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Making the most of a character’s relationship with his setting
I’ll never forget this classic advice from Donald Maass: Make it worse. If you want to hook your reader, ramp up your story’s tension by making things worse for your protagonist. Don’t let her get too comfy.
For a long time, I focused almost exclusively on plot events to add tension and conflict. I would dream up twists and turns. Action. Disasters and mini-disasters, preferably stemming from the character’s choices. Those are all good and necessary in the right doses, but lately I’ve realized that a story’s setting can be a very helpful tool in the “Make it worse” toolbox.
Let’s differentiate between small-picture settings (a cornfield, a boudoir, or a cantina) and big-picture settings (Nebraska in 2014, Paris in 1910, or the planet Tattooine). Although small-picture settings can also offer plenty of challenges for your characters, the big-picture setting can be fertile ground for story-size conflicts and tension.
Consider the wealth of material you’re given to work with in a story’s setting. Setting is more than time and place. It includes the social context or culture of the story as well as physical factors like climate, landscape, and the flora and fauna of the area. Combined with your other story elements, the setting can be a dynamic power that exerts pressure on your character and changes him.
At the same time, your character can and should affect the setting too. It goes both ways, and it may vary greatly depending on your character’s relationship with the setting.
Has he been there for a long time? Is he a native son? A contented native son or one who’s desperate to leave? Is he a critic of this place or is he one of its defenders?
Or is he an inmate of his setting? A character doesn’t have to be locked up in a literal prison to be a prisoner. He could be trapped in an abusive relationship, a rigid belief system, or a miserable job.
Or maybe your character is a newcomer to your setting. What kind of newcomer is she? Is she there on business, with no emotional connection to the place so far? Or is she a refugee who’s grateful to have escaped a worse place?
Maybe she’s an invader instead. An invader might change the setting more than the setting changes her. An example of this is Tish McComb, the protagonist of Gone South. A Michigander who moves to a small town in Alabama, Tish soon realizes she’s not exactly welcome there because the locals see her as one of those know-it-all Yankees. When she tackles the problem, she becomes a catalyst for change in the town.
Half the fun of writing the story was seeing the locals from Tish’s perspective and seeing her from theirs. Their opinions were decidedly different because each character had a different way of experiencing and processing the world they lived in.
Part of a character’s point-of-view may be dependent on his role in the story’s setting: native son, invader, or prisoner, for instance. He will perceive everything through his very individual POV, not strictly through the physical senses but also through his emotional filters. The reader will be influenced too, as he identifies with the character, so a character’s POV is more than just his “camera angle.” It’s also the reader’s window into the story world and into the character’s heart as he faces new troubles at every turn.
Many, many elements go into a novel, but I love the interesting combinations that unfold when I play with setting, character, and POV. They’re inseparable and interrelated.
The big-picture setting is one of the most important decisions you’ll make for your character. It’s the world he’ll live in for several hundred pages, so you’ll want to be sure—before you’ve written forty thousand words—that it’s the most appropriate world for him. A world that gives you every opportunity to make things worse.
Leaving frosty Michigan for the Deep South was never a blip in the simple plans Tish McComb imagined for her life, dreams of marriage and family that were dashed five years earlier in a tragic accident. Now an opportunity to buy her great-great-great-grandparents’ Civil War era home beckons Tish to Noble, Alabama, a Southern town in every sense of the word. She wonders if God has given her a new dream— the old house filled with friends, her vintage percolator bubbling on the sideboard.
When Tish discovers that McCombs aren’t welcome in town, she feels like a Yankee behind enemy lines. Only local antiques dealer George Zorbas seems willing to give her a chance. What’s a lonely outcast to do but take in Noble’s resident prodigal, Melanie Hamilton, and hope that the two can find some much needed acceptance in each other.
Problem is, old habits die hard, and Mel is quite set in her destructive ways. With Melanie blocked from going home by her influential father, Tish must try to manage her incorrigible houseguest as she attempts to prove her own worth in a town that seems to have forgotten that every sinner needs God-given mercy, love and forgiveness.