WRITING KNOWHOW Setting and Characters

In the third of her new strand on settings, Jasbinder Bilan takes a closer look at how setting can help reveal your characters to you.

Using setting to create your characters is a great way to build your story in an organic way. Once I had decided on the Himalayas as the setting for my MG novel Asha And The Spirit Bird and built the physical elements, I asked myself, who could I see?

Explore your setting and suddenly specific characters come out of the shadows into the limelight. Take note, writing down everything you notice about them.

One of my very first characters to show themselves was a little girl who had been sent to the well to fetch water, but instead of taking it home she sneaked behind a wall and began playing with it, making rivers in the dust. I used this single image to build my MC, Asha. She shows her defiance as well as the responsibility she has.

It’s your setting that gives your characters their unique traits. How do they interact with the setting? Environment is everything. What do they need to be good at to survive there? Asha can climb trees, milk a cow, build fires. When she wants to get away, she walks on the high grazing pastures and sometimes sleeps out there. This will help her on her tough journey through the wild Himalayas.

As well as your human characters, there will also be the animals in your setting. These are the backstory but still important. Think of the layers of your setting and ask yourself what lives in each one. These creatures have moulded your characters so by thinking about their reactions to them you can find out even more. Who else is there in the setting?

Look really closely and you might surprise yourself by spotting someone unusual who hooks you in, someone on the fringes. This might make you change your ideas or perhaps this person might be your MC’s arch enemy, the perfect antagonist!

If you missed Jasbinder's earlier posts on setting and character, you can read the first here and the second here.

According to family stories, Jasbinder Bilan was born in a stable in the foothills of the Himalayas. Until she was a year and a half, she lived on a farm inhabited by a grumpy camel and a monkey called Oma. Jasbinder graduated from Bath Spa WYP where the seeds of her story were nurtured but it was the incredible bond with her grandmother, which was the inspiration for Asha And The Spirit Bird. She lives with her husband, two teenage boys and dog Enzo in a man pad and splits her time between teaching and writing.

The feature image is by freelance graphic designer, illustrator, and writer, Suzanne Dore. Suzanne graduated in fine-art, has completed many children’s book illustration online courses, and joined SCBWI in 2015. Longlisted twice for Undiscovered Voices, this year Suzanne is shortlisted for Templar Publishing’s 40th competition. She is currently unpublished and seeking an agent.

Eleanor Pender is Knowhow Editor. Send her your suggestions for Knowhow topics to knowhow@britishscbwi.org.

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