“The setting is like a character.” It’s a strange phrase, when you think about it, but it’s one I hear increasingly often in workshop. And so lately I’ve been wondering what people really mean by this, for setting to be “like a character.” As far as I can ascertain, it comes down to subverting our expectation that characters are dynamic and setting is stagnant. When setting becomes dynamic, it becomes alive, and perhaps we call it character to connote this aliveness.
If we borrow the theatrical term, setting is a “backdrop:” something not intended to take any precedence, something that just hangs there. So when we say that the setting is like a character, it is with the same sort of wonder we might feel if a backdrop came alive and joined the action of a show.
Much like backdrop, the word setting limits itself. We think of jello setting in a mold, ossifying unappetizingly. Or the sun setting, escorting us into the sleepy dark. Nothing in our concept of setting invokes dynamism, complexity, or surprise: the things we crave in fiction.
What happens when we ask ourselves: where should I set my story? We imagine a story as a physical object that we carry delicately in our hands, as if it were a china teacup, until we find a suitable place to set it down. But stories are not teacups.
Take two people breaking up. Let’s say they still love each other, but one wants a family and the other wants to travel the world, and neither is willing to give it up for love. We set their story on a park bench in view of a sandbox where a child is giggling, and suddenly, we’re telling a story about what could have been but won’t be. But if we set their story in a bar with a bustling dance floor, we’ve got a story about possibility. (Of course, these are horrendously obvious examples.)
And it isn’t just objective setting that dictates story (in the way that the story of my day would have been different if I’d gone to the Cape instead of sitting on my couch). The subjective settings matter, too; setting isn’t place, it is place filtered through bias and consciousness. It’s not just park versus bar. It’s whether the child in the park looks docile and cherubic, or if her face is covered in crusted peanut butter and boogers and she’s hitting another kid with her plastic shovel. Whether the lighting in the bar is red and makes everyone look a little mean, or if candle flames are reflecting seductively off glasses of merlot.
A writing teacher I once had gave an exercise in which we were tasked with describing a placid lakeside afternoon through the point of view of someone whose son had just died. Rather than reproduce my atrocious attempt here, I’ll borrow a passage from Carson McCullers’ The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (one of my favorite Southern novels) that accomplishes something similar.
“He stared morosely out of his window. A stunted, smoke-blackened tree at the corner had put out new leaves of a bilious green. The sky was always a deep, hard blue. The mosquitoes from a fetid stream that ran through this part of town buzzed in the room.” Here, a budding tree in the Springtime, normally a quintessential symbol of renewal, invokes the color of bile instead. That’s the way with loneliness; it can find hopelessness anywhere. This is setting-as-character, setting that seems to say something and feel something.
As easily as dynamic setting can transform beauty into ugliness, it can do the reverse. In “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Joyce Carol Oates writes that “They went up through the maze of parked and cruising cars to the bright-lit, fly-infested restaurant, their faces pleased and expectant as if they were entering a sacred building that loomed up out of the night to give them what haven and blessing they yearned for.”
It’s this subjectivity that can make a setting seem “like a character.” Settings feel alive when they’re stained with interpretation, the tinge of humanity itself.
Sometimes, in the part of the South where my novel takes place, old women tell you to come and “set a spell.” They mean “sit for awhile,” but the substitution is appropriate. To “set” is to be still. Of course we want our stories to feel grounded, and to have roots. But of course it isn’t stillness that we want from fiction. What we want is to be moved.