This post first appeared in Seekerville on May 2, 2011.
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 its 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?
Today we’re talking about how a setting can become a character in its own right. Have its own goal, motivation and conflict. (well, almost!)
In the Kincaid Brides series the backdrop is a fictionalized Carlsbad Cavern. I had this book in my head for years before I started typing it and from the first the cavern was the real lure for me because of a trip I took there that just awakened all my creative juices.
The cavern came before the characters and the plot. I wanted it to dominate the whole book. In the end, due to Seth’s somewhat tenuous grasp on sanity, I gave the cavern a voice and even an agenda. The cavern was no easy-going secondary character.
The cavern 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 cavern made it EASY to ramp up the tension. I'd just have someone fall through a collapsing floor if I needed to stir up trouble. It wasn't even a stretch. NOT falling into a bottomless pit is the main occupation of my characters any time they went into the cavern.
The character of Carlsbad Cavern gave the book it’s feel, it’s limits, and it provided a fair amount of the action and drama. What I wanted to capture was the staggering beauty and the deadly danger.
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 lives.
So that place is personified as a villain in the story, but also a heroic character in its majesty.
How about 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 its 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.
Think of Oz. So beautiful and fanciful, so charming--right up until they released the flying monkeys. All we want in the end is to go home, because, there's no place like home.
Today I’m giving away a copy of my Christmas ebook Candlelight Christmas. To get your name in the drawing, think for a bit about setting as a character. In your own book or in a book you’ve read.
Toss some ideas at me and we can talk about how to ramp up your setting to make it come alive. To make it a person.