Much thanks to Kathi for starting up this blog for BSB!!
I had previously answered her questions about using setting as character in my own blog, but I’m crossposting it here by request (with a few edits for anyone who might not be familiar with my blog & books.)
I want to know more about using setting as a character. How hard is it to do? When does an author choose to go this route?
This is actually something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately while plotting out the sequel to my first book, Sword of the Guardian. The ongoing story arc of this romantic fantasy series is driven almost entirely by the war between the gods, and the consequent division of the land into two very different kingdoms. My ultimate master plan (haha) is to show how, through the events of the Ithyria novels, the land and people — and the gods themselves — are able to restore unity to a thousand-year rift.
This means I’ve been thinking a lot about the world of the Ithyria series in terms of being its own malleable character that needs to develop as the plot progresses. Like a character, the world has a complicated and emotionally-charged backstory, and political, cultural and spiritual personality quirks that need to evolve in order to reach resolution. Like a character, different parts of the world set different moods and provide for different interactions. Some events simply can’t take place if they’re not set in a specific part of the world, since neither of the gods can extend their powers very far into the other’s territory (a fact that actually plays a very BIG part in my current project, Prayer of the Handmaiden.)
As a romance series, each Ithyria book focuses on the story of a different lesbian couple. But though the leading characters in each book change, always in the background as a sort of silent third-wheel is the world that molds them all, and that they in turn mold for those who will come after them.
Is it hard? HECK YES. There are so many questions that I have to find a satisfying and sensible answer to before I can move forward. Sometimes the answer I come up with then undoes some other part of the story I had planned, and I have to go back and figure out how to make them mesh. I have to be as true to the setting as I am to the other characters or the trust that’s built with the reader will fall apart. And as I’m currently still floundering around in that development stage I have to admit I’m finding it particularly difficult. But, thinking of the setting as a character in and of itself also feels very… organic, I guess. It’s this treatment that adds depth to plot, that connects the characters and books to each other, that allows the background story arc to progress in a way that (hopefully) keeps the reader in that “willing suspension of disbelief” that Coleridge so aptly described, and which we all know is the only way a person can actually enjoy speculative fiction.
Ultimately I believe every story’s setting functions as a character, whether intentionally or not. It’s pretty much unavoidable, really. Many things that can happen in Ithyria probably could not happen in modern day NYC. The way something goes down in a swamp is probably going to differ quite a bit from they way it would happen in a desert. Night offers different possibilities than day; so does winter from summer. A setting’s unique qualities inform the scene, affect the characters, impact the development of the plot. So it’s not so much a question of whether to use setting as a character as it is how that characterization is going to get handled. And just as characters have varying degrees of promininence, it seems to me that setting doesn’t necessarily always have to be a lead role, either… just so long as its power isn’t overlooked!