How are characters integral to the setting?

I often troll my site statistics, curious as to how people found this blog, and the other day, several people landed here after Googling “How are characters integral to the setting?” It sounds like they were taking the easy way out doing their homework, but still, it’s a very good question. If the setting is simply a place for events to unfold, then the author has missed out on an opportunity to tighten the story by making the characters an integral part of the setting and the setting an integral part of characterization. Everything should be in service to the story, including the setting.

In my novel, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, the setting and characters are intertwined. The setting is Colorado in the midst of an epidemic. The story is driven by the women, all very ordinary, especially Kate. And that was the point — to tell a story of an ordinary woman who struggled during prosperous times when everyone else was doing well, but who managed to prosper in the dark times when everyone else was having difficulties. Without the epidemic, without the quarantine, without the very terrain of Colorado, Kate would have no being. And without Kate and the other characters, the setting would have no meaning.

Eudora Welty said, “Every story would be another story, and unrecognizable if it took up its characters and plot and happened somewhere else.” Most of my books are set in mountain climes, and the mountains create the characters and the characters complete the setting. A stage is empty and lifeless without the characters. You need characters to interact with the setting to make it come alive.

Think of a desolate area, such as a desert road. It evokes a feeling of loneliness, but if you put a character on that road, you personify the loneliness.

The setting/character relationship is not simply a story construct. We are integral to our settings and vice versa. Gardening and lawn care is one very obvious way we are integral to our settings. If not for gardeners, gardens would not exist. But the settings of our lives extend beyond such evident comparisons.

I used to live off a highway on a dead end road bounded by fenced alfalfa fields, so the only place I could walk was by trudging up and down that .3 mile road. This was indicative of my life at the time. My life mate/soul mate was dying, had been dying for a long time, we were stuck in a terribe situation that seemed to be going nowhere.

He is gone out of my life now, and so are the interminable laps on the short road. I left that place of constraints and came to this desert community to take care of my 95-year-old father. When I first got here, I walked the long straight roads in the nearby desert. They seemed indicative of my new life — emptiness and desolation and loneliness stretching endlessly before me. More recently, I’ve taken to hiking a narrow path up and over the knolls. This too is indicative of my life. The desolation isn’t as pronounced, but the challenges are becoming greater as it sinks it that I will always live with his absence, that I will be growing old alone. The true challenge, though, is to make room for joy along with the continued sadness.

I’ve come to see that this is the true purpose of grief — to stretch our minds, souls, psyches so that we can encompass all that life has to offer. At first I thought I could get over my grief. Then I thought I could bury it with new activities. Now I see that sorrow will always be a part of me, but that doesn’t mean it will be the only part of me. Nor will I always be here in the desert. There will be new places to walk, places that reflect the changing me at the same time as I reflect the places.

How are your characters (or you) integral to the setting?

3 Responses to “How are characters integral to the setting?”

  1. ROD MARSDEN Says:

    In my own writing I often hark back to the places that I loved in my youth and I still love. In real life they keep me going as much as the people who live there or have lived there.

    I remember an old woman who lived in a house on the road into Yamba, a northern NSW fishing village. She kept bees and sold honey. Unlike honey that comes from a forrest area, this was beach honey. No doubt made from the pollen of flowers that grow along the coast, especially the white flowing succulants that smell sweet, this beach honey was special. It wasn’t dark and heavy like forrest honey. It was light and spread like sunshine on a slice of buttered tank loaf.

    For some years, this old woman and her honey were a part of being up north on holiday. She was friendly and I think she enjoyed the fact that people loved the honey her bees made. No doubt this woman has passed on by now but the memory of her and her honey lingers on.

    I have put a mention of this wonderous honey in my new book Desk Job which will be coming out this year. Surf, sun and honey. There was little talk of spas where I grew up but this particular formula was good for my health and it still is. Mind you, I will always prefer beach honey over forrest honey, especially if it comes from Yamba.

    Of course if there had been no old woman there might have been no appreciation of beach honey and my vacations up north would have been the poorer for it. Hence she was an integral part of her own setting and she remains a part of my memories of the people I knew and what made them special.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      What a wonderful story, and a perfect illustration of a character being integral to the setting. And now you have me hungry for beach honey. I never had any, but it has such an evocative sound, as if the sun and surf are part of the sweetness.

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