Character’s Relationship with His Setting

Meg
Moseley is still a Californian at heart although she’s lived more than half her
life in other states. Holding jobs that ranged from candle-maker to
administrative assistant, Meg eventually contributed human-interest columns for
a suburban edition of the Atlanta
Journal-Constitution
. Contemporary fiction remains her real love. The
author of When Sparrows Fall, she
lives in Atlanta near the foothills of the Southern Appalachians with her
husband.

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South
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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.
Gone South
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.