Bring Your Setting to Life

I’m sure you’ve heard a thousand times before that not only must your characters live and breathe like real people, but your setting has to have a life of its own as well. If you want your story world to leap off the page, your setting should have a personality just like your protagonist.

But how do you do that?

Gauldalen Valley, Sør-Trøndelag, Norway

Photo by Fredrik Bruno

What do you mean my setting has to have a personality?

Good question. I wasn’t sure myself when I first thought about it. A setting that has a personality? It seemed ridiculous. Was New York supposed to have a dry, quirky sense of humor or something? Was London supposed to be a raven haired vixen with an attitude problem?

When you take the time to think about it, every great book has a great setting.

Let’s take Hogwarts for example. On the surface, it’s just a school for magic with secret passageways and hidden doors and staircases that move. But when you look a little deeper, Hogwarts has a heart just like Harry or any of the others do. Once you’ve read about Hogwarts, you can’t really forget it. And that’s because J.K. Rowling brought the school to life.

How can my setting live and breathe?

There are a few ways to do that. They’re all very simple, but the hardest part is actually taking the time to get to know your setting.

Make it a character

How do you make a character seem real? By giving it quirks and emotions. Do the same thing for your setting. What sets it apart from every other place in the universe? Why did you choose this place for your story? Really think about why this place is the best fit.

How can a setting have quirks?

Hogwarts had doors that only opened if you tickled them. District 12 had an electrified fence that was never turned on. Figure out what little things your readers will remember when they think about your setting.

How can a setting have emotions?

There are the obvious ways, like making it rain when your character is sad. But there are also more subtle ways, like making things in the house creak when your character is scared, or having the leaves fall off the trees when she’s feeling alone. The choice is yours.

What about you? How do you bring your setting to life?


Let’s spend a little time getting to know our settings. Write for fifteen minutes about a character going through a big life event. Whether it’s a death, or a marriage, or something else entirely is up to you. How does the setting help your story seem more real?

Share your practice in the comments and be sure to give your fellow writers a little love, too. Have fun!

About The Magic Violinist

The Magic Violinist is a young author who writes mostly fantasy stories. She loves to play with her dog and spend time with her family. Oh, and she's homeschooled. You can visit her blog at You can also follow The Magic Violinist on Twitter (@Magic_Violinist).

  • Chloee

    I sat on my grandmothers grave hugging the gray head stone was the closest thing I would get to a hug but it would not match the warmth of her arms wrapping around me. The green mose started to grow on it The smell of the cool night wind grabbed me tricking me to believe that fall would last forever I brushed y red hair out of my face.
    Tears welling up but I pushed them back don’t let your pain show. I thought.
    Nobody can know how you feel be the strong one. I hoped on my blue bike and
    started pedaling down the sidewalk with the weeds weaving in it the puddles
    began filling as the rain fell from the sky. The sounds of distant cars honking
    and the bustling of the small town I was growing up in reminded me I would have
    to face the music I pedaled faster on the worn down sidewalk I waved at Mrs. Olio
    in the flower shop that me and my granmother spent so many times in getting
    flowers to brighten up the house. As her green door creaked as a women walked
    in the smell of flowers trickled out blowing out though the wind. The green stop light on the corner on Main Street waited for me to cross the road
    as cars waited to ride down the old road that has seen better days.
    I looked in the windows of the diner me as sped down the side walk the uneven side walk shook me as I rode though the book shop bell rang as an I rode past it a dog
    barked in the distant I looked and found it was the Baileys dog Spike the little
    Labrador wagged it’s tail at those who pasted wanting a treat for keeping the
    mail man at bay my grandmother said that dog had the heart to protect but just
    needed a little forgiveness the squeals of the Jones kids my grandmother
    loved to watch the young ones she said it gave her strength to see other with
    some much energy. came from the park form the old faded red swing that I had
    played on so many times ago. I rode my bike into the woods leaving behind the
    small town the trees grew thicker until I couldn’t see the town any more. The silent
    sound of the woods relaxed me. I laid down next to the spot where I always went
    to and put my hands in my head as the wet tears stared spilling out. The pain I
    tried to keep in so long came gushing out I streams of tears. I screamed from
    the pain I was caused. I miss her so much. I needed her back. I didn’t know
    what to do. She wanted me to be happy so why did she have to die. My head sun
    with the pain of my heart. I knew she was going to die. Why didn’t I stop it?
    Grief had left me with something missing. I laid down and drifted off to sleep.

    • Susan Smith-Grier

      Chloee, I really like how the motif of the road and sidewalk being old fits in with the grandmother. The way you contrast the life of the shops with the condition of the sidewalks and road is nice and your descriptions make the place seem alive.

      • Chloee

        Thanks so much.

    • As Susan, I enjoyed your comparison of the road and sidewalk. I also found the effect allowed me to “feel” the death and loss of the grandmother. The hurt went deep and the bike ride “…I pedaled faster on the worn down sidewalk…” allowed me to feel the struggle within.

      • Chloee

        Thanks a lot

    • themagicviolinist

      You did a lovely job describing your character’s emotions through her actions and the world around her. 🙂 Simple and effective. Loved it!

      • Chloee

        Thanks for all the advice.

  • Elise Martel

    Yin and Yang are all about the black and white of everything. Neither one is outmatched, outwitted, outsourced, outdone by the other; the two remain eternally equal. Yet any artist who has ever tried to duplicate the age old symbol in an aesthetic medium knows how difficult it is to keep the black and white from mixing and making grey. Despite the best of intentions, the clarity of two colors, two concepts, two symbols becomes muddled and blurred.
    The necklace, a white jade piece whose cheeks blushed the pink of a newly married bride, also embraced the form of a teardrop. Sometimes, someone can be so overcome with joy that they cry and laugh at the same time. When Liu touched the tears on her face to the teardrop of her necklace, they were both cold. A bride’s face is warm and happy, flushed with the honor brought to her father’s household.
    But Liu’s face felt cold and foreign to her own fingers. The glassy mask of water forming a living fountain down her face, dripping into the hollow between her two collarbones, surrounded and embraced the jade.
    “Poor little tear,” she murmured, her littlest finger spooning away bits of water. “You were just an innocent rose caught in a snowstorm. Now you are covered in frost. There is no place for you to thaw. Stay frozen, my little one. There is no honor or love in his heart to restore either of us to the way that we would have been.”
    She closed her eyes, too deep under the boughs of the mulberry tree for another soul to find her and scold her. But a nightingale flitted into the branch above her. No one else glimpsed the gold and orange on his breast. He warbled notes of sunshine and orange slices. Liu’s face grew warm again.

    • Susan Smith-Grier

      I love the part about the nightingale, especially his singing. Very nice!

    • Ah, “…an innocent rose caught in a snowstorm.” Luscious. The cold comes through, the frozen feel, and then a thousand questions. What happened to Liu that her tears are flowing so?

      • Elise Martel

        I am not yet certain with happened to Liu. This story was inspired partially by a pink jade necklace I saw online and partially by a Chinese story about a nightingale and an emperor.

        • It’s amazing where the inspiration comes from sometimes isn’t it. Nice work Elise. Keep going….

    • themagicviolinist

      This was beautiful! I loved your descriptions of black and white and the space in between. Great job!

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  • Susan Smith-Grier

    Well, that was it then. He sat down at the kitchen table and
    stared at the space around him. It had gotten familiar by now; he’d lived there
    for six months. However, he hadn’t let himself actually settle in. He knew he would
    be going back home back to her and the kids. At least that’s what he’d assumed.
    But now he had papers proving it wasn’t to be.

    The apartment was as silent as his heart. He took a deep
    breath and heard it echo against the walls. The waning afternoon light trickled
    in through the windows. Soon it would be dark. He couldn’t muster up the energy
    to get up and turn the light on. He couldn’t find a reason why there needed to
    be light in the room now that the light had left his heart.

    On the table sat the coffee mug from this morning. It was
    still half full. Or half empty. Either way, he thought to himself, the other
    half is missing and now it’s cold and stale. He stared at the cup focusing on
    its aloneness and wondering how he was going to make it in life being only half
    full . . . or half empty. Once again he sighed and once again the walls sighed back at him.

    Suddenly he broke down in tears. They were silent at first, but
    then he began to sob. He never lost anything so precious before. He must have
    cried for a full ten minutes before sitting up straight and wiping the tears
    from his eyes. That’s when he heard the tiny little noise off to the side.
    Drip, drip, drip. As if in sympathy, the faucet was leaking again. He smiled to
    think that even though he hadn’t settled into his apartment, it knew him well
    and it seemed to feel his pain.

    • George McNeese

      Beautiful imagery. I can feel the pain and sympathy the apartment feels. It made me want to cry. Well done.

      • Susan Smith-Grier

        Thanks George. I really think the guy is a good egg, At first I thought maybe somebody close to him died, then it turns out his wife divorced him but not for a good reason. I don’t know what the reason was yet, but my guts tell me it wasn’t a good one! Maybe it will have a happy ending anyway.

    • Oh my. I could feel the room begin to wrap it’s arms around him. Nicely done!

      • Susan Smith-Grier

        Thanks Pam, now I’m wondering if maybe I could write a story around the scene!

        • Susan — I think you should…this could be the beginning or even the ending of a very nice story. Go for it!

    • Hi. Nice work. I enjoy the apartment (as Pam said) beginning to wrap its arms around him.
      A suggestion I would make is not to TELL the obvious… especially when you have already SHOWN it with your story. For example:

      You wrote:
      “….before sitting up straight and wiping his eyes. That’s when he heard the tiny little noise off to the side. Drip, drip, drip. As if in sympathy, the faucet was leaking again. He smiled to think that even though he hadn’t settled into his apartment, it knew him well and it seemed to feel his pain.”

      A possible alternative:
      “…before sitting up straight and wiping his eyes. The leaking faucett continued though: drip, drip, drip. ”
      Probably not a perfect suggestion but I hope it is enough for you to get the the drift.
      Thanks for sharing 🙂

    • Elise Martel

      The lukewarm coffee in his mug mirrors the lukewarm hope in his heart. A burning, eager hope doused with ice water and left to sit middles into lukewarm stagnancy. Ah, that horrid familiarity. He seems to almost wish that his apartment didn’t know him so well.

    • LisaYang

      He smiled to think that even though he hadn’t settled I to his apartment, it knew him so well and it seemed to feel his pain. Really nice and bitter-sweet

    • themagicviolinist

      Wow. What a great way to describe loneliness, through a cup of coffee that nobody ever drank. I LOVED this! 🙂

    • Susan W. A.

      I liked this. The repetition of the half empty, half full caught my attention.

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  • The shock ripped through her; the floorboards reached up to grab her calves. His voice echoed down the greasy black of the passage way. Its eternal tunnel swallowing the acid bite of old man words.

    She stood alone. Solitary in the middle of the swirling room as it spun a tangled web of taunts from yester–years, and spat from its darkened corners and unpolished recesses, three generations of unspoken shame.

    “I’ve known for a long time,” she called into quivering walls, where peeling paint hissed and sneered at her claims. “I’m not going to pretend anymore,” she added bravely.

    The front door whipped open wide: its creaking rusted hinges rasped an invitation to leave; to walk away from the smear of past mistakes and lies.

    She obliged; lifted her skirt to her knees and took flight into the crisp silver promise of the moonlit night.

    • Wow Dawn, such vivid descriptions. Makes me want to know who “she” is, what is “she’s” story? And, can I read more? 🙂

      • Thanks Pam. I wonder who she is too. The scene just popped onto the page for the 15 minute practice…but hey it could be a start for a story. Who knows 😉
        Thank you for taking the time to read and respond.

    • Elise Martel

      Greasy black. I like that description. It sounds gross and maybe even shameful. Some people like the shadow of darkness, but for this woman, it sounds as though the darkness holds her captive in an oily, lecherous grip. Run free, dearheart. Slip out past the raspy door and kiss those rusty hinges that whispered long enough to make your heart strong enough to escape. Take to the sky and let the moonlight cast slivers of healing in the open wounds.

      • …sounds like it inspired you enough to respond with prose of your own. Thanks for taking the time to read and respond.

    • themagicviolinist

      This read almost like a poem. 🙂 Your sentences had a great flow and you seemed to always know just what word to pick. Great work!

  • CC Riley

    The set up is that my dear main character, hyperactive tomboy Jane, and her best friend August, have been transported into another world where fairies exist and the possibilities seem endless. This will be one of the first encounters with this new fairy-filled world.


    Jane and August kept walking in circles around the tiny room. The walls were wooden and worn, and with every step a creak sent chills down both their spines. “He better leave both of us alone after this,” Jane said, not in the least bit afraid.

    “You didn’t have to do this you know,” August countered. He was following her around the room, absently pulling the curls on his head straight. “I do fine on my own.”

    “Obviously you do fine. You have to stand up for yourself. That’s what my dad always says. Bullies get their power from you,” she finished in a falsely deep voice.

    “I know that. I don’t need you sticking up for me. If it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t be locked in this stupid house where everything is haunted.”

    “It’s a haunted house?” Jane asks him, looking around with a new light in her eyes. This is exactly the kind of adventure that she had been looking for ever since her mom had forced her into the suburbs.

    August looked at his watch again. “It’s time to go. We’ve been in her long enough,” he said as he reached up to pull on his curls again.

    “You’re going to pull your hair out if you don’t stop,” Jane told him as she opened the door and walked out.

    Nothing was the same.

    Her eyes darted from one corner of what should have been the front yard to the other, but nothing was where it was when they walked into the house. She stood in the doorway staring, amazed at the scene that lay in front of her.

    Everything was green. The dilapidated house still stood behind them, but the rows of just right houses across the main road were no longer there. In their place lay miles and miles of forest. Huge trees, unlike any Jane had seen in real life loomed in front of them on either side, lights darting and resting around them. The trees weren’t just brown and green like she was used to, but black and purple, blue and pink. Some were tall and thin, reaching high into the sky before showing their colors, and some were short and squat. The smallest tree was closest to the house and was fully formed but was only to Jane’s knee. Where the front yard once was, there were now bright green covered hills.

    “Fairy mounds,” Jane breathed.

    “What are you talking about,” August asked as he pushed by her and onto the front porch. “Wow,” was all that came from his mouth as his eyes darted. He grabbed Jane’s hand, pulled her back into the house, and slammed the door shut. The house seemed to sigh in disapproval.

    “What are you doing?” Jane yelled at him, wrenching the door back open. The world was still blanketed in green, and the lights around the trees still moved. She breathed a sigh of relief. “Why would you do that?” she turned on him.

    “I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to be here,” August kept echoing.

    “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard,” she said as she stepped off the porch and made her way down the stairs to the yard.

    Jane did what Jane always does, and she set out to explore. The grass was squishy and giving under her feet, and as she made her way to the lights, she knew what she was going to find. She had read enough books, enough fairytales to realize that this was her grand adventure. This was her Narnia, her Great Tree of Avalon.

    • Nice work. Believable. I like “The house seemed to sigh in disapproval.” 🙂

    • Your description of the trees transported me there with Jane. Like Dawn,
      I, too, like the way you wove in the fact that going back into the
      house was not an option, as it “seemed to sigh in disapproval.” Nice touch.

    • themagicviolinist

      This was so much fun to read. 🙂 I love the line, “This was her Narnia, her Great Tree of Avalon.” My only advice to you would be to spread out the description of the world around them a little more. Try to balance it with the dialogue instead of separating it into sections. Great job!

  • Morag Donnachie

    Lauren poured herself another cup of coffee, today was going to be a big day and she wasn’t sure she was ready to begin it quite yet.

    Savouring her coffee, she stared out of the window. The leaves had nearly all fallen off the old oak tree in the garden, she would have to get John to rake them up later.

    Then she remembered.

    The lawn would have to wait. Placing the coffeepot in it’s usual space by the cooker she realised that the cupboard doors would now remain forever crooked and the half-finished shelves in the pantry would now never be completed.

    Ignoring the rising lump in her throat Lauren buttoned up her best coat, straightened the new, never worn hat upon her head and made her weary way to her husband’s last resting place to say goodbye.

    • themagicviolinist

      Short, simple, and touching. You do a great job of fitting so many things into a short piece. I loved it!

    • Susan W. A.

      “she would have to get John to rake them up later. Then she remembered.” … I felt it.

    • Morag Donnachie

      Thank you both for your comments, I needed them! About five minutes after I posted this piece I found myself thinking “That was rubbish, I never should have posted it, now everyone will see me for the pitiful wannabe I really am!” ;->

      • Susan W. A.

        Isn’t that the absolute rapturous beauty of the Write Practice? I don’t have experience in this realm of creative writing, yet it’s abundantly obvious from the posts that everyone’s contributions are welcome and taken seriously as worthy of supportive feedback. I’ve contributed a few short pieces, and remember having the same thoughts as you, only to be shocked at the value placed on my work by those who read it (with worthwhile suggestions of how to improve it). What an easy way to be validated to take risks in life!

  • LisaYang

    When you work at Olkheim, darkness becomes your constant companion. At night, the polished linoleum floors come to life with the shadows of moving bodies, reverberating with their brisk footsteps. Behind the iron doors and bars hide minds infested with a virus more destructive than any disease known to men. Wild fantasies and forbidden passions are at home here.

    The aisles are gloomy and dimly lit. As time passed, even the director seemed to accept that Olkheim was and always would be a dark place, no matter how much he invested into neon tubes and light bulbs. Now, only the strident green emergency exit signs shine brightly as ever. Occasionally the lamps flicker in a last attempt to regain their lost glory, but just like the people who live here, they are tired and broken.

    Over the years, I have come to realize, that Olkheim is a master at camouflaging, at appearing beautiful, idyllic even, whilst hiding the haunted souls of society. I like to think of it as a modern day pandora’s box. Passer-bys would admire its delicate architecture and praise it a formidable mansion. If you don’t tell them, they would never suspect what Olkheim really is and when you do tell them, their eyes widen in disbelief, unable to process this little piece of information. People are like that. Too often they forget, that evil is as much part of life as is good. Sometimes I wish I could live like that again, believing in beauty instead of loosing faith in it, but I can’t anymore. I work night shifts at Olkheim and darkness has become my constant companion.

    • themagicviolinist

      There was a great flow to this. I love your description of the emergency exit signs, giving the readers a little hope in a world filled with darkness. Good job!

    • Susan W. A.

      Lots of references that could feel forced, but didn’t. I appreciate the undertones, and really felt the burdens of the place.

      • LisaYang

        Thanks. I was concerned as well, that it would sound too forced. It took me a while to figure how to put into words what I was imagining.

  • Susan W. A.

    Funny… This morning as I was reflecting on the posts I had read last night, a phrase from when my son was a toddler came to mind. He had ‘t been to my mom’s house, and one day he asked me, “Mommy, where does Grandma Nonie’s house live?” Reminded me of bringing your setting to life.

    Thanks to everyone for your continued inspiration!

    • themagicviolinist

      Aww, that’s so cute. 🙂 I can’t wait to tell stories to my kids when I’m older (much older).

      Glad it inspired you! 🙂

  • Grace

    My bus was scheduled to leave the city and head back north at 8 o’clock pm. I passed my ticket to the bus driver who took it from my hand, stamped it and handed back one portion to me, AND TURNED HIS ATTENTION TO THE NEXT IN LINE IN THE FIFTY PASSSANGARS BOARDING.I lifted my one foot onto the mobile step the driver set by the steps for easier boarding and climbed onto the sleek Greyhound bus. I found a seat near the front as I’ve always preferred riding near the front. Other passengers flowed around me and picked out seats. This was done quietly and efficiently. The seats seemed to beckon out and invite someone to come and be comfortable. As the sunset and darkness fell, the bus driver closed the door and easily backed the bus out of its parking spot. I watched in admiration as he easily manoeuvered the wheel in the direction he wanted to go. And the bus responded without protest. This would be a joyful ride home. The driver putout the lights, me as well as fifty other passengers settled back in our seats. I’d reach my destination in eleven hours.

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