Someone recently told me they believe the setting in my upcoming novel, Cleaning House, serves as a character, and I agree…probably more than I should. A setting, especially a detailed one like the Appalachian Mountains, can seem like a character in its own right. I agree with this, but is it really? If you Google this topic, you’ll find lots of conflicting advice.
K.M. Weiland over at Helping Writers Become Authors firmly states that, “(u)timately, setting is not character. Characters are personalities, which means they are persons.” Sure, that works if your setting is static. Weiland goes on to say that we should consider how cultured and educated the setting is. In other words, the grounds of Oxford University would be a cultured, educated setting, but it’d lack personality so it can’t be considered a character.
I totally disagree with Ms. Weiland, especially when it comes to the genres of Sci-Fi and Fantasy. That said, setting as character isn’t an easy process. Donald Maas, agent and the author of The Breakout Novelist (a required read during one of my grad programs) says, “(p)owerfully portrayed settings seem to have a life of their own, but how is that effect achieved? Make your setting a character is a common piece of advice given to fiction writers, yet beyond invoking all five senses when describing the scenery, there’s not a lot of info out there about exactly how to do it.”
So, how do you go about making your setting a character? It isn’t place description, locations, local customs, or whether the setting is rural or urban that makes it a character. If anything, I’d call those personality traits. Furthermore, the level of sophistication the setting possesses certainly has nothing to do with it. No, the land, the water, the air… it needs to breathe. It needs a voice of some sort to be a character. And there are several ways to achieve this.
1) Sensory details – smells, tastes, sensations
Let’s take two new lovers (the pairing doesn’t matter here) and trap them on the side of a mountain during a snowstorm. Frozen fingers. Slick leaves on the ground. Those lovers are losing traction as they try to climb. The setting becomes the antagonist, their enemy. Now, take that same mountainside and make it a bright spring day. Setting becomes their friend and maybe a relationship stimulator. Flowers. Soft moss. Birds and bees. Love is in the air. Use the senses to make this mountain a character, in the latter case, a matchmaker.
2) Change – a setting in its purest form is static, little changes. Setting as a character changes just like the other characters. or it should… all characters should change in a story or what’s the point? With setting as character, there will be a physical difference. Construction. Destruction. Seasons. Rain. Erosion. Mud. Fire… evoke the elements and you’ll experience change that creates setting as character.
Put those same two lovers in a room with little else. No means to look out. No windows. No walls. (I do this in my novel Surrogate – wasn’t an easy scene to write because the starkness becomes its own character, almost a monster without teeth and claws that eats at my lovers – destruction). Now, take those same lovers and place them in a driving rain, in fire (perhaps not literally, or maybe so). Trap them in a mudslide. Setting has become either friend or foe again. It’s both catalyst and character.
3) Age – a new building should feel young. Sterile, clean… you get it. New walls have no history. They’re children and should be treated as such if you want them to be an active part of the story. New brick feels and looks different than old. How about mountains? Now, they’ve seen a few things – floods, droughts, fires, earthquakes, storms (oh, look. I used the elements again).
You don’t want to put those same new lovers in an old cave unless there’s some deeper reason for it. What’s the point otherwise? What wisdom do they need from the old stone? Go beyond the surface. Dig deep and I don’t mean that literally.
4) Setting as literal characters. Yep, this is what I do in Cleaning House. The mountain, more specifically, Embreeville Mountain, is alive. It’s spirit, Stowne, is an earth elemental. They are the mountain personified. The setting is literally a character. There are other elementals as well – Air, Water, and Fire (as well as Death in two distinctly different forms). They have personalities, likes, dislikes, voices. They’re part of nature, of the lifecycle, of the energy that built the Appalachians and are now slowly destroying them. This, my dears, is setting as character.
Would number four, setting as literal character, work in all fiction? Absolutely not. But I believe authors can do more with it than they often do.
Here are some settings that, IMO, are characters in the manner I mean in Number Four.
- Middle Earth
Yes, Sci-Fi and Fantasy. This is where such things probably work best.
So, can setting be considered a character? I’ll go back to my original answer – it all depends. It depends on the author, on the genre, on the setting itself.
Read samples of Jeanne’s fiction, including her upcoming Contemporary Fantasy novel where the setting is most certainly a character, HERE.