Can the Setting Be a Character in the Story?

The setting of a book should not be static, a mere backdrop for the story, but should have personality, emotions, strengths, weaknesses, scars, and moods. At least that’s what books on writing tell us.

In my previous novels, I tried to make the settings necessary to the stories, to show how they couldn’t have happened anywhere else in exactly the same way. Because my stories all take place in Colorado, by the very fact of geography, mountains play a part if only to shadow the humans living at their foot.

My current work in progress is different in that the world changes constantly. The mountains are always there giving my hero a reference point, but cities change to plains and plains change to seas. My hero has to try to come to terms with his constantly changing environment, which creates most of the conflict for the first part of the story. Because of this, I’m wondering if I can turn the environment into a character. It would certainly make the first part stronger because during much of it the hero is alone. It would give the book an entirely new dimension. And it would be a challenge for me.

Despite its changeability, though, the environment doesn’t want anything, so I’m not certain it can be a character. Doesn’t a character have to be dynamic with its own wants and needs? Even if it is possible for an environment to be a character, can I create one that has wants and needs without my anthropomorphizing it? Maybe the environment, like my hero, wants to be left alone. Maybe, the environment, also like my hero, stoically endures what is happening to it. But how would I show this from only my hero’s point of view?

I remember discussions in literature classes about those very things, and I didn’t get it. No matter how dramatic a setting was and how much it influenced the characters, it still always seemed to me to be static. Yet here I am, trying to put something more into my setting than perhaps needs to be there.

The only thing to do, I suppose, is keep all this in the back of my mind as I am writing, and if I can make the setting more alive, do so. If not, leave well enough alone. The story is already developing too many depths for what was supposed to be a silly little tale.