What is a character?
Can your book’s setting act as a character in the story? What does that even mean? Characters have morals, personality, emotions and mood swings. They want, they feel, they act. Most of all, they influence and plot. Often, they will also change themselves as the story progresses. How can a setting be all that?
So what is a setting?
You can think of the setting of a book as its context: the time period, the physical location and the culture. It creates a mood for the book, to the point of having a symbolic value. For example in a short story by Raymond Carver about a couple whose marriage is collapsing, darkness is falling and the dirty snow is melting into brown sludge.
Setting as a Secondary Character
Let’s say you’re writing a breakup scene between two of your characters. Play with the locations and try to use as setting each of the following: at home in the living room, in a crowded restaurant, on a ship out at sea, at a shooting range, in a romantic resort. Each setting becomes a third character that interacts with the protagonists and influences the mood. It might even change the outcome!
Setting as an Adversary
The easiest way to start incorporating your setting as a character is to have someone in the book interact physically and emotionally with the setting. Just like a villain, the setting can introduce conflict, cause trouble, or thwart the hero’s plans. Consider a vicious storm, a flood, a moonless night that blinds the hero, a jungle where he gets lost, bumper-to-bumper traffic that keeps him gridlocked, an earthquake, a rock slide, etc.
Such settings take on a life of their own, and do everything in their power to keep your hero from succeeding. You’ve heard it said that if your scene is falling flat, have someone pull out a gun. I say: transport your scene to a setting filled with conflict – the weather, culture values, political issues.
Setting as a Friend
A beach at sunset or a hike to a tranquil waterfall can provide nearly as much comfort and encouragement as a good friend. If your protagonist has just defeated a mafia boss, don’t send them to a lively nightclub or a bullfight. Turn their setting into a place where they can recuperate and reflect.
Setting can also aid the hero in their quest. A jungle or a crowded bus station can hide the hero from his or her enemies just as easily as a swamp can destroy those who wish the hero harm.
Setting as a Mentor
Like a wise person, setting can also be a mentor. Perhaps your hero or heroine must learn something before they can move on. Have them wander into a library, an old bookstore, a cave with ancient, mysterious writings on the walls, an archaeological dig, a museum. Or perhaps your hero must survive some ordeal in order to move forward, such as climb a mountain or cross a river to overcome their fears and gain the confidence they need to achieve their goals.
Setting as a Shadow for Your Protagonist
A shadow is anything or anyone that reflects your hero’s deepest flaws. If your protagonist has an alcohol problem, put them in a bar where they can watch what alcohol does to others. If they are a control freak, put them in prison. If they are a selfish person, put them in a homeless shelter or soup kitchen. If they are greedy, place them at the New York Stock Exchange. Use the appropriate setting to open their eyes to their own flaws.
Setting as a Model of What the Protagonist Wants to Be
A church, a mission trip, a charitable foundation, free medical clinic, the palace of a wise king, the courtroom of a just judge, and a loving home are all settings that can provide an atmosphere that fosters qualities to which the hero aspires.
Does the setting change at the end of the book?
You already know the answer to that, don’t you? Your protagonist will most likely influence the setting in some way: arrest the mafia boss, expose the corrupt FBI agent, draw up a petition for equal pay, in short: make the world a better place.
And, of course, the setting will have a lasting effect on the protagonist.
OK, there’s only so far we can stretch it
So – the setting is unlikely to engage in a dialogue within the pages of the novel. It probably doesn’t have bucket-loads of complicated emotions. And if I were you, I wouldn’t spend a lot of time figuring out its goals or motivations.
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