Setting And Its Impact on Character : Insights On The Human Condition

Marylee MacDonald is the author of MONTPELIER TOMORROW, a novel about caregiving and ALS. Her short story collection, BONDS OF LOVE & BLOOD, was a finalist in the Foreword Reviews' INDIEFAB Awards. Her fiction has won Gold and Silver Medals from Readers' Favorites International Book Awards, the Barry Hannah Prize, the Ron Rash Award, and many others.

The setting of your novel plays an important role in how characters behave. Here’s a simple trick that will help you use setting as a lever to get characters out of their heads and into action.

To add tension to a scene, make a character too hot or too cold. If you fiddle with a story’s thermostat, you can force even a wishy-washy Hamlet into action. This is because our bodies constantly send out feelers, via the senses. If our fingertips tingle with cold, we put on gloves. If our hair feels hot to the touch, we seek shade. The body’s response to temperature extremes can drive an entire plot.

I learned this lesson from a short Russian novel. Set in the extreme climate of Siberia, Alexander Solzhenitsin’s A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich centers around the need for warmth. The plot-points hinge on minor incidents: the moment Shukov misplaces a glove; the moment the gulag’s overseers confiscate his felt boots. The protagonist can’t sit around thinking about the meaning of life. He must act to keep his hands warm. He must do something to stave off frostbite.

If you’d like more on character development, download CREATING MEMORABLE CHARACTERS

A character with a compelling need to do something equals a plot in motion. Those two desirable outcomes occur when you tweak the setting’s temperature.

Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

The psychologist, Abraham Maslow, says that a human’s most basic needs are for breath, food, water, sex, sleep, excretion, and homeostasis (which I take to mean maintaining a constant body-temperature). Writers can use any of these animal needs to put pressure on a protagonist. To keep the importance of these needs in the forefront of my mind, I created this visual in Scapple, a mindmap program.