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S.K. Quinn, Independent Author of Science Fiction

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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Critique Wednesday: Setting and Character

The first time I thought about how characters interact with setting was when I was reading Donald Maass' The Breakout Novel. He points out that setting is a character and that breakout novels use this to their maximum advantage.

I already had intuited this, having a work background in science and engineering and a literary background in science fiction. Sometimes the setting (or story world) was such a dominant part of the story that it literally was the story. Think about The Hunger Games ... the worldbuilding there is impeccable, but it has to be: it's what the story is all about.

Even if you don't have a sweeping historical novel, or a futuristic science fiction set piece that your story plays out on, you need to be conscious of how your character interacts with the setting.

Setting as POV
I'm a big fan of deep POV, really getting inside a character's head and seeing the world literally through their eyes. Everything from the kitchen table to the high tech mobile implants under their skin should impact the character in some way and flavor their view of their surroundings. We are not just cerebral creatures - we touch, smell, balance, and emote our way through the world. Seeing the world through character-colored glasses not only brings the reader deeper into the story, but it also allows something as simple as walking into a room to define character - and thus bonds the reader even more strongly to the character.

Examples!

Setting that's just there
I walked into the kitchen, complete with stainless steel appliances, marble countertops and shiny imported Italian tiles. My mom was there, washing the delicate china dinner dishes, like they were her most treasured possessions. I picked up the nubbly red dishtowel and, without a word, plucked up a dish that had already started to drip dry on the counter and ran the towel over it.

Setting that's interacting with your character
My toes caught on the threshold, the slippery floor tiles Mom insisted on importing from Italy making the act of entering the kitchen hazardous on the best of days. The marble countertops were already spotless, but Mom was still wiping the dinner dishes, careful of the gold-trim that shouted high-maintenance from the edges of the plates. The red dishtowel was probably too rough for their delicate nature, so I picked it up and scrubbed it over the gravy boat that had been drip drying on the counter.

Not an entirely fair comparison, because there's a lot more voice in the second example. But that's what happens when you draw your character deep into the scene, forcing them to interpret their environment and show their mother-conflict in the ferocity with which they dry plates.

Setting as Antagonist
If setting is a character, then it should have some kind of conflict with your POV character, just like any other player in your story. And that conflict should evolve as you go through the story. It can be something as simple as your character feeling uncomfortable in their environment at the beginning of the story (their sweaters are scratchy, the air conditioning is turned up too high), and then after their character arc helps them to feel peaceful in their own skin, they find themselves comfortable in the world as well (slipping into a pair of comfortable old jeans, or flopping in a bale of hay).

Even better when you can have the setting actively prod your character into action. Not just a tripping over obstacles (as above, to show how hazardous her relationship has become), but a push/pull interaction, where the character tries to shape her world, while at the same time, the world is trying to shape her. This can be "setting" in a more generic sense, where the collective society, or worldbuilding rules, put pressure on your character, forcing them along their character arc.

There's a scene in Closed Hearts that has this push/pull of the world put into a visceral sense - my main character is fleeing through the city, unwillingly leaving loved ones behind. She's leaving one hazardous situation for another, which we see as she works her way through a labyrinth of decay during her escape:
He threaded us between businesses, finding tiny, jagged passageways that bypassed the streets. Jackertown was a maze of brick and concrete buildings held together by a web of side alleys jumbled with decades of debris. We dodged couches with ripped cushions, rusty cans of paint hazardously stacked, and abandoned bicycles missing tires and seats. The labyrinth was dotted with teetering fortresses of trash, as if the demens had carved cubbyholes into the city. Their homes were built from overturned benches fortified by crates and stuffed with blankets, as well as the occasional discarded boost canister of hydrogen for cars that had long since fled the city. Now the demens had left as well, run out by the jackers moving in.
Setting as Image System 
The act of my main character fighting her way into this darker world is also rich with symbolism about her place in the world, her inherent conflict with it. This is another thing that setting can do for you: bring in imagery systems that echo your themes throughout the story. Often times, we create great set pieces (think of the visual systems used in theatre or the movies to telegraph the underlying tone of a place) without ever consciously thinking about it - our subconscious dredges up these images that reflect the mood of our story. But when you go back and consciously create image systems in your setting, you can really enhance the deeper emotional connection your story has with readers.

Don't Be Cliche
"It was a dark and stormy night." Avoid the temptation to use weather to telegraph mood. Or if you're going to do this, turn it upside down and make it ironic.

What ways do you use setting in your stories?

p.s. Hop over to Adam Heine's post for more opportunities for critiquing (esp. queries)!

As promised, I'm giving away another 5 page critique!

Legalese: I'll randomly chose a winner of a 5 page critique via Rafflecopter. The critiques will be offline, not posted on the blog. My critique philosophy is "honesty with kindness." I believe someone can't learn while they're in pain, so it's important to temper the truth with gentleness. I also believe my job as a critiquer is to help you tell your story better, not change it to be the story I would write.



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21 comments:

  1. Oh this is good stuff! I'm not signing up but loved the post. I love deep POV too!

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  2. This is great, thank you. I have known about using setting without understanding it, and your post has helped bridge that gap. I think I could actually start using it correctly now. Or, at least, practice it. ;)

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    1. I'm glad you found it useful! And there's no "correct" way, just your way, as an author. But understanding different ways will deepen your ideas about how to tell your story. It's all practice anyway. :)

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  3. Perfect timing. I'm working on a novel where the setting is an important part of the story for some scenes. It's something I haven't had to worry about before.

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    1. I think the setting is important for every story, but that's probably my worldbuilding bias. :) I think setting helps to deepen character, even if there's not an obvious conflict between the character and the setting (or crazy mind powers driving things LOL).

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  4. What a great post - it's especially made me think about how setting should interact with your character, rather than just being there, which I am sure I am guilty of!

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  5. Yay for a double does of more great critiquing!

    And I definitely try to use setting as a character - when it's right for the story. In the one you haven't seen, it's right up front, a supporting character, a friend, if you will. In the one you did get a glance at, it works more as an antagonist, but isn't as obvious, sort of sitting in the background more.

    Of course it all remains to be seen how well it works.

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    1. I'm curious now to read your one where the setting is supportive, rather than antagonistic! And the one I've read, I definitely noticed it, even lurking in the background. :)

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  6. It was a stormy and dark night.


    Man, I'm good.

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    1. Oh stop. LOL! Of course, that is your signature line, right, Snoopy?

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  7. Cormac McCarthy is a master at rendering landscape as a character in his novels. From the apocalyptic ash blowing acorss The Road, to the parched landscape in No Country for Old Men his environments spring to life (and death, given the grim situations that permeate his writing).

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    1. Now, if only the man would employ the use of a comma every once in a while, we might be friends. :) Seriously, he does have the soul of a poet, which is amazing and awesome, but he tips too far into the literary for me (just my personal taste).

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    2. And I wanted to add: there's a point at which the setting can interfere with the reading experience - if there's too much of it, or if it's all mood piece about the setting and you have to hunt with a microscope to find the plot. That balance leans differently for different genres, and I tend to like mine leaner on description, in spite of the above stated importance of setting. :) (Wow, that was a long-winded caveat.)

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  8. Great tips, thanks for sharing.

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  9. I read that book and some of my best setting-to-character writing has been a result of using that as inspiration. I'm going through my draft looking for more ways to work my characters into settings. I think you gave me a light-bulb moment about finishing a character arc with them feeling more comfortable in their skin. The Big Wrap Up is a trouble spot for me, and that seems to be a good technique to add into an ending.

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    1. Great! I think showing the change in how your character reacts to the setting is a very satisfying way for the reader to experience the change in character arc. I hope to see that whole story someday! 

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  10. Super, much appreciated detail in this post. We always hear about raising the stakes for the characters, thinking about that for the setting is definitely going on my checklist.

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  11. I think this is one of those things (some) writers pick up by reading. I'm just thinking b/c when I read your examples, my thought is, "Well, that's just good writing." LOL! :D

    Ahh, never read the Maas book. Should I?

    Thanks for sharing, Dr. Q! :o) <3

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    ReplyDelete

Erudite comments from thoughtful readers