By Guest Angela Ackerman
An interesting thing happens when setting and character come together, something writers don’t fully realize, or if they do, may not use to its full advantage: combined with intent, these two elements produce emotion.
What do I mean by that? Well, think about us in the real world. Are there places you choose to vacation again and again? Is there a specific route you like to walk the dog, or areas in the city you enjoy visiting? Do you have a favorite restaurant, room in the house, coffeeshop, or park to sit in? I’m betting you do. Spaces we return to are special in some way, causing us to experience positive emotions. We may enjoy them for their beautiful scenery, their energy or solitude, because they remind us of the comforts of home, or some other meaningful reason.
Just as we gravitate to places that make us feel good or safe, we also make emotional decisions about locations to avoid: that dark ally shortcut, the friend’s car that smells like spoiled milk, the high school football field where we were humiliated in front of the entire senior class. These spaces make us feel unsafe, vulnerable, or unhappy.
Our characters are just like us, so they will also have a catalog of places that hold personal meaning, good and bad.
The difference between the real world and the fictional one? Rather than shield our characters from uncomfortable emotions, we want to encourage them.
I know, it sounds a bit sadistic but exposing them to settings that trigger a range of emotions, some of which they desperately want to avoid, will not only produce conflict (a necessary ingredient in story), it will help to reveal their hidden layers.
Beneath the surface of any character is a dark underside: insecurities, fears, and pain caused by negative past experiences and unresolved emotional trauma. This baggage is costly to lug around, causing unhappiness and steering the character’s life off course. This is usually how readers find them at the start of a story: incomplete, adrift, and hurting. And, if the writer has chosen a change arc for the character, it’s even more important to pull this pain to the surface where it can . Only then can the character move forward toward happiness and hope, fulfilling the change arc and achieving their goal.
Positive and negative, emotions are the lifeblood of a story. The setting we choose for each scene is a vehicle to bring out a wider range of emotions, including those that provide a window for readers to see inside the character and the struggle going on within. Here are three ways you can deliberately use the setting to bring out your character’s deeper emotions.
Choose Specific Settings for a Reason
With each scene, think about the actions that will unfold and what each character’s emotional state will be. If you can, find a setting location that will , perhaps by choosing one that holds personal meaning (good or bad). For example, what location would be a better choice for revealing a parent’s betrayal to her adult son: in the car on the way to the airport at the end of a visit, or at the playground where the character and his mother would come every day after school? The setting itself can trigger powerful emotions in the right circumstance.
If your character is under so much pressure they’re struggling to function or they are on their final frayed nerve, use the setting in their path (a nosy security guard, a locked door, a car that dies halfway to their destination) that pushes them past their limits to cope. This new difficulty will trigger powerful, raw emotions whether they break under the strain, or find inner strength to prevail.
Resurrect a Ghost
When it comes to the painful past, characters want it to stay there: in the past. So instead, we writers should dig around in that old suitcase of pain and resurrect a ghost: a person, thing, situation, or experience that will act as an echo of . It might be a setting itself, or something that can be inserted into the setting. Maybe the character’s alcoholic dad shows up unannounced to her child’s graduation party at a restaurant, or a couple planning a honeymoon trip arrive at their appointment to discover the travel agent is a bitter ex-girlfriend. Perhaps the character is ill and is forced to pull into a roadside stop, a place she normally avoids at all costs as she was carjacked at one once.
What does the character feel in this moment? What will they do? Choose settings and setting elements specifically to awaken complicated emotions and possibly force them to deal with something from the past.
Becca and I love to think about how we can push description to work harder in our stories. The possibilities are endless, so we encourage you to always think deeper, combining elements and experimenting with ways to increase tension, personalize story moments, and especially to deepen emotion.
If you ever need help, visit our website or check out our books. And if you happen to be a fan of our work, you might be interested to know there is now a Second Edition of . We’ve added 55 new emotions to the original 75 and have made a lot of other improvements. We also have a free webinar on Using Emotion to Wow Readers that we’ve made available until the end of February. If this is an area of struggle, visit to grab the link!
Angela Ackerman is a writing coach, international speaker, and co-author of the bestselling book, (now an expanded 2nd edition!) as well as six others. Her books are available in six languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. Angela is also the co-founder of the popular site , as well as , an innovative online library built to help writers elevate their storytelling. Find her on , , and .