Friday, April 17, 2015

When a Place Becomes a Character

 The places where stories happen matter, and not just because a story has to occur in something other than the ether - unless you are writing that kind of steampunk/Victorian thing. Setting becomes a character when it evokes a feeling in the reader. It becomes an active character when the setting foreshadows or foretells events. Setting can mirror events - the photo to the right is Pike Place Market - a setting I used in Bound by Ink. It's a cramped, claustrophobic place to meet a serial killer, don't you think? It was a great mirror for the tension in the scene - and that the ramp slops down, possibly into hell, foreshadows a few things that crop up later in that story.
The other option is to have the setting contrast the story action and/or the protagonist's mood. Looking at this photo of one of the lovingly restored Victorian homes in Port Townsend, WA, you can see either a beautiful old home, or a frightening, likely haunted, old mausoleum. It entirely depends on your protagonist's frame of mind - which is another great point. Setting is brilliant not just because you get to flex your descriptive muscle in the prose, but because it is a glimpse into the depths of your characters' states of mind. The protagonist and the antagonist aren't likely to see this pretty blue sky and roofline the same way if the house is the antagonist's mad scientist lair. All the sharp wrought iron will look menacing to whoever is being dragged into the  house while bound in chains. The person doing the dragging may be whistling a cheery tune because he adores how well constructed this old house is - no one can hear his victims scream! It's charming!
When you visit a place, any place, and you have an emotional response - good or bad - take a picture. Always take a picture. Even if you take terrible photos - you're storing up not just setting options - you're storing up those emotions. Your aim is to look at something like this rock formation in Ohio and recall what you felt while you were there. If you can do that, chances are you can capture that feeling on the page for your characters when you need it. (In my case, it was 'OMG, I'm looking at the passage of x number of years per layer of rock and that is the coolest thing EVER.' Yes. I'm a dork.)

This photo at left is an old gun battery emplacement in Port Townsend, WA. Fort Warden State Park. Can you not see the zombies shambling up that dirt and grass track toward you? Fine, sunny day. Warm concrete. The undead approach and you go cold. Maybe that's the other reason to take photos of places that evoke a powerful response in you - they suggest their own stories. And when that happens, it's a really good indication that the setting in question IS alive and stepping forward to help drive a character and a story.

Setting matters, but only so much as it evokes emotion, drives characters, and/or moves the plot in some fashion. The fastest and easiest way to get those things is to use a setting that already moves you. Unless you write scifi. Then please. No attempting to breathe vacuum.

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