Disclaimer: This post does not mean that I’m finally softening my long-held stance against stories about man versus nature.
Setting, however, does and should affect character–whether that individual is Judah Ben-Hur, a condemned man chained to a Roman-galley oar until he dies, or the young protagonist living in virtual realities in READY PLAYER ONE.
If your characters seem oblivious to their setting, why did you choose an unremarkable location? Instead, why not make setting an inherent part of the situation and story problem? By this, I don’t mean that you should inject a raging typhoon or catastrophe into every plot scenario, but if you strand your characters in a life raft bobbing on the Pacific Ocean, that watery surround had better have an impact on each of them in individual ways. And if you pick Boring, USA, why are you making your writer job harder than it needs to be?
Is your protagonist comfortable with the setting you’ve plunked her into, or is she a fish out of water? As soon as you make that decision, you will be directed by the option you’ve chosen into selecting or rejecting other design possibilities.
Consider the following:
If your protagonist is an intrinsic part of his setting, knows it, is prepared to cope with it, stays calm and competent in dealing with its dangers or eccentricities, etc., then that means the locale is going to recede in prominence. Your hero will meet trouble from other characters who then serve to generate complications and story problems.
On the other hand, if your protagonist is a fish out of water, then her unfamiliarity with the setting can inject danger, misunderstandings, disaster, or–conversely–comedy into your story. An unknown setting helps you present sense-of-place details to readers as your protagonist discovers them. In doing this, you can avoid awkward information-dumps that usually stall story progress.
For example, the vintage film CROCODILE DUNDEE begins in the Australian outback, where civilization is basic and the setting is full of physical dangers. Dundee, however, is an intrinsic part of the setting. He’s comfortable with poisonous snakes and vicious crocodiles. He knows how to survive in the brush. His surroundings–although hazardous–create no problems for him. The girl, by contrast, is a fish out of water. She’s in physical danger constantly because she doesn’t know the pitfalls to look for or avoid. In the second act of the film, the setting shifts to New York City and flips the circumstances for these two players. Now the girl is comfortable with her big-city backdrop and wise to its ways, but Dundee has become the fish out of water. His initial bewilderment and quirky solutions inject comedy into the story. And, I might add, he adapts very quickly.
Let’s pick a scenario of elderly woman suffering from dementia that wanders away from home.
The setting of such a story immediately dictates character actions and therefore guides the plot events to come.
For example, if this story takes place in the summer in a harsh desert climate miles from the nearest town, then the desert-savvy protagonist will not be able to seek police or county sheriff assistance. The protagonist will be largely on his own. He’ll know to start a search at dawn before temperatures exceed one-hundred degrees, to seek Granny’s tracks in the sand and follow them through the brush, to carry plenty of water and a weapon in case he encounters rattlesnakes or rabid wildlife, and be conscious of the necessity to find Granny before the intense noonday heat gives her sunstroke or she becomes dangerously dehydrated. Unless you’re trying to build suspense, it’s unnecessary to lavish endless details of the search and throw snakes, wild pigs, and fire ants at the protagonist. Instead, summarize the search and let the story action center instead on conflict between the protagonist and a wild-eyed, distraught, and possibly injured Granny who won’t cooperate as he tries to get her home.
If Granny has wandered away in a crime-riddled metropolis, depending on the customary missing-persons procedure, the protagonist will notify authorities to issue a silver alert and then set out on a house-to-house search through the neighborhoods closest to where Granny lives. Maybe–if it’s a gated community–an email alert will be sent to everyone and Granny’s photo will be posted on light poles. Then it’s a matter of getting in the car to check along major arterial roads or bus routes, pausing at strip shopping centers to ask store owners if they’ve seen an elderly woman trudging along, and looking in alleys while always hoping he won’t find Granny lying unconscious from a mugging behind a Dumpster. Maybe–if Granny hasn’t dropped her cell phone–the hero can ask authorities to track her SIM card. Or, the protagonist will be entirely dependent on the police to find her and will instead go to work, checking search progress periodically via his cell phone. Instead of having the protagonist facing down would-be muggers or being car-jacked in a misguided effort to generate plot from a setting the character is knowledgeable about, why not focus the plot on his conflict with authorities who may require him to wait twenty-four hours before they’ll take action?
When it comes to how setting affects character design, another factor can come through the story person’s background. Characters are usually shaped by the places where they grew up. Was a sidekick kept isolated from others, home schooled, and spent his childhood in a hippie commune in a remote rural area without cellular phone service or satellite dishes or internet?
Even if that past has no connection to your plot, such factors as these will affect the sidekick’s personality, behavior, and reactions. He may be very self-reliant, independent, skilled, and resourceful. He may feel uneasy in social situations, avoid parties or crowds of people, and be a difficult co-worker. At the other extreme, he might actively seek city life and parties, binge-watch Netflix, own every electronic gadget on the market, and be a profligate spender to compensate for all the things he thinks he missed while growing up.
Can setting, in turn, be shaped by characters? Not, perhaps, as directly as how setting affects individuals, but reader perception of a locale can be colored by character perspective, personality, and attitude. Consider Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson on a train headed away from London to some remote corner of England. Watson gazes out the window at green meadows, grazing sheep, and tidy cottages with his usual optimistic, upbeat sentimentality. He comments how good it is to see such dear old homesteads. Holmes, huddled in his greatcoat and uninterested in the passing view, replies that more murders are committed in isolated farmhouses than in the most crowded, squalid sectors of the city.
(That’s one way to shut down a happy conversation.)