Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Posted by Laurel Garver on Wednesday, July 31, 2013 16 comments
I love my critique group. They're gifted and enthusiastic and most of all, thoughtful. They've given me the courage to take big risks in my writing, but they also won't settle for less than the best from me.

The manuscript I've been plugging away at diligently seemed to me to hit a bump in the "break into act 2" --that moment when the protagonist moves out of the known setting and into the unknown. When my group told me this scene wasn't really grabbing them, I had to agree. It wasn't grabbing me, either.

My character walks into the setting of a grandparent who hoards. And if you've ever seen more than one episode of Hoarders, you know there's something fascinatingly pathological about the phenomenon. But random piles of stuff stacked to the ceiling  isn't actually that interesting to read about.

photo by Marcin Modestowics, morguefile.com
I needed to dig deeper. Because this grandparent is at the epicenter of a lot of family dysfunction. What he hoards (and how he hides it) needs to communicate information about the roots of his anxiety and how other family members were effected by it.

The more I've researched the psychology at play in this family, the more ideas began to suggest themselves. I have a better sense of ways to make this setting stand out, to communicate volumes with a few well-chosen details. Much of the research actually upended my understanding of this grandparent's inner workings.

If you find yourself at a loss about how to make a setting that matters, I suggest going deeper with your characters. Beyond the obvious. What drives them? What are their aspirations? How do they like to present themselves to the world? How divergent are their inner and public personas? What past wound to they expend energy hiding or compensating for?

One of the most powerful examples of a telling character/setting connection I can think of is J.K. Rowling's Dolores Umbridge. Everywhere she goes, she works hard to put forward an image of sweet femininity, dressing always in pink, wearing a girlish bow in her hair and speaking in a high-pitched childish voice. She decorates her public reception area in rose, puce, and petal, and prominently features frolicking kittens. She likes to appear tame and cute. What better disguise for an ambitious female in a chauvinistic world? She's every bit as ambitious and cunning (and sadistic) as the men around her, but she knows these traits are shunned in women. So she takes on an uber-feminine, uber-girly princess-and-tea-parties persona as a smokescreen.

Had Rowling made Umbridge a bit more like Miss Trunchbull in Roald Dahl's Matilda, she wouldn't be quite as chilling. And certainly not sophisticated enough a villain for as grand and mature a series as Harry Potter.

Go deeper in understanding your characters' psychology, and stand out settings and details will begin to suggest themselves to you, too.

In what books or films have you found the settings and details psychologically interesting? How might you pump up your work with details that play against expectation or serve as a smokescreen?

16 comments:

  1. Great post! Gives me something to think about in the new book I'm working on.

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    1. When setting is tied to characterization in descriptions of personal spaces and habitats, it can be a powerful way of showing temperament and personality.

      Authors who do great world building are especially gifted at making that connection evident. They often show the values of an entire society within the way settings are structured.

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  2. So true. I hope you figure out the hoarding issue because I know what you mean, it's overwhelming and powerful to see. You just have to present it right.

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    1. Yeah, hoarding is a very tangible anxiety disorder, fascinating to behold. But garden-variety hoarding isn't making for a gripping read, so I have to think more deeply about how to choose details that make this hoard unique.

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  3. I used to be all about the settings - too much so. Then I swung in the opposite way, and I had almost no settings in my writing - at least in writing. Now, I'm working on including only the things important to the character - what they would notice walking into a room, or what sets the mood. I would think with you, the hoard itself almost becomes a character!

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    1. Natural settings are great for mood. I'm grappling with environments characters build around themselves. As such, those are an extension or outworking of character. Thus, these human-made environments need to do a lot in the story. In my initial draft, I hadn't played the outworking of character to full effect. Hooray for revision. :-)

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  4. Great post! You're absolutely right about going deeper. Psychology and theme should be used everywhere they can be. Yay for CPs, and good luck on your WIP! :-)

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    1. I love that sentiment: psychology and theme should be used everywhere they can be. Great point. Sometimes it takes outside eyes to see missed opportunities to do just that. Yay for CPs indeed!

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  5. I think settings are a great way to show the personality of the character.

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    1. Some genres make use of setting as a characterization tool more than others. It's a great tool for any writer's kit, though.

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  6. I love the juxtaposition of the real Umbrigde and the image she portrays with her girlie things. It makes the image of the real Umbridge more powerful.

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    1. Her office set from Deathly Hallows really brings the idea home. I saw it at the WB studios outside London and was exceedingly creeped out by the mix of girlie within a setting that shouts "POWER".

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  7. Yes, agreed. I do think the Swedish films, tv, have a subtlety about them that conveys the idea of menace to cleverly.

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    1. Some of the Danish films by Dogme studios do also. Is it something in the Scandanavian culture that makes them more attuned to subtle portrayals of menace?

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  8. You picked a great example for a character within their setting. A hoarding character has lots of issues that can be explored through their collection. I've watched the show and it is fascinating in a disturbing way. Boggles my mind.

    .......dhole

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    1. The more episodes I watch, the more I've realized hoarding isn't something that could fit in a single category in the DSM. Rather, it is a symptom of a large variety of emotional and mental issues. Depression, anxiety, bipolar, OCD, NPD, ADD...could go on and on. There are many reasons for and varieties of hoarding.

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