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Setting and Character

The locale of a story should affect character design in how that character interacts with the setting or how this individual has been shaped by the place.

Setting isn’t separate from your other story elements. It’s not just a piece of scenery relegated to the background. Instead, it should be an inherent part of the situation and plot problem. After all, if your characters seem oblivious to their location, why did you choose it? Why not let it instead work for you and the needs of your story?

By all of this, I don’t mean you have to inject a raging typhoon into your plot scenario, but if–for example–you strand your characters in a life raft bobbing on the Pacific Ocean, what individual impact does that setting have on each of them?

Is your protagonist comfortable with the backdrop you’ve chosen? Is this person an intrinsic part of the locale? Does the hero know the lay of the land or the city streets? Is he or she prepared to handle things? Can this individual stay calm and competent in dealing with trouble? Will it be possible to maneuver without becoming lost? If so, then you as the writer will be plotting externally. Complications and story problems will be generated by other characters with whom the hero is in conflict.

On the other hand, if your protagonist is a fish out of water, then that person’s unfamiliarity with the setting can inject additional danger, misunderstandings, or even comedy into your story beyond what oppositional characters will bring. It enables you to present setting details to readers as your hero discovers them. This process of ongoing discovery and observation can allow you to avoid awkward information dumps that might otherwise stall story progress.

As an example, let’s consider the vintage film, Crocodile Dundee. It begins in the Australian outback, where civilization is basic and the setting is full of natural dangers. Dundee is an intrinsic part of the setting. He’s comfortable with poisonous snakes and vicious crocodiles. He knows how to survive in the brush. The girl, however, is a fish out of water. She’s in physical danger constantly because she doesn’t know the pitfalls to watch for and avoid. Halfway through the film, however, the setting shifts to New York City. Now the girl is comfortable with her urban setting, but Dundee becomes the fish out of water. His bewilderment and subsequent solutions inject comedy into the story. I might add that he adapts very quickly to his new environment–thus characterizing himself further.

Let’s also think about how a character is shaped by the place where she grew up. Let’s say she was kept isolated from others, home schooled, and lived on a remote sheep ranch in New Zealand. Those factors will affect in turn her personality, behavior, and reactions. She may be very self-reliant, independent, and resourceful. She may feel uneasy in social situations, avoid parties or crowds of people, and be a difficult co-worker. Conversely, she may move to the other extreme by seeking city life and parties. She may be a profligate spender to compensate for all the things she thinks she missed while growing up.

Children of military parents learn they’ll be uprooted every year or two. They aren’t going to form deep, close-knit friendships at school, but they may become gregarious and socialized enough to make friends anywhere. They can become highly adaptable people, or they may hate the constant moving and never feel like they belong.

If a character currently lives in a harsh desert climate, then does he ignore his environment by planting a lush lawn similar to what he knew in a different part of the world and irrigating it? Does he run an air conditioner lavishly? Or does he work with his setting by staying indoors during the hottest part of the day, never driving anywhere without a thermos of water, closing the house during the day and opening all the windows at night when the air is cooler, and foregoing a lawn? Such details alone don’t make a story, but if–for example–the plot deals with a runaway senior citizen suffering from dementia who has wandered into the brush away from all roads, then a desert-savvy protagonist will know to start the search at dawn, to find tracks in the sand and follow them, to carry plenty of water and a weapon in case he encounters rabid wildlife, and that he must find Granny before the intense noonday heat gives her sunstroke or she becomes dangerously dehydrated. The search alone is pitting man against the adversity of nature. Adversity alone doesn’t make a compelling novel. But if you add the brother that typically ignores desert conditions as stated above but who insists on joining the search, now your story can run on the conflict between brothers as one grimly notes how time is running out while the other complains constantly, slows down the hunt by doing the wrong things, and drinks all the water in their canteens.

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Setting & Character

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.)

 

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