How to Make Friends with Your Setting

By Tanya Guerrero

Whenever people find out I’m an author, they always end up asking me questions like:

What are the things you love to write about most?

What is the one characteristic of your writing that sets it apart?

What is your greatest writing strength?

Whatever the question, somehow, I always end of talking about complex characters and settings. I adore them both, and it’s always my goal to make my characters—particularly my main character, interact with my settings as if they too are characters in their own right. In the writing world, that is what is often referred to as “Setting as Character.” For me, it’s always been a necessity to create settings that live and breathe and act in ways that will affect what my characters will feel and think and do.

As someone who grew up in three different countries and travelled extensively as a child and adult, I’ve always found tons of inspiration in the places I’ve lived and visited. Paying attention to the sounds, the smells, the colors, the textures of a particular setting is so important in getting to know the heart of a destination and the heart of its culture.

Most often writers only focus on what the setting of a scene looks like, sprinkling descriptions here and there. That’s good and all, but a lot of times that only allows the reader to visualize the characters against a backdrop, rather than the characters interacting with that backdrop.

But how does one write setting as character without going overboard? Wouldn’t you need to go on and on, paragraph after paragraph describing every detail under the sun to make your point? Well, no, not really. A writer only needs to pick and choose those crucial details that will somehow affect your characters’ emotions. And to do that, you need to get to know your setting, as well as you get to know your characters.

What is the most effective way of doing that? For me, it’s a twofold process. Usually, I’ve either lived in or travelled to that particular place, so at the very least I have firsthand knowledge of the setting’s characteristics. While this is ideal, I realize it’s not possible for everyone. So that’s when research comes in. When researching, I love to do a combination of reading travel articles, and books about a place, and perusing hundreds of photos, choosing my favorites to add to a Pinterest board. I know that Pinterest can be a total time-suck. But whenever I start a new book, I find it really handy to create a new mood board, build a foundation, and elaborate on it as I write.

My mood boards are usually a combination of visuals of characters, settings, and objects that end up creating the whole universe of my book.


My MG debut, HOW TO MAKE FRIENDS WITH THE SEA, takes place in the Philippines. Here is the official synopsis:

Pablo is homesick.

He’s only twelve years old, but he’s lived in more countries than he can count. After his parents divorced, he and his mother have moved from place to place for years, never settling anywhere long enough to call it home. And along the way, Pablo has collected more and more fears: of dirt, of germs, and most of all, of the ocean.

Now they’re living in the Philippines, and his mother, a zoologist who works at a local wildlife refuge, is too busy saving animals to notice that Pablo might need saving, too. Then his mother takes in Chiqui, an orphaned girl with a cleft lip—and Pablo finds that through being strong for Chiqui, his own fears don’t seem so scary.

He might even find the courage to face his biggest fear of all…and learn how to make friends with the sea.

Below, I’ll include excerpts from my book, and then show the images used in my Pinterest board while I was drafting. You’ll be able to see how Pablo interacts with each and every setting on a physical and emotional level, as if that setting was a character doing or saying something to him.

Photo #1: Sari-Sari store

In this excerpt, Pablo is overwhelmed by the variety of products crammed into the tiny convenience store. He recognizes that it’s a sensory overload for him, and he has to forcefully stop himself from obsessing with the display.

Meanwhile, I just gawked at all the stuff. It was an explosion of products—jam-packed from floor-to-ceiling. Everything they were selling was tiny—individual sachets of shampoo, soap, detergent, bleach, pieces of candy, gum, and chocolates in plastic jars, festive colored bags of chips hanging from the walls, and never-ending cans of tuna, sardines, and mystery meat. There was also a display of bottled sodas. Some brands I recognized, but others, like Royal Tru-Orange, Sarsi, and RC Cola, were completely foreign to me.

I had to stop myself from counting, from inspecting the rows to see if they were evenly spaced.

Photo #2: Tricycle

In this excerpt, Pablo is experiencing a lot of anxiety, and the appearance of the tricycle as a potential mode of transportation is triggering him even more.

Why was I the only one worried about this? The tricycles were basically rusty sardine cans with wheels. On one side was a motorcycle and driver, and on the other, a decrepit-looking sidecar barely big enough for two people. Instead of doors, there were filthy pieces of plastic. And the seat was a piece of plywood covered in moldy and torn vinyl. The two guys driving had on basketball shorts and flip-flops. Not a helmet in sight.

Photo #3: Narra flowers

In this excerpt, Pablo describes the carpet of yellow narra flowers, and then goes on to explain how he would ordinarily feel about it. We also see a change in him, based on how his outlook to the environment has evolved.

We left the adults behind and stood on the curb, waiting for the tricycles to pass by. Finally, the road cleared. A gust of wind blew above us, shaking the narra trees. Hundreds, maybe thousands, maybe even millions of tiny yellow flowers showered down. It was as if particles of light were falling straight from the sun.

I held Chiqui’s hand as we crossed. There was still part of me that was disgusted by the cheesy powder on her fingers. There was still part of me that wondered what bacteria, what viruses, what germs were floating in the air and oozing under our feet. There was still part of me that wanted to count every single flower on the ground, and then sweep them up with the old-fashioned broom and dustpan in my closet. But there was also another part of me that didn’t care quite as much.

Photo #4: Beach hut ceiling

In this excerpt, Pablo feels physically ill from a bad experience he just had. He uses the woven ceiling of the beach hut to try and soothe himself.

I collapsed on a bamboo bench. Maybe I would feel better after a nap.

Thankfully there was a breeze. It blew back and forth, ruffling the hut’s thatched edges. It was like listening to crinkling paper. For a while I gazed up at the pattern on the ceiling. The dried palm fronds were woven so meticulously. They were perfect. My eyes stung from staring so hard. Maybe if I stared and stared and stared, I wouldn’t think about what had happened.

Photo #5: Boodle Fight meal

In this excerpt, Pablo is presented with a situation where people are sharing a meal and eating with their hands. While that may seem fun to other people, it’s extremely stressful for him.

“Everyone! Kain tayo! Let’s eat!” announced Heinz.

The crowd parted. My breath halted.

What the . . .

I was in complete and utter shock.

There was a long and low table with sixteen floor cushions. There was no tablecloth, no place settings, no napkins, no coasters, no platters, no serving-ware. Nothing. Instead, there were huge, shiny green leaves covering the table. Along the center, from one end to the other, there were mounds of food plopped directly onto the leaves—grilled meat and seafood, tomato, onion and eggplant salad, sautéed greens, boiled eggs, red and white rice, watermelon and mango slices and little coconut bowls filled with condiments and water. I didn’t see a plate or a fork or a spoon or a knife in sight.

How am I supposed to eat?

People settled onto the floor cushions, and then they dipped their hands in water before helping themselves to the food. With. Their. Hands.

Photo #6: Bangka

In this excerpt, Pablo is already experiencing anxiety, but the appearance of the bangkas by the sea exacerbates his anxiety even more.

Miguel peered between the two front seats. He must have seen the confusion plastered on our faces, because he pointed toward the beach and said, “We can’t drive directly to the cove. That’s what all those bangkas are for.”

“Bangkas?” I blurted out. “What the heck are bangkas?”

Ms. Grace touched my shoulder. “See all those boats, Pablo? Those are bangkas. They’re outrigger canoes made out of wood. The larger ones are motorized. The smaller ones only use paddles. It’s the most common mode of water transportation in the Philippines. They can also be used for fishing,” she explained.

I gawked at the narrow canoes with their bamboo outriggers. They looked flimsy, like do-it-yourself balsawood boats a kid would make.

“It’s the easiest way, Pablo. The alternative would be hiking through a mountain to get to the other side,” said Miguel.

It felt like every gaze in the car was directed at me. White spots of panic flashed, making everything I looked at all polka-dotty.

I hope these examples from my debut have helped in some way to show how setting as character can be used as an effective tool in the MG narrative. Here are some points I’d like to emphasize:

1. Describe the setting with your protagonist’s voice in mind. With MG, I think this is of particular importance.

2. Don’t go overboard with describing everything in the setting. Pick a couple of elements that would set the mood and pique your character’s interest.

3. Use the mood of your setting as a tool to highlight your character’s emotional state.

4. As your protagonist goes through his/her/their character arc, make sure that the mood and description of the setting shifts as well. If your characters are happier, descriptions can be cheerier. If they are sadder, descriptions can be gloomier. If they are angrier, descriptions can be harsher. So on and so forth.

5. Finally, if you are challenged by writing “Setting as Character,” try to play around with visual tools such as creating a mood board on Pinterest, an actual mood board with a cork board collage, or if you have artistic skills, sketch out your scenes the way your protagonist would see them.

Tanya Guerrero is Filipino and Spanish by birth, but has been fortunate enough to call three countries home: the Philippines, Spain, and the United States. Currently, she lives in a shipping container home in the suburbs of Manila with her husband, daughter, and a menagerie of rescued cats and dogs. In her free time, she grows her own food, bakes bread, and reads. How to Make Friends with the Sea is her debut novel.

Photo Sources:

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