Can the Setting Be a Character in the Story?

The setting of a book should not be static, a mere backdrop for the story, but should have personality, emotions, strengths, weaknesses, scars, and moods. At least that’s what books on writing tell us.

In my previous novels, I tried to make the settings necessary to the stories, to show how they couldn’t have happened anywhere else in exactly the same way. Because my stories all take place in Colorado, by the very fact of geography, mountains play a part if only to shadow the humans living at their foot.

My current work in progress is different in that the world changes constantly. The mountains are always there giving my hero a reference point, but cities change to plains and plains change to seas. My hero has to try to come to terms with his constantly changing environment, which creates most of the conflict for the first part of the story. Because of this, I’m wondering if I can turn the environment into a character. It would certainly make the first part stronger because during much of it the hero is alone. It would give the book an entirely new dimension. And it would be a challenge for me.

Despite its changeability, though, the environment doesn’t want anything, so I’m not certain it can be a character. Doesn’t a character have to be dynamic with its own wants and needs? Even if it is possible for an environment to be a character, can I create one that has wants and needs without my anthropomorphizing it? Maybe the environment, like my hero, wants to be left alone. Maybe, the environment, also like my hero, stoically endures what is happening to it. But how would I show this from only my hero’s point of view?

I remember discussions in literature classes about those very things, and I didn’t get it. No matter how dramatic a setting was and how much it influenced the characters, it still always seemed to me to be static. Yet here I am, trying to put something more into my setting than perhaps needs to be there.

The only thing to do, I suppose, is keep all this in the back of my mind as I am writing, and if I can make the setting more alive, do so. If not, leave well enough alone. The story is already developing too many depths for what was supposed to be a silly little tale.

Creating a Character — Part III

To be real, a character must have strengths and weaknesses. I have been creating a profile for Chip, the hero of my work in progress, and I know some of his strengths: he is independent, can cope with adversity, has high ethical standards. The only weakness I know about so far is that he is distrustful of women, which women see as a failure to commit.

Strengths and weaknesses are arbitrary. Independence can become an inability to depend on others, an ability to cope can be seen as indifference, high ethical standards can become intransigency. Which is great for the book: the resulting misunderstandings can cause conflicts among characters and the plot or subplots to thicken.

I can already see that Chip’s high ethical standards and principles will be a driving force in the story. He is a vegetarian and an animal lover who will be forced to kill to feed those dependent on him. His independence, exemplified by a need for freedom, is also at stake. He will be forced to decide how much of his freedom he is willing to give up for safety, and how much of his safety he is willing to give up for freedom.

So far, I haven’t been able to come up with a special strength or weakness that would set Chip apart from any other character, but since plot and character are so closely related, this may not be a bad thing. It does no good to assign a special strength or weakness to a character if it is not going to be tested during the story, and I don’t want to Chip to be constrained by a particular trait before he even begins his adventures. If he needs a special strength, I will write it in when necessary. The great thing about writing is that we are not stuck with what is past. We can always go back and recreate it to answer present needs.

Wouldn’t it be interesting if life outside the pages of our novels worked that way?