The Character of Setting; the Setting as Character


Picture a naked man.

The initial place my mind would take me, were I the one to face this command, would be the generation of a character. Questions would come through my mind: Why is he there? Why is he naked? What happened to him? Is he hurt? Crazy? In some kind of Eden?

And in that last question lies an indicator of what I want to write about in this installment.

Picture the man again.

Now paint around him a dystopian landscape, dark and wind-swept. The skies are red with pollution and a waning day. Shadowy figures shamble around in the oncoming shadow of a long, dangerous night.

Picture him a third time.

This time though, surround him with lush vegetation, giant, nectar-drenched flowers and benevolent bees the size of your fist. The sky is blue, the breeze cool as the heat of the day breaks and relief settles upon the land.

And a fourth time.

This time he is in a city, surrounded by crowds of people hurrying along on their day. Heads turn and eyes dart over for furtive glances, but the rush of cars flying overhead, and the buzz and rattle of passing transport walkways call each citizen to his or her given tasks for the day. A sign, bright and glittering with LED clarity, reads "Walden Three" in the background.

Each of these settings is different, but all have something in common: they act as an extention of the character. it could be argued, in fact, that the man - the ostensible character - acts as a single element within the setting. If such is the case, then the setting itself is, in a very practical sense, a itself a character. In some stories, it is perhaps the most important of the characters.

In each example above, the nature of the man, the clear choices of where to set the plot going, was pre-formed by the setting. Was he a wandering survivor of an apocalypse, a noble savage of some pristine primeval garden, of a social dissenter in a futuristic metropolis? The nature of the world in which he is placed, necessarily forms the character himself, whether it is as a foil or a prop. A setting can be used as a protagonist, (more commonly) as an antagonist, but it should never be a flat, cardboard backdrop to "other" characters in a story. Tap into it, to the smells, the textures, and the zeitgeist of the millions of off-text happenings that make it rich and vital - and your story will tap into its power as well. Treat it seriously, the same way you would when fashioning a hero or a villain - because used correctly, it is a very powerful aspect of each of these.

Jeff SpenceComment