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Using Characters And Setting To Situate Your Story In Another Culture, by Kashmira Sheth

Koyal Dark, Mango Sweet by Kashmira Sheth

The most challenging part of writing a story set in another culture is making it feel authentic and relevant. It is like building a brand new house that perfectly blends with the century-old neighborhood. It should have the same weathered feel as the other homes. To write a story that feels realistic, the author should think of two critical parts, characters and setting.


Start a story with the main character and build her (or his) personality. Do it in such a way so that the readers can relate to and empathize with the protagonist. The character must have habits, likes and dislikes, and certain physical attributes. For example, she may like to wash her hands obsessively, he may hate the idea of his father’s waking him up at four to help him on the farm, he may have a big mole on his hand or she may bite her nails. These kinds of details help us create an image of our character in readers’ mind no matter where they are from.

Give your character’s personality a strong sense of believability. A childhood adversity, such as money problems, may drive your character to start a lawn-cutting business while still in high school. A shocking event in his early life (eg. a sibling’s accidental death) may cause him to have nightmares into adulthood. Life-changing events that shape him make his behavior believable, his motivations clear, and his journey plausible in the reader’s mind.


A place with sensory details is also critical to a story. If the story is set in an unfamiliar place the setting is as important as your main character. Using all five senses brings the place alive and keeps the story grounded. When a writer can establish a character in a setting that seems unique and yet natural it adds depth to the story.  To achieve this, the writer can use a familiar place (contemporary novels) or build it up from imagination (fantasy novels) or from extensive research (historical novels).

The last step is to bring the character and the setting together in an intertwined fashion. If your protagonist lives by the ocean, the tide may have some special significance to him. On the other hand, if he lives by the mountains, he maybe fond of hiking along a trail to clear his mind.

Another way we can do this is to let your character use dialogues as well as body language not only to convey his thoughts and feelings but to ground him in the place. These gestures must be culturally specific and relevant to the story though.

What if your protagonist, who lives by the ocean, opens a window, sees someone, and shivers? Is it because of the cool ocean breeze or because he sees his arch enemy walking up? This kind of reaction to a setting can serve dual purposes for your story and make readers want to keep on reading.

Once the setting and character are well established readers can identify with the protagonist easily. Then the details you provide from another culture, tradition or time become just as engrossing as the ones the reader is familiar with.


Kashmira Sheth’s author website:

Kashmira Sheth’s bio page


United States (and beyond)


United Kingdom (and beyond)


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