Writing advice

Setting or character – which comes first?

There isn’t any single aspect of writing that stands out as being the “most important”. Everything that goes into making the novel come to life has its value; take any one of them away, and the novel cannot exist. However, when it comes to starting out, I personally prioritise setting over character; after all, you can’t have smoke without a fire. You may do things differently, and that’s fine; let me explain my reasoning.

Setting and character are, perhaps, the keystones of a novel. Most readers think of memorable places, or people, in the books they read, and writers naturally tend to spend most of their time creating the best of each. But which should come first in this instance; setting, or character?

For me, I would argue setting, for a number of reasons:

  • Characters are pointless if they don’t have somewhere to be
    The most powerful thing you can do with setting and character is play them against one another, to the extent that your setting almost becomes a character in itself. Let’s say you have a character that’s afraid of the dark; it’s all well and good telling the reader “Sam has a fear of the dark”, but their fear is not worth mentioning if you aren’t going to place them in a dark setting. The advantage of this is…
  • The setting can be used to show and create characters
    Instead of simply telling the reader than Sam is afraid of the dark, you can use the setting to show it. In other words, let the setting bring out character traits. And who knows, doing it this way can even reveal things about your characters that you didn’t consider; maybe you didn’t know Sam was scared until you threw him into the forest at night? Show the reader how the setting affects the character.
  • Settings exist without characters
    You can’t have characters without placing them in a setting, but you can have a setting without characters. You’ve probably read a novel at some point that spends a great deal of time describing the setting, whether it’s an entire planet or a tiny coffee shop. Writers do this for many reasons, the simplest of which is to tell you where in the world this story/scene takes place.
  • Setting can imply genre
    This isn’t going be true for every case, but sometimes the setting will instantly inform your reader of the genre. Is it in space? Then it’s probably sci-fi. Is it in a world with magic? It’s probably fantasy. Setting can be a good introduction to your genre, and sometimes it is good to establish it early so your reader knows what else they can expect to find.
  • Tone/atmosphere can be built through setting
    The atmosphere of a story (which I will discuss in greater depth later) is another key aspect of writing that shouldn’t be ignored, and setting has a massive impact on this. If you want to create a sense of horror, make the setting suitably dark, mysterious, or other-worldly to reflect it. You want your readers to be scared, so don’t shove them into a brightly lit, friendly place!
  • The setting can contain characters
    Another way of looking at it is that characters can, to an extent, be part of the setting. They might describe people that live in the setting, like the 80-year old man, dressed in a suit, that orders the same thing for coffee every day, but he isn’t necessarily a main character. If he isn’t, then that old man is included in the setting.
  • Setting can influence point of view
    Point of view (PoV, which again I’ll discuss later) can completely change the dynamics of a story, and if you’re not sure which to go for then consider how much of the setting you want your character to see. Or, better yet, what they choose to pay attention to. This applies more to 1st person than 3rd – with 3rd person, you take an almost birds-eye view of the setting. However, if you’re using 1st, then you can decide what your character can see, what they focus on etc., which can bring out details about their character you might not have considered.
  • The plot needs a place to move
    You may think that characters move the plot, and you wouldn’t be wrong. But the location of the story/scene is where things happen, and if you want certain things to happen then consider manipulating the setting to achieve that. Maybe you have a major character death in mind, but none of the characters present would be able to do the nefarious deed. Can you somehow get the setting to kill the character, if the antagonist cannot be present? What if the setting becomes the enemy, or presents the heroes with obstacles they must overcome?
  • Settings can be like concrete…
    You can view setting in two ways; either as a force for change (as above) or for continuity. Say you have several subplots, each stranding off in different directions, and you find you’re getting a bit overwhelmed with trying to keep it all together. Or a diverse cast of characters. The setting can be the glue you need to hold everything in place. Consider stories where the setting doesn’t change much, but the characters do; it’s the setting, in those stories, that stop things from getting out of control.
  • …but they also move
    Just because you choose a location for your story/scene, doesn’t mean it has to stay in the same condition that you find it in. Complications in the story keep the plot and the characters moving, and they can come in many forms. A fun way of mixing things up is to include a new element to the setting; it can be something simple, like changing day to night, or drastic, like an earthquake. If you find the pace is slowing down and you want to introduce change, you don’t always have to change the plot or characters; instead, mix up the world they live in, and see how they cope with the new challenges.

A lot of these things admittedly involve the use of knowing (or at least having) characters or the plot. But my point is that setting is an incredible force that shouldn’t be ignored, and in my opinion, should be focused on first. Setting can do so many things, some of which you might not have thought about before. It isn’t just a physical, lifeless world for your people to inhabit. Just look outside; the world is constantly in motion, and throws up challenges on a daily basis.

If you have an idea of who your characters are, then I would strongly suggest testing them first. Put them in different settings and see how they react; to the world and stimulus itself, but also with each other within the setting. A couple, for example, will act very differently with each other when they’re camping against, say, visiting a brothel. Or, maybe they won’t, and that in itself reveals something about their characters, as individuals and as a relationship. Likewise, if you have characters but find them flat or that you can’t figure out what to do with them, experiment with setting.

Your characters will have to interact with the setting at some point. It can affect them, move or stop them, hurt or help them. And as much as you can argue characters can influence setting (which they absolutely can) I feel that setting influences them more, so it’s important to get your setting focused and clear, ready to put your characters through the trials that await them.

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