Tuesday, September 13

Posted by Laurel Garver on Tuesday, September 13, 2011 11 comments
After all anybody is as their
land and air is. Anybody
is as the sky is low or high,
the air heavy or clean
and anybody is as there
is wind or no wind there.
It is that which makes them
and the arts they make
and the work they do
and the way they eat
and the way they drink
and the way they learn
and everything.

--Gertrude Stein,
“An American and France”
(1936), n.p.

I came across this quote while copy editing at work and felt Stein had hit on something important about the intersection of setting and character.

Where you are makes you who you are.

At a picnic last weekend, my friend Shareen spoke of loving to visit the American West and feeling most at home in wide-open spaces under an endless sky. She grew up in Africa's vast grasslands. And she made it sound so very compelling. But alas, I'd feel exposed and terrified in Shareen's grasslands. I grew up in a river valley surrounded by mid-size eastern mountains and lush forests. She'd likely feel claustrophobic and oppressed where I feel safe and free.

What feels safe or good or beautiful or desirable is something shaped in profound ways by setting, by milieu (that is, the larger context of social relationships within a setting). Whether your character wears her nails natural or paints them black, fire-engine red or pale mauve is shaped by where she comes from. Whether he drinks Coors or Courvoisier is likewise due in part to his milieu.

Granted, we live in a very mobile society. People often leave their home settings in young adulthood, never to return. But Stein draws us back to the truth that "you can take the boy out of the country, but you can't take the country out of the boy." In the best characterizations, the person's roots will show, often in subtle ways--a silent head-bow before a meal, the secret stash of CDs, an odd rock used as a paperweight.

As you develop characters, remember to think about where they come from and how the current setting fits or doesn't fit with that early experience. Let that homeland be the filter through which they imagine and make mental associations and draw colorful metaphors and similes. Let it shape their choice of housing and hobbies and confidantes.

What are some of your favorite characters shaped by their setting? How might you try to show setting shaping your characters?
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  1. Great observation! All that backstory we create for our characters might not make it into the novel but def. affect our characters!

  2. Very interesting thoughts. Related, but slightly different -- I've heard a linguist say that he could place the region of where a person was raised by listening to their accent for 15 minutes. Even if they've not lived there for years.

  3. This is a wonderful point. I like vivid settings, when the author makes it so the setting is almost like another character. In children's literature, Narnia, Hogwarts, and Prince Edward Island in the Anne Shirley books come to mind. In adult literature Margaret Mitchell's depiction of the South in Gone with the Wind is excellent.

  4. Laura P.: Another way of putting it is that backstory WILL make it in, but not directly through info-dump.

    SP: Absolutely--dialect is a great example of how setting shapes character, and shapes how a character comes across on the page.

    Laura M.: I'd argue that every story should be making use of setting. A coming of age story in Wisconsin should be different from one in New York City or Lisbon or Seattle. A wet, remote setting will make a different hero than a dry, crowded one.

  5. I think this is why you often hear writers say that the setting is its own character--setting and character play off each other. Thanks for another great post!

  6. So true. Setting influences us in so many ways. I think one of my favourite books/series where the setting is incredibly important is Anne McCaffrey's PERN series. Awesome :)

  7. Elle: The interplay is so fascinating to me, especially when a character tries to escape the setting that shaped them in their youth.

    Jemi: Awesome example. I remember how well McCaffery differentiated the various Weirs based on the setting--some cold and snowy, some desert-like, some tropical--and how the cultures and people within them varied also.

  8. What a gorgeous poem - I love the rhythm of it!! - and what a tremendously written and insightful post.

    I tend to write about people who are somehow clashing and then finding peace with where they live. In my current WIP my main character has left her small hometown for the bigger city. The struggle for her is that home never felt safe, so she is most at peace where it is least like home.

    I love books where the setting is its own character. I don't know that my stories lend themselves to that all the way, but I would love to write one that does.

  9. Very thought-provoking Laurel. I'll be thinking about this as I go back to my character work-sheets, again! Thank you.

  10. Heidi: The Stein quote is actually a rambly bit of prose to which I added line breaks for the sake of readability (editorial intrusion! LOL. Hope Gert isn't rolling in her grave.)

    Your theme of reconciling with place sounds fascinating!

    Lynn: The shaping force of place seems like an underutilized aspect of characterization. SciFi writers are some of the few who give it attention.

  11. most excellent observation, Laurel! I totally agree. I grew up in Baton Rouge, surrounded by live oak trees, greenery, big brick houses, etc. And where do we choose to live in Indy? I swear you could close your eyes and you're back there...

    Also in current MS, setting very much influences MC. It's her primary motivation, actually~ :D