Setting, As Important As Characters?

HPIM1710Once again, I’m going to draw on one of my favourite blogs for inspiration, but with my own twist.

Writers need to constantly be concerned with characters. How they come across, their quirks, their habits, their history and so on. Sometimes a well-written character  can carry a stumbling plot. We readers can spot a flimsy characters three chapters off, can’t we?

But how many of us, readers and writers alike, have considered the setting as a character unto itself?

I hadn’t even considered it until I read the latest blog post over at Women and Words, in which R.G Emanuelle discusses The Soul of A Character

It got me thinking about the setting of the pieces I’ve written, and the settings of my favourite novels and short stories. I love reading about places I know, but it’s getting harder to find fiction set in Ontario, let alone set in Canada in general. Before I get too lost in wondering why that is, let me take this one step further.

I think readers enjoy reading about places they know because these places are familiar, they already have a presence and a reality in the reader’s mind. I’ve only stumbled across a few pieces set in Northern Ontario, but the few I have, set the tone perfectly. In particular, Crow Lake

The setting was bleak, sparse, full of memory but promise as well.

The setting worked for this novel because the overall theme of the book was memory, tragedy and struggle. The setting became, really, the only logical backdrop for this story. It just made sense to me, as both a reader and a writer.

As a reader, the book never left me, and I read it back in 2011. As a writer, it never left me because of that setting, because it was set in a familiar part of my home province and because the story was that good that I’ve been haunted by it ever since.

So as a writer, I am conscious of how to make a setting so vivid that it becomes nearly a character itself. As a reader, I want a backdrop that will be both real and yet not take away from the story.

It’s a fine dance, and when done well can leave a lasting impact.

What settings in novels or short fiction has left an impact on you?

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Our Make Believe Friends & Enemies

writerthreatOver at one of my favorite blogs this morning, Women and Words, Jordan Redhawk discussed what inspired some of her characters, and as a reader, I found the whole post to be fascinating. Seriously, what reader hasn’t wondered how an author came up with their characters?

It was always easy for me to imagine how Annie in Misery came into being.

Dar Roberts in the Tropical Storm series? Sure, I totally understood the inspiration for her. I’d still like to know how the author, Melissa (Missy) Good came up with Dar’s mother, though. Ceci is as cool a character as her daughter.

(It occurs to me that in this day and age, I could just tweet Missy and ask…)

So while I took the dog outside to do his business, I tried to keep my mind off the cold by evaluating what had inspired my own characters.

In my ‘Lies We Tell Ourselves’ (a novel-in-progress), one of the secondary characters is a-not-quite-elderly-yet Scottish woman who is head housekeeper of a large mansion. She is so much more than just a housekeeper though. Confidant, advisor, employee and friend to Bree Donovan. Originally, I envisioned a Mrs. Doubtfire, but with a bit of Dame Maggie Smith rolled in. As the chapters progressed, Mrs. Beverly Vaughan gained a life of her own.

In my current obsession, (I am a manic writer at the best of times) ‘The Amethyst Teardrop’, the protagonist is a woman full of layers, strengths, weaknesses and idiosyncrasies. She is very much me, and yet, not.

She looks nothing like me at all, or anyone I have known. She is not built upon a character from television, but rather, a woman I dreamed about once. The fact that April has a lot of my habits is purely circumstantial. (Roll eyes here)

But her experiences, her past, her life is entirely her own. Her employment when we meet her is another story. I’ve done that job. Lived it and breathed it for long enough that I understood it in my pores.

No research necessary there.

A secondary character from the same novel, Marie, the store’s ghost, is absolutely 100% from the store I used to work. There was a “story” that someone had died very close to the store, and as a result, her spirit inhabited the store. She was rumored to be helpful at times, restless at others, and if she did not like one of the staff, they knew about it rather quickly. I spent many closing shifts at that store, and I’m not ashamed to say that I believe the story wasn’t so much fiction as many claimed.

In fact, it was that ghost that prompted not only Marie’s character, but the whole story!

My boss at the time would always tell me I needed to write down some of the things that happened, the place was rife with inspiration for short stories.

When I started The Amethyst Teardrop, I intended it to be a short story with a supernatural twist. When chapter one was finished, there was so much more story to tell…I just went with what Marie and April whispered in my ear. The story grew and became the story of April’s and Lani’s love affair, and one of my favorite pieces among all my works.

So it goes to show you that inspiration can be found in the most unlikely of places.

Even a little corner store.