There are many things to consider when crafting a story. I won’t waste your time listing them all, you know them well. And if you’re writing science fiction or fantasy, you have even more to do with world building. But, whether you are a sci-fi/fantasy writer or not, there is one (more) thing you can do to really make your piece shine. Treat your setting like a character.
First I’d like to say that I didn’t come up with this idea on my own. It’s been around for a long time. I first heard of it on the podcast Writing Excuses. I highly recommend this podcast to all writers but especially science fiction and fantasy writers. One of the hosts said that a student of theirs mentioned this concept to them. (I have been, unfortunately, unable to find the episode where they discussed this concept. If you know which one it is, please tell everyone in the comments.)
The basic idea is that the setting should be dynamic enough that the characters have to take it in into consideration when making decisions and carrying out actions. The setting may not have goals and agency as another character might, but, then again, it could. All of the wonderful parts of world building you’ve invented will have an impact on your characters. All of the religions, justice systems, family structures, physical environments, and more that you spent time creating will not only shape your characters’ identities and backstories, but their future actions as well.
There is also a very good article on Writer’s Digest that discusses this topic. The author, Brian Klems focuses more on making the setting emotionally connected to the characters in ways that makes them inseparable. I recommend that you read that one too.
I am going to be talking about more specific ways to tie the setting into the story. Below I have broken down some of the key elements of the world and how to use them to construct a character out of your setting.
When I say “Ideologies” I mean those elements of society that are not identified as a people. Things that people use to guide their decisions and opinions of others, but not the people themselves, like gender roles, family structure, and piety. All the stuff we learn to incorporate into our daily lives from a very young age without even realizing it.
When characters make decisions, they are, consciously or not, taking these Ideologies into account. Their choices will determine how they are treated by others. Their decisions could close doors or open them. An extra layer of conflict arises when characters must face beliefs they’ve held since childhood and act against them, or even change them.
This is commonly demonstrated as a woman challenging society by doing things women “aren’t supposed to do.” But that doesn’t have to be the only example. A character could need information from a known blasphemer. If the character goes to this person, the pious, whose help might be needed later, will write off the character and possibly even hinder their progress. That same interaction, however, may introduce the character to a network of dissidents who end up being more helpful anyway.
By this I mean those elements made up of a body of people who act on its behalf. The justice system has police, lawyers, judges, or whatever you’ve come up with. Churches have priests and other members who are authorized to make decisions and enact their own sorts of laws that can hinder a character’s progress. These elements of the setting are more obvious and visible than the previous category.
The trick is to consider how these elements are shaping not only your main character’s choices and reactions but those of the antagonists, secondary characters and others. How could these elements be used against each other? Try to find unique ways that the institutions in your world can help or hinder your character.
Perhaps if your character breaks into a small shop close to their hideout, the cops will start patrolling the area more heavily thus creating an obstacle for the antagonist. Likewise, the antagonist could forge a religious relic that causes the church to look differently upon a certain group of people, which includes your character. Now your character must navigate hostile religious forces, as well as whatever else they were already doing.
This is the one I am most excited about right now. Man vs Nature is a common enough conflict, but what if nature isn’t the main antagonist? The environment, from weather to water and food availability to terrain or architectural obstacles, can all hinder or help your character along their way.
Changing seasons, changing climate, constant climate that is hostile, wildlife – these are a few of the elements you can use to interact with your character. Even a cityscape can be full of obstacles, often seeming like living things in and of themselves.
When using the environment don’t just resort to the country-boy-in-the-city trope, in all of its variants. An even more compelling scenario would be a city boy finding out he doesn’t know the city as well as he thought when he wanders into the wrong neighborhood. Or the outdoorswoman who is outmatched by a creepy cult in the woods. And all of these could happen amidst an unrelated story line.
I’ve merely scratched the surface of the potential your setting contains. And of course for the most dynamic setting you can, and probably should, combine a number of the elements discussed here.
The most important thing to remember when utilizing your setting as a character, is to make it relate to your other characters. As Klems said, making the setting personal to your character is what makes it relevant to the story and interesting to read. Don’t just throw random obstacles at your main character because you can, think of the things your character is likely to get themselves into, or what would impact their internal workings the most. Don’t make a Frankenstein’s monster of your story by cobbling lots of things together just to make it hard for your protagonist.
As always, have fun!