Monday, July 20, 2009

Setting as Character

Happy Monday morning.
A few things to tell/remind you: Something new and cool! Love Twitter? Books & Such agency is hosting "Writers' Night Out" on Twitter!
Log on to Twitter on July 22, between 7-9 CST

hash tag is #wno

You could win books (including copies of books by NovelMatters authors), critiques (award winning authors offering to read your ms!), coaching (award winning authors chatting with you about your writing, your hopes, and how to make it happen!) & MORE!

You'll also be able to chat with authors, agents, and just have a fun time. We hope to hear from you!
I'd like to remind you of our great book giveaways this month, compliments of David C. Cook Publishers: Christy-Award winning Blue Hole Back Home by Joy Jordan Lake and Safe at Home by Richard Doster. Leave a comment for a chance to win one of these excellent novels.
And don't forget our incredible, one-of-a-kind, Audience with an Agent contest. July 31 is the last day for you to get your synopsis and first chapter to us. The winning entry will be read by agent Wendy Lawton of Books & Such Literary Agency for possible representation. This really is an amazing opportunity. Go to our Promotions page for contest guidelines. We look forward to reading your submission.
One of my favorite books on writing is Elizabeth George's Write Away: One Novelist's Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life, which is obvious by the ridiculous number of various-colored sticky tabs jutting from the margins. On some I've written notes like "Yes!" "Absolutely!" and "Whole Page!" The colored tabs had some significance once upon a time, but I've long forgotten what pink signifies, or orange, or green. And I add more tabs and colors each time I go through it. I suppose I should just highlight the whole thing and be done with it. As I read through it again, I've made a vow to at least skim the chapters every time I get ready to start a new manuscript. It's that good.
What jumps out at me this time through is the need to treat setting as though it were a character. "Any reasonable student of writing would ask how on earth a writer does this. How does anyone ever make a place come to life in such a way that it becomes an unforgettable part of the reading experience?" The answer is, a setting must be as well fleshed out as any other character, by the use of specific and telling details. It can't be selected on a whim, with no purpose in mind; but it must feed into the story if it's to accomplish what Ms. George suggests.
The classics are full of examples where setting becomes an unforgettable part of the novel. The old curiosity shop in Dickens' novel by the same name, Manderley, Treasure Island, Tara, Middle Earth. These settings are as important to their stories as the characters who haunt them.
But how many contemporary novelists write as though they really understand the importance of setting? I can think of a few off the top of my head. Ted Dekker masterfully uses setting as character in almost all his books. The bayou in both Athol Dickson's River Rising and Tim Downs' First the Dead are an unforgettable part of both stories. And Pisgah Ridge and the swimming spot in Blue Hole Back Home are as integral to the story as Turtle, Jimbo, Emerson and the New Girl.
Novel writing is a complex endeavor. A good work of fiction must be constructed layer upon layer if it's to resonate with the reader and become a memorable piece of literature. And to be effective the end result must seem effortless. No small task, that's for sure. The more we learn about what goes into a good novel, the better equipped we'll be to excel at our craft. With this chapter from Write Away fresh in my mind, I'm making it my goal to develop the setting in my WIP as though it were a living character, as important to the story as my protagonist and plot. Because, in fact, it is.
What examples can you share of setting as character in your favorite books? Would the story have been the same with a different setting or a less-developed one?


Patti Hill said...

Sharon, this is so important. Without setting serving a purpose in the story, the characters hang in the air. That doesn't mean you describe the place to death, but you must be able to select physical attributes that add conflict to the story or shape the characters. Think of the prairie in Willa Cather's stories or the Klondike in Jack London's. The settings aren't props, they're antagonists and lovers. The characters are transformed for having come in contact with the power of these places. And please note that the most memorable settings are not necessarliy the most picturesque nor pleasant. I read Michener's Caravans ages ago, and the Afghanistan landscape is still etched in my imagination. I do NOT want to go there.

I think the test of whether the setting becomes a character or not is if the story can happen no place else as in The Call of the Wild or Wuthering Heights.

Carla Gade said...

Lisa T. Bergren's "Breathe: A Novel of Colorado" did a beautiful job portraying the setting in every regard. The novel took me to Colorado in the 1880's and had me gasping for breath along with the characters who were there to recover from tuberculosis and gain their lives. It was an amazing experience and I credit the author for truly treating the setting as character.

Annette Lahman said...

Thinking about setting as character and knowing how important this is for the reader,two books come to mind. The first one is a book that really moved me, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. The basement that is used as a hiding place is so vividly portrayed that you can actually smell the dankness, feel the darkness, and yet the sacredness of the little place of refuge. Even though there is always that sense of danger of being discovered it becomes a place you want to keep returning to. You want to see how Max is doing.
Another book with unforgettable setting is Mary DeMuth's Watching the Tree Limbs. She takes the reader along with Mara to the hard ground underneath the trees and makes you see through her eyes the leaves, the sky, and right into the very heart and soul of this character. This setting is one the reader would rather not return to, but it is necessary for the telling of the story and Mary DeMuth is able to use this in a way that makes for a great reading adventure.

Rick Souza said...

Great post. I never really thought of setting in this way before. I just knew how much I enjoyed a book when the setting was so real I could see it or feel it as if I were there. A few examples would be the kitchen where the mom prepared the meals in The Yearling; the locale of Pitcairn's Island, which is part of the Mutiny Trilogy. Believe it or not, the desert where the three Wise Men met for the first time in Ben Hur -- you felt like you were right there with them. Another would be the hiding places where the characters fled to survive in The Lord of the Flies. One more is the beach in Robinson Crusoe when he saw the footprints after months of thinking he was alone on the island. In these cases the settings became as memorable as the characters themselves.

Atheist Author said...

Author Felix Gilman created an "unmappable" city with an ever-changing landscape in his fantasy book Thunderer. I would say his city is definitely a full character.

Stace said...

I'm a great fan of the Pern books, by Ann McCaffrey, and that saga wouldn't have worked anywhere else. As the series developed, the setting became more and more integral to the plot line. And of course, Narnia - is there more to say than that?

This is the biggest challenge, along with making a villain somehow not pure evil that I am struggling with on my current novel in progress. Any tips from anyone would be hugely appreciated!

Latayne C Scott said...

I recently read Stones from the River by Ursula Hegi. The setting is Nazi Germany, but more specifically in a small town where Trudi, a zwerg or dwarf, grows up. The scenes by the river -- and in the area beneath her house where Trudi and her mother hide -- were unforgettable.

This is one of those novels that could not have taken place at any other setting or time period and had the impact that it did.

Latayne C Scott

Kathleen Popa said...

I'm currently reading My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok - at long last, after so many people told me I must read it. Such an amazing study in all that can go right with a novel. It's going to go on my "best ever" shelf when I'm done.

The tension between the Hasidic neighborhood in Brooklyn and the Gentile artists' world in New York is masterfully drawn. A perfect example of what Sharon is saying in this excellent post.