How Does Place Shape Your Characters?

When we talk about writing, we often talk about setting the scene and evoking a sense of place, giving readers a backdrop to imagine. But what about the way the place affects the characters? 

Here in Austin, we’re in what feels like our millionth week of one hundred-plus degree days, and I’ve noticed everybody’s moving a little more slowly, leaving their homes a little less frequently, and complaining a whole lot more. The May and June excitement, the races to Barton Springs, and the hikes on the Greenbelt have all given way to that late summer sloth.

Our place has shaped our characters.

John Dufresne talks about this, too, in The Lie That Tells a Truth: A Guide to Writing Fiction, though he uses a different part of the country as his example:

“With character (and characters) in mind, consider that for months in New England, the sun barely shines. In winter, darkness arrives at four or four-thirty. It’s too cold to go outside. You’ve got clogged nasal passages, achy neck and shoulder muscles, and bronchitis from November till April. You’re just happy you don’t have the flu. And then you get the flu."

And it’s not just the climate of a place that affects our characters, but the culture, the history, the political ideologies, the economy, and the character’s own memories of the place. Think about your own hometown. Every facet of it had some impact on the person you became, and it’s likely that wherever you live now is rubbing off on you, too. The same is true for your characters.

More on Character Development

While Dufresne cautions against place-bound fiction (“Southern Fiction” or “Western Fiction”), he does encourage creating a sense of place that impacts every piece of your book—especially its characters—and shapes the story as much as any other circumstance.

“The setting of a story colors the people and events in the story and shapes what happens. Place connects characters to a collective and a personal past and so is the emotional center of a story. And by place, I don’t simply mean a location. Place is location with narrative, with memory and imagination, with a history. We transform a location to a place by telling its stories.”

So as you work on honing your characters, shift your focus for a while to your setting. How can you tie the two together to make them both richer and more active within your story?