Setting as Character
"Writing is like seeing a picture of a place you've never visited before and wondering what it would be like to go there." – David James
In a Huff Post Books column titled 7 Novels Starring American Small Towns, novelist Alan Michael Parker, in discussing setting as a character, suggests that the smaller the American town, the more likely it will function as a character…or at least agrees that it is a theory. And, along those lines, I recently attended a roundtable discussion in my home city of Charleston, W.Va., in which a group of local scribes discussed why they chose Appalachia as an arena for their work. One of the panelists seemed to think setting was rather irrelevant…or maybe just that basing an entire discussion around Appalachia as a setting was. But that’s another story.
These things have me thinking about world building in my books and the notion of setting as character. Would The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings have been as exhilarating to read if Tolkien hadn’t envisioned Middle-earth as he did? What about Harry Potter’s wizarding world, Westeros in Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, or even Oz for that matter. Would Dorothy have had as much fun if she’d landed in Baltimore? Okay, okay, these examples are all pulled from fantasy, where creating a believable world full of unbelievable things is a prerequisite. Setting has to become a character so the reader will feel at home in a brave new world.
But is setting equally as important in realistic fiction?
In a fantasy world, we’re all arriving together for the first time and have to be able to navigate it. We need to get to know place just as much as we're getting to know “flesh and blood” characters. But is setting so inevitable outside the fantasy or science fiction genres?
As I sat listening to the panelists discuss Appalachia as a setting, I thought about it in relation to my books. Admittedly, Blades of Grass and the book I’m currently writing could be transposed to Just About Anywhere, U.S.A. The town establishes the arena, but that’s secondary to the plot. But with Welcome to Straightville, I very much conceived it with the town being, well, a character. That’s why location is even referenced in the title. It was important to establish the world in which Devon, the protagonist, lives for two reasons.
- The plot deals with coming out (and into one’s own self) in a place where being gay is still a very foreign issue, not only for Devon but also for everyone surrounding Devon. It needed to happen in a place still a little bit removed from center, a little unaffected and underexposed and…I hate to say it…less progressive than many places. That leads me to my next reason…
- I specifically chose a small town in West Virginia because that’s where I come from, and I knew how to write it, yes. But more importantly because Appalachia isn’t always portrayed positively, and that really sticks in my crawl. It was very important for me to tenderly portray Devon’s struggle in a way that illustrates why it still is a struggle without playing to mockery or sheer stereotype; to offer an honest portrayal of a place that isn't always given that respect.
Of course, I could’ve chosen some made-up town in Tennessee or Kentucky (pretty much anyplace where they pronounce Appalachia ‘app-a-latch-a’). Another example: I’m currently reading Michael Barakiva’s One Man Guy, in which New York City is a major player (there’s even a great Tom Wolfe quote about it in the epigraph), but it could’ve probably taken place in suburban Chicago. Then again, I’m not finished yet, so maybe Manhattan is more vital than I’ve felt it is so far.
I suppose my point – although I’m beginning to fear I might not have one – is that setting, for the most part, is secondary to a great story in realistic fiction.
Except when it isn’t.
Maybe Parker’s right – the smaller the town, the more likely it is to function as a character?
One thought on “Setting as Character”
To further my own thoughts here, I wondered if people in, say, the Pacific Northwest would relate to Devon's journey if the Appalachian setting was so prominent. But a good book isn't trapped by its locale. In The One Book You Need to Read to Understand America, Sarah Jane Abbott says of To Kill a Mockingbird:
Maybe that guy at the roundtable discussion – the one who was frustrating everyone else on the panel with his assertion that all the talk of Appalachia as setting was unnecessary – had a point underneath the gruff exterior. Setting can be a character, but it's the narrative that matters in the end. And good stories are universal. We'll all draw our own parallels, whether the story happens in the Deep South, or in Appalachia, or the Pacific Northwest, or the Jersey Shore. Or somewhere over the rainbow.