Monday, December 22, 2014

Setting as Character

I recently had to write an article on setting and this made me reflect on some of my writing. Most reviewers of Café au Lait, from professionals in magazines to random readers on Amazon, have commented on the role of setting in the novel. This is not something I set out to do intentionally--at least not that I can recall--but the setting of that story, Trinidad and Tobago, is so much a part of my psyche that there was no way I could write a novel where the place, time and social context were not significantly intertwined with the psyche of the main character. Setting is ever-present, not simply as a picturesque backdrop but influencing the thoughts, feelings and actions of the characters. The impact of the setting was brought home to me when one reviewer on Amazon UK said she followed the characters around on Google Maps while reading the story.

When I compare that novel with my second romance title, there is a striking difference. This one is set in South Florida, and although I spent close to two years there the place is not so much a part of me as my homeland is, and this distance shows. Is the setting a character in Give Me the Night? I like to think it is, but here it plays the role of a minor character and not a main character as in the first novel.

When I look at other stories I have written that are set outside of Trinidad and Tobago, the settings tend to play minor roles (with the exception of one post-apocalyptic story). Then I glance at my recent short stories set in my country and here again, the setting tends to play a major role. In two works in progress, now that I think about it, the setting is the main character. How does this happen? With me it's an intuitive process that apparently depends on my familiarity with and attachment to the setting.

What elevates setting to the status of character in a story? Based on my own experience, I'd say it's a combination of the following:
  • The use of telling details that create images of place, time and context (the basic function of setting).
  • The use of elements of the setting as symbols of important themes or issues within the story.
  • The use of pathetic fallacy which is the perception of nature as sentient--sympathetic or responsive to human issues in the story. (Examples: the angry sky, stealthy shadows, uncaring desert, the rain as tears...)
  • Characters' emotions, thoughts, and/or actions being affected, catalyzed or constrained by elements of the setting.
  • The setting changes over time, just as a well-drawn character must.
  • In other words, making the setting personal, and not simply a static background. 
My favorite stories are almost always those in which the setting lives and breathes and deepens the tales in memorable ways. In my own writing, although much of it is still intuitive--at least in the first draft--by the time I get to the editing phase one of the things I check for is an active setting that works as a reflection of, an ally, an antagonist, mentor or source of inspiration to the other main character(s).

How do you handle the issue of setting in your writing, and how important is it to your enjoyment of a story?

6 comments:

R.T. said...
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R.T. said...
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Charles Gramlich said...

I love a good setting as well. It is extremely important to me to mentally inhabit it at least

R.T. said...

Let me try this comment again: If you want to appreciate the power of setting, consider the opening to Charles Dickens' Bleak House. Fog . . . fog . . . fog . . . and then more fog (metaphorically) in the novel.

Liane Spicer said...

Charles, yes it is!

Liane Spicer said...

lol, R.T. Interestingly Bleak House is one of the few Dickens that I haven't read. I'll certainly look for it now.