As I performed my research for this article, an idea came to me I should have visualized long ago. That is, setting serves as much more than a mere vehicle to cement my readers in the time and place within my story. It is a psychological force upon my characters. In contemporary writing, setting stands as an influence that acts upon the characters.
Readers now know that in life, environment is part of what molds one’s personality and their background is among the many factors that help to shape who he is. Further, they understand one’s choices in life indicate the “real” person within. It’s psychology 101. Therefore, the successful author will use setting as an indicator of personality.
To put this in perspective, consider these examples. We’ve all known someone who drove a red convertible and someone else who drove a used Pinto. Without doubt, these people possessed differing personalities. With this in mind, consider how a murdered parent might push the child toward a life or good or evil. Will a coonskin cap show a wanderer’s proclivity to the hunter’s life? Will the slums of Elizabethan England act upon the street rat to make him a thief. How might an American woman be influenced if a book was set in a Muslim nation? All these aspects of setting play upon the personality and mind of the characters.
How might a writer go about presenting setting as a psychological force? I see it in subplots. In my current manuscript, my hero’s parents are murdered when he is a child. This event then determines his choice of careers. Further, this subplot takes him to places in the world he would never otherwise visit and force him to commit actions he would never consider had he not become an orphan. Further, I wanted to use a pocket watch as a subplot. My hero purchases this when he is a young man with the idea he would bequeath it to his firstborn son at the appropriate time. He never has children. What happens to the pocket watch? It becomes a symbol of those unrealized aspects to his life.
All this behooves the author to look at his setting as even more authentic, more realistic than ever before. Readers will pillory an author for these kinds of errors, so a thin setting is no longer acceptable. Caution and adequate research is necessary, now more than ever.
Setting is more than place and time. It’s a power that creates your characters and influences their lives. Get to know your setting as you would your main characters and your novel will be the better for it.
Until we meet again, I wish you only best-sellers.
C. Patrick Schulze