Personification is a big, old, mean word. It means simply, giving an inanimate object a personality.
The razor sharp knife gleamed with evil intent.
Well, no, the knife has no emotions, no goal to accomplish evil.
The storm clouds growled of the coming danger.
Nope, coming rain maybe, but any menace beyond weather (like a tornado!) is all projected by whoever is watching the cloud. A storm has no goal except to dump it's load of water.
The hinges on the haunted house screamed like a tormented soul and promised death to all who entered.
Nope. The hinges just need some WD-40, but where's the fun in that?
Cara had a terrific post last week on Setting. The Importance of Setting
And for her Ladies of Summerhill series, the backdrop of The Gilded Age sets the stage for all the characters and determines much of what they do--or rather the proper behavior for the time and place, within those restrictions they have plenty of freedom to be individuals. Anyway, I've tried to not go over that again, though her post is well connected to mine.
Instead, I'll talk about how a setting can become a character in its own right. Have its own goal, motivation and conflict. (well, almost!)
Deep Trouble (stay tuned for how to get your name in a drawing for a signed copy) the backdrop is the Grand Canyon.
I started out just thinking that'd be fun.
But the canyon immediately put restrictions on the story I'd write. Like a character will sometimes not behave as the author wishes, the canyon was no easy-going secondary character.
If I wanted to set my book in the Grand Canyon I had to deal with the limited access to the bottom. The lack of water, the treacherous trails, the heat, the cliffs.
The canyon became a dominant factor in every choice I made.
You know how I always say, if you've got a sagging spot in your book, shoot somebody?
Well, the canyon made it EASY to ramp up the tension. I'd just have someone fall over a cliff. It wasn't even a stretch. NOT falling over a cliff is the main occupation of anyone going into the Grand Canyon.
I'll mention here the main books I used for research. I'd like to talk about all of them more but I think that's a blog post all its own.
I ended up using three constantly. Hiking Grand Canyon National Park, a Falcon Guide. True North Series : Your Guide to the Grand Canyon—A Different Perspective, by Tom Vail, Michael Oard, Dennis Bokovoy and John Hergenrather. And finally The Man Who Walked Through Time by Collin Fletcher.
The lure and the terror.
I wanted to pit these against each other in the characters' minds and send them on a journey where they are constantly struck with awe at the beauty and forced to fight for their lifes.
So that place is personified as a villain in the story, but also a heroic character in it's majesty. I could have focused on one or the other. Made the Grand Canyon the villain or the hero, I chose to do both.
But in a book like Rebecca, "Last night I dreamed I went to Manderlay again." That house-Manderlay was the menacing presence of the hero's first wife. Any gothic novel worth it's salt as a spooky old house, usually remote. Usually with a murderer roaming the halls.
Another beautifully realized setting as character is that sweet small town with the ugly racial struggles in To Kill a Mockingbird. This is a good example of the good vs evil of a setting. Rocking on the front porch, when the lynch mob shows up.
Never has a setting been so fully realized as the villain than that space ship on 2001 a Space Odyssey. But because the space ship actually talked and took action, it really went beyond personification and became a fully realized character.