The Most Neglected Character

Current Theme Song (aka what's playing on my ipod right now): Feugo by Bond.

Often, as authors, we neglect the character who needs our love more than anyone. It’s not our protagonist (certainly not!), it’s not our antagonist (who can’t help but fall in love with them and all their dark mystery?), it’s not our sidekick (who seriously does not get enough love, but – that’s another post). Can you guess who?

It’s setting. Setting is a character, and must be given that same amount of attention as any "real" character, and not just act as the backdrop to everything else. Think of of it like the cardboard scenery from your elementary school days. It's there, but has no substance. A bad setting will feel the same way. Take a look at Twilight. That rainy place plays a serious role on the entire story, as well as giving it a powerful atmosphere. Think of Avatar! What would that movie be without Pandora? Your setting appears in every single scene, even when your main characters do not. Why, it's positively a Prima Donna! :)

How would it have been different if Sam and Frodo crossed through a dark and infested jungle as their final steps to Mordor, instead of a barren wasteland, riddled with fire and ash? What about the sleepy little town in Maycomb county where Scout learns some of the most important lessons in her life in To Kill a Mockingbird? Where would Howl be without his moving castle? Where would The Hunger Games have been without everything from the Seam to the Capital, the fancy, ornamented world to the brutality of the Hunger Games? Hamlet without Elsinore? Jane Eyre without the attic? Stanley Yelnats without Camp Green Lake? Anne Frank without the annex?

Everything a character does is in response to their world. They cannot respond to a vacuum.

From Wikipedia: "In fiction, setting includes the time, location, and everything in which a story takes place, and initiates the main backdrop and mood for a story."

Is it a library or a dining room? Desert or highlands? This will greatly affect climate and what type of clothing is worn, food is eaten, dialogue spoken, style/dress/traditions/mythology/stories, all of it. Everything affects everything.

For example, if two people are fighting in a library and not in a dining room, how will that change the argument? Everything affects everything.

Most often we put some slap-dash idea together of what our setting is, but the details become crucial. It takes place in the intercity Bronx? Which street? What do the houses look like? How long has it been this way? What time of year is it? A Europe-like setting? What part? There are several countries to choose from, each with their own distinct culture, language, traditions, history, and ways of thinking.

But this part can be so much fun because the more that is understood about the setting, the more like a character it becomes. It takes a prominent place on stage with your other characters and begins to interact with them on a much more real and visceral level. The setting can take on a life of its own, and it should.

Because when your world comes alive, so do your characters.

And everyone benefits, even the baby woolly mammoth in the tutu under the pink tree on the hill you never saw over there.


Shannon Messenger said...

So true. Though the hard part is then not filling your page with so much setting description that you bore your readers to tears. Ah the joys of finding perfect balance.

Charlotte said...

The books I like best are the ones that make pictures in my I'm a fan of setting, when it's subtle.

But I have to confess I skip over setting description if it's too long...