(Fair Warning And Disclosure. Today we learn that your fearless writer has Opinions. You’ve been warned.)
There’s something that people who talk about writing talk about all the time and it makes me kind of crazy. Like, ranting for half an hour at someone who has already agreed that they s
You see, it’s a really huge piece of writing advice— almost part of the Ten Writing Commandments, right up there with Show Don’t Tell (yeah, we’ll get to that…) It’s huge. Major. People foam at the mouth with laudatory hymns of praise for authors who manage to pull it off. People say all the time that they want a writer to do more to make the setting more of a character.
No, they really don’t. What they want is more description— or perhaps existing description to be rewritten more poetically— so that they can more easily place the story into a setting. They want a place for the actual characters to inhabit and interact with. Perhaps even to severely complicate the lives of the main players in their little drama. An actual character, however, has a goal, can make decisions, and can actively choose to interact with their environment or not. That doesn’t mean it has to be human. Just sentient. Still, the setting-as-character train keeps on rolling.
Whether it’s Scott Fitzgerald’s 1920s Long Island or Tolkien’s Shire, the setting really is a kind of character in the story. Geographically and socially, the setting shapes the other characters, making some actions inevitable and others impossible.
But as soon as we know where your story is set, we bring certain expectations to it. The place has a history, a population of a certain kind, a set of social values (often more honoured in the breach than in the observance). We want to know what you think of your setting just as we want to know what you think about the hero and his mother and the girl next door.
That’s pretty typical, really. Sure, if your characters are on a snowy mountain cliff in a blizzard there are actions that seem more inevitable than if they are, say, on the bean in Hawaii. That doesn’t mean that either the mountain or the beach are characters. It means that the reader can see them there in the context of the story, and possibly have more specialized challenges to face. You’re far less likely to risk frostbite in Honolulu than Everest.
Here’s another example. I have to admit I haven’t read the book, but it’s pretty much exactly what I hear all the time.
In great fiction, the setting lives from the very first pages. Such places not only feel extremely real, they are dynamic. They change. They affect the characters in the story. They become metaphors, possibly even actors in the drama.
Powerfully 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.
Now, that is not to say it can’t make an impact. After all, what would To Build a Fire be without the cold closing in? Or to revisit the Shire, we couldn’t really see hobbit society thriving in, say, Mordor. That does not, I’m afraid, make either the cold or the Shire a character. It makes them influential, certainly, but they don’t take any sort of active role in the story no matter how important they are to the plot or how well described they are in the prose.
Because, you see, they just sit there. The Shire is just a patch of land that war hasn’t ravaged recently. It’s pastoral and peaceful, which allows hobbits to not even think about adventure, let alone having to defend oneself. The cold isn’t deliberately trying to kill a man and his dog, it simply is, and the man chooses to pit himself against it.
You want your setting to be a character in your stories? That’s how you end up with HAL 9000.