How to Develop Characters and Setting with Word Usage

Writers have many tools available to them for developing their characters and setting. These tools give readers clues of where and when something happened. Writers use descriptions, culture references, and many other things to develop their story. Another, more subtle, way of developing both characters and setting is by the words you use. If you carefully choose your story’s tone and wording, you can make your characters and setting come alive for your readers.


One way you can use words to develop your characters and setting is through tone. In a novel, tone works quietly in the background, suggesting certain assumptions to your readers that give them a more accurate picture of your novel’s world. You can achieve better descriptions through tone for your setting in several ways. Both the tone of the narrator and of the characters around your protagonist will shape your setting. How the narrator chooses to describe the scene and the behavior of minor characters will give your readers an overall impression. It’s similar to the first impression you get when you walk into a building.

For an example, let’s say you have a scene at a courthouse. You can achieve different pictures based on tone. If you use the formal speech that the judges and lawyers are familiar with and grand words to describe the courthouse, it will give the lofty feeling associated with law. You can also go in the opposite direction. You can choose fast, clipped dialogue and words that suggest a busy, chaotic environment that helps readers experience the same confusion or uncertainty your protagonist is experiencing.

You can also use tone to develop your characters. Once again, you can achieve this several ways. How the narrator describes the character, how other characters perceive him, and the personality of the character all work together to give the reader an impression without you telling the reader the facts about this character. By using tone, you are leaving behind enough clues that readers will come to the conclusion on their own.

Word Choice

Tone is useful, but it only works in combination with word usage. Meaning and connotation are factors in choosing the right words, but you also need to think about language development. Don’t make assumptions about words: they are not as old or new as you might think. Because we use our vocabulary every day, we can forget that those phrases and meanings did not always exist.

For example, I noticed the word “paranoid” in my book manuscript while proofreading. It stood out, which led to my looking it up. My manuscript’s plot is placed in the 1890s. The word “paranoid” showed up in scientific texts in the early 1900s. Words are usually used in speech before they show up in text, but that didn’t matter in this case because I wasn’t using the scientific sense. To be certain of accuracy, I replaced the word with “cynical,” which has been in use since the 1500s. It got my meaning across while staying true to my chosen period.

The word change might sound like nit-picking, but the point is that words can create a place and time because of their history. Popular meanings and phrases change with the times. Just listen to a teenager talk. The words are familiar, but the meaning is not. You should use the changes in language to recreate the world your plot is placed in. You can even assign new meanings to words as you create your world. You don’t have to be as exact as I have been, but you should be intentional about the words you use.


The tone and words you use will create a detailed setting for your novel and suggest certain assumptions to your readers about the characters. By choosing your manuscript’s tone and wording carefully, you can better develop your story without needing to tell your readers the facts right out. Words are powerful, and you can use them for your story’s benefit.

2 thoughts on “How to Develop Characters and Setting with Word Usage

  1. Totally agreed about word choice. This is particularly obvious in the fantasy genre, where modern talk and slang doesn’t really fit in all that well in said settings. The only author who’s done this well for me so far is N.K. Jemisin in her book The Fifth Season. Thanks for sharing this!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t normally venture into the fantasy genre, but I can imagine how important word choice can be. I find the same thing to be true about historical fiction. The language does need to be modernized for readers, but sometimes it sounds so modern that it ruins the setting.


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