Treating Your Setting as a Character
By Laura Nsafou
In the long discussion of diversity in literature, the focus is on the characters and their unique perspectives. Many writers pay so much attention to the personas within their story that they end up neglecting one of the biggest indicators of diversity. Diversity is reduced to merely the personal background of a character and not the place where they live. The location of your story is just as important as the characters within it.
Settings are not merely physical elements. They include the atmosphere and characteristics of the environment and influence the culture and history of their inhabitants. Many manuscripts reviewed by Quill Shift Literary Agency’s team have different genres—from fantasy to contemporary—but are usually set in an imaginary world or city. When writers make readers guess the surroundings of the characters, it creates an unstable foundation for the plot to unfold.
We’re all for imaginary worlds, but writers have an unfortunate tendency to use them as a crutch. They think that, because the story takes place in a fantastical place, there is no limit to what can exist. The suspension of belief they require on the part of the reader is so great that it removes all believability from the story. It is through limitations in a world that realism occurs.
Not only should there be an element of realism in your world but it should also include landmarks to guide readers through the story. As Dave Hood explains in his article How to Write Creative Nonfiction: Writing about Place, it is difficult to imagine how characters move and evolve in a space without any reference.
In creative nonfiction, the place or location where the event or experience took place is more than just about the name of the place. It is also the physical location of the place, the physical attributes, such as the urban setting of crowds, pollution, public transit, traffic jams or the rural setting of open spaces, fewer people, fields, farms, and small communities.
In writing about travel, place is much more than the physical location. It is about the culture, language, values, morals, beliefs, customs, cuisine, traditions, and way of life.
In other words, the setting of your story should have as many personality traits as a character within it. It holds and influences the plot, but it also works alone like another character altogether. For example, in the tale Howl’s Moving Castle, most action takes place around and inside the moving castle of the wizard, Howl. The castle serves as both a landmark and as a manifestation of the magic of the book. The reader learns about the nearby inhabitants from how they interact with the castle and about Howl himself from its interior. This is what Dave Hood underlines: crafting a place as you usually do a character will make it meaningful. The place helps produce the values, beliefs, and morals found within the character.
The place, an independent part
Think of the setting as an independent element. For example, if your characters live on the countryside near mountains, how does the landscape influence their culture? How does it affect their food diet? Are there legends about the mountains? Does it inspire stories and rituals among the community who lives there? If so, what kind of rituals? The place you create is a starting point that leads characters to build their own personal background.
Everyone’s background is diverse in its own way. You can diversify the setting by offering a distinct landscape with meaningful sites. The setting is, arguably, the one piece that can bring the most diversity to your story and help you create unique characters. If this is true, then why not spend as much time crafting your setting as you would the protagonist in your story?
Dave Hood provides a checklist to help writers create a place from a unique vantage point. According to Hood, this is one of the simplest and most effective ways to bring something to life.
Describe the physical attributes of the place using sensory images. How does the place smell, sound, taste, feel, and appear to you?
The reader needs to feel that the character has a personal bond with the place you describe. There is a tactile connection that may conjure up different feelings for different people when reading, depending on their sensory memories.
Creating this atmosphere will then accomplish two things: first, the reader will feel connected to your story; and second, the settings and characters will feel more real, authentic, and understood through their descriptions of their surroundings.
Settings for enhanced characters
After you create a place that has specifically described characteristics and is an independent albeit connected part of your story, your characters must appropriate these surroundings and move around them.
Creating a place is about making something visible, an alternative world. It is important to understand how to create spaces where underrepresented identities can evolve and diverse journeys can develop. As in creating characters that represent the reader physically or emotionally, spaces also offer the opportunity for readers of underrepresented backgrounds to picture themselves. In the article, How to Create Meaningful Spaces in Stories, the website Read To Write Stories advises an exercise:
Let the character appropriate those aspects as personal qualities. Ironically, it’s the little, irritating things in our worlds that we often feel the most attachment to. Johnson writes about how the people who gathered in the tent identified with the trash strewn around them. Try writing a sentence that begins this way: “We were the kind of people” or “They were the kind of people” or “She was the kind of person who…” Can you connect that kind of people they are to those irritating, commonplace parts of their surroundings?
Exercises like these will help you improve interactions between characters and surroundings. They will help you enrich your characters by giving more details to readers. Ask these questions as you write:
- What is remarkable and what is not in the surroundings?
- What is common to see in this place? What is uncommon?
- What is allowed? What is forbidden?
- Is there a socio-economic divide within your setting? If so, how and why?
- Where does your main character stand in this space (on cultural, political, geographical, and economical levels) and how does their position affect their evolution and journey throughout the story?
As Dave Hood explained in his article, it is very difficult to imagine a character’s journey if it is unclear where they start and where the journey takes them. Crafting a diverse setting is the first step to creating a world that can stand on its own. Many authors like to create their own worlds because there are no limitations to what can happen, but we have found that it is through these limitations that believability and authenticity appears.
Create your settings with the same care with which you create characters. When you have a diverse location, diverse characters are sure to follow.