It’s important to build empathy links between the reader and characters as much as possible. Adding an emotional connection between the character and the setting is one powerful way to do this. We like to call this adding an emotional value to the setting—basically, making the setting personal to the character in some way, giving it a special meaning that ties right into the POV character and her emotions, and occasionally, also representing something meaningful to other members of the story’s cast.

This emotional value can come in many forms. The setting might represent something good like an achievement, a place of safety, or even a tie to a special person in her life who has always supported and loved her. This will encourage a range of “feel good” feelings when your character may need them most.

Another option is to use the setting to shine a light on the very thing she wants most, reinforcing her motivation. Through the use of symbols that act as emotional triggers, you can remind the POV character of what is missing from her life, and what she’s yearning for. This can help her crystallize in her mind what her goal should be, and give her the shot in the arm to form a plan and chase it.

Settings can also provide a high emotional value by poking at an emotional wound. If the location is a reminder of a hurtful past event, this will affect her emotions, decision-making, behavior and action in this scene. For example, imagine a character being asked to an important business lunch in the same restaurant where his girlfriend turned down his marriage proposal. Even though time has passed, maybe years, an echo of that hurt and rejection will affect him while he’s there and, in turn, will influence his behavior.


If the setting is a neutral location and there is no emotional value based on the protagonist’s past knowledge or experience, we can still bring one to the forefront by creating mood. This is done by choosing sensory descriptions that reinforce a specific emotion (fear, peacefulness, unease, pride, etc.) that we want the character (and the reader) to feel. Mood can also be created through the use of light and shadow, universal symbolism, weather, and other techniques. Regardless of whether emotional values are intrinsic or are added via mood, choosing a setting that evokes an emotional response is important, since a character’s feelings about her environment add realism to the scene while drawing readers in.


So how do we go about creating this emotional value? The first step is to brainstorm the best setting match for a particular scene. This is achieved by looking at what will happen in the scene and which emotions are at play. First, identify your hero’s scene goal—what must he do, learn, or achieve? And what do you want him and the other characters involved to feel? Once you know the answers to these questions, imagine different types of settings where this scene might take place, ones that fit the story and are logical locations for your character to visit. Make a list if you like. Often the settings that pop immediately to mind are the most obvious, but with a bit of digging, some more creative and interesting choices can be unearthed too.

Once you have a few options, look at each potential setting and think of how you can describe the location to evoke a specific mood that will make your character’s emotional reactions more potent. Tension can be a factor too. Depending on what is about to happen in the scene, you might want your character to feel off-balance. Or maybe you wish to lull him into a false sense of security so he doesn’t see what’s coming. Either way, the details you pick to describe the setting will help steer his emotions.

Finally, think about what the character will learn, decide, or do as a result of what happens in the scene. The setting can act as an amplifier for this end result simply by surrounding the character with emotional triggers that will lead him toward that decision or action.

Imagine a man who, at the urging of his business magnate parents, has worked his way up at a capital investment firm. Offered a powerful new position that will finally please his success-driven parents, he discovers that he will need to travel almost constantly, meaning he will have to sacrifice having a family. Maybe he is in a committed relationship, and he and his partner have been talking about adoption. This career move would end that dream.

As he wrestles with this choice, we want to place him in a location we can stock with emotional triggers to help direct his thoughts. In this case, we could choose a park where his parents used to bring him as a child (supplying an emotional value), or place an urban playground right across the street from the high-rise where he works (symbolizing his two worlds in conflict).

Each location will provide excellent opportunities to place emotional triggers. Imagine our character noticing children climbing on a slide or kicking around a soccer ball in a field, or a young couple pushing a baby stroller along a concrete path. These triggers represent a future he might have if he rejects the offer and stays to build a family. Or perhaps we choose a different trigger in the setting, such as a father ruffling his son’s hair as he successfully flies a kite in the park, representing the yearning our character has for his own father’s approval. A third option might be to show an older man in a power suit going for a lunchtime walk while dominating a cell phone conversation. This trigger acts as a glimpse of who our hero could become if he sticks to the career path: rich, powerful, respected . . . and potentially alone.

Choosing a strong setting for the scene and then seeding it with these triggers creates a push-pull effect, one that amplifies a character’s internal struggle. Through the hero’s interaction with the setting, we can home in on the needs, desires, moral beliefs, fears, and personal biases that drive his behavior. How the protagonist reacts to these triggers will not only allow characterization to naturally seep through, it also alludes to past experiences that may still have power over him in the form of emotional wounds.

One of the biggest benefits to creating a setting with an emotional value is that it allows us an opportunity to characterize, show the character’s emotion, reinforce what may be missing from his life, and provide a pathway to understanding his personal life goals…all through the art of showing, rather than telling.