Falling in Love With Setting

Michelle Wildgen

In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 176.

For many years, I thought I hated setting. The mere mention of a tree species on the page was my signal to flee, and I never saw the point of describing the land, the city, or the architecture surrounding my characters. A coffee shop was a coffee shop, a house a house, so why belabor the points? My writing teachers were forever penning affectionate margin notes in my stories, like, “Where the hell are these people???” 

In retrospect I can see two clear reasons for my unfortunate bias: a faulty definition of the term setting and the Ohio suburbs.

The suburbs, I should say, were fine: I grew up in a safe neighborhood in a pleasant, small city. I have friends who live there now, and it’s lovely to visit. But growing up, I couldn’t say what distinguished my town from any other similar-sized Midwestern city. We had the same strip malls and subdivisions, the same Italian American restaurants and burger joints. I grew up assuming that regional identities were really just stereotypes and inventions. Real people were probably all about the same, I thought.

I was very young when I made these assumptions.

The other reason I avoided setting was because I equated setting with landscape, and to this day lengthy descriptions of trees and bushes put me to sleep. I thought that if I didn’t like landscape, I had to avoid setting altogether. We can call it a personal failing, but I am comforted by a John McPhee quote about his wife, who would only listen to him read “ten minutes of geology at a time.” We all have our preferences. My preference was to muddle along in my narratives, leaving my poor characters dangling in empty white space, to the frustration of my professors.

The sea change hit in my twenties when I moved to a city that did have a more specific sense of place. For one thing, I encountered more food traditions in Wisconsin than I had in my Ohio suburb. I was delighted to realize that just about every bar and restaurant in Madison—Italian, dive, or otherwise—offered a Friday fish fry. Going out for fish fry was a way of life. Even the terrifying biker bar had a fish fry, for god’s sake (and it probably contained a few more severed fingers than the church basement’s version). Here was a bona fide culinary ritual, borne of Wisconsin’s abundant lakes and generations of European Catholics who settled in the area in the nineteenth century, bringing with them a religion that once forbade eating meat on Fridays. There was also a local accent—one that was rounder in the O’s than the Ohioan pronunciation I was used to—and an outdoorsy, casual fashion aesthetic shaped by years of hiking and hippie counterculture. Finally, a place-y place!

I realized that all of this was setting: the accents, the Birkenstocks, the red-striped overalls University of Wisconsin undergrads wore to football games, the fried cod, and brandy Old Fashioned cocktails. Once I understood that setting is not a list of plants but the manner in which a place shapes characters and is shaped by them in return, I fell in love with all the different ways I could write about it. Everything was setting: customs and social graces, food and dress, religion and economics. Instead of cobbling characters together by sprinkling random details about their lives, I could think about where they were from and where they were in the now of my story. Setting, I was stunned to learn, was perhaps the most useful tool of all for knitting a tale together. I found I could create more nuanced, individual characters by considering the full context in which they lived. I understood how they fit into these places. Better yet, I found new ways for them to not fit in, because fiction thrives in the difference between social expectations and a character’s ability to meet them.

Of course I’ve had to be careful about stereotypes. I try to observe the broad cultural strokes my characters were formed by or rebelled against, but I never limit them to platitudes about those cultures. Similarly, I learned that setting should not be merely a static description of an unchanging place. If my character grew up eating fish fry every weekend, for example, maybe my story would begin the day he starts rolling his eyes at the thousandth plate of perch. Then I’d get to figure out why the character was behaving that way and how the people around him would react to his rejection of what helped make him who he is.

I find it useful to think of setting as a sphere that expands or contracts as the story needs it to, encircling only the most vital interaction between people and place. I focus on the place where my characters experience the most change and tension. If that’s their dinner table, I don’t feel the need to tell the reader all about the surrounding city and region—though both might be implied by the food or manners at that table. Or I might want to talk about how the characters identify strongly as Wisconsinites or New Yorkers: In that case, I would describe more of their feelings about the city or the region (I might even sneak in some landscape). Throughout my writing process, I ask myself how the various elements of setting matter to my characters, what causes trouble or change for them. While I might begin by describing their immediate environment—like that dinner table—I wonder how much of their larger world is significant to them at the moment I’m narrating: The building? The city? A whole industry? My character may love the place she’s in, but it helps me stoke tension if I keep some element at odds with her too. For example, I might write: She loves everything about this place except for _____. She never noticed [unsettling aspect] of this familiar place until now.

It comes down to this: A writer can include the parts of her characters’ world that interest her most. Be it farming technique or death rituals, driving habits or school lunches, setting encompasses so much more than trees and buildings. An expansive understanding of place and a clear grasp of your characters’ relationship to their world can take your story from a handful of crumbs to a substantial meal.


Michelle Wildgen’s fourth novel, Wine People, was published by Zibby Books in August. Her work has appeared in O, The Oprah Magazine; the New York Times’ Modern Love column and Book Review; and other publications.

Art: James Wheeler