Friday, February 15, 2013

Setting the Stage

I am part of a small group of Champagne and Burst authors who are planning a day of fun on the LRC board this coming May 3rd. It will be a chat all about imaginary worlds and why some prefer those over the one of everyday life. This has got me thinking. Just what is setting, and where does it fit in the grand scheme of a story?

As a fantasy writer, I can appreciate a particular pitfall with a made up world: writer-beward the pull of worldbuilding! It's so wonderful to have your own world of imagination, a world that has no bound and is waiting to be created, but a writer needs a sober reminder that a story is about a conflict, and a conflict is about characters. Settings give the conflicts a place to happen, but the conflicts don't happen just for the settings.

Or so I think.

Someone out there is probably waiting to throw J.R.R. Tolkien at me, the man who spent his life developing a language then realized he needed a people to speak it - hence the creation of Middle-Earth, the struggles of the Valar and the Eldar and mortal men. That's one case where an element of setting led to the creation of characters and conflict. True. But, that being said, it's not the wonderful languages of Sindarin and Quenya, nor is it the shadowed glades of Mirkwood or homy Hobbit holes that made Lord of the Rings a smashing hit. What would that tale be without the One Ring? without the Dark Lord bending his will to reclaim it while two Hobbits risk their lives to give hope to those who desire freedom and the simple, good things of life?

There is it: whether setting creates plot or plot creates setting, plot is the golden nugget in the middle of it all. Settings can be rich and wonderful, fantastic, exotic and compelling, an author can detail and sketch oodles and oodles of things to help him or her know the various settings of their story, but when the action's unfolding, it's the characters the readers are focused on. That dark alley with the black cat watching from behind a shattered window pane matters only because the character is seeing it. I don't care if the cat is black or if the window is shattered, but if there's tension in the air, a black cat's more foreboding than a white one, and a shattered window has a certain hint of danger that an in tact one does not.

A fellow author once said to me, "Setting can be thought of as it's own character." That comment has bothered me ever since he said it, but, as I slowly lay down the words of my current novel, I realize what he meant. The setting is not so important one should treat it like a main character, but it's not so unimportant that one should treat it like an impromptu assembly of props either. It belongs in a class of it's own, a shadow-man (or woman), a thing with style and a life of it's own, a thing you get to know while you get to know the ones who cast it behind them as you follow their tale along the twists and turns of the unexpected.

Graeme Brown is a Winnipeg author and line editor for Champagne Books. He writes epic fantasy, with his first story, The Pact, due for release this May. He is a frequent blogger and a tweeter, and a full-time math student.


Liz Fountain said...

Graeme, your thoughts made me ask myself: "So which of my favorite authors is best at setting?" And I couldn't answer. Might that be because those authors who are truly skillful at using setting make their use of it almost invisible? That all we really notice is story - characters on their journeys - and the setting is so well done we take it as a given?

Just wondering!

Julie Eberhart Painter said...

Well put, Liz.

Browng34 said...

A great point, Liz!

I think that's a really good way to look at a good story. The characters are the centerpieces. The setting can be amazing and fascinating, but it is only so when the reader can experience it vividly through the senses and emotions of the characters.

I think of George R. R. Martin, by far my favorite author, who paints a setting in almost ever paragraph that makes me forget everything except my cup of coffee. Yet, it's the senses he invokes, the tastes, smells, visuals and sounds, the emotions they bring to the surface, that takes you there, makes you become that character, in that world. Thinking about it like that, we might view setting instead as a medium with which to anchor your reader in a story.