharing your book with us. I loved it. Please let us know when you next book comes out. Good Luck!

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Great post! Thanks!

    Liked by 2 people

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