How Setting Affects Character
Often, particular settings evoke certain kinds of characters in the reader’s mind.
What type of character do you imagine living in a desert with tree cacti and armadillos? I’ll bet 100% of you picture a cowboy. He’s probably somewhere in his thirties, good looking though maybe a little scruffy, tall, reserved and polite to women. You might think of John Wayne, or Gary Cooper in High Noon.
I can almost guarantee a gray haired man in a suit carrying a briefcase won’t come to mind when we think of a hot, dry desert somewhere in the American West.
Readers have the same expectations. When we read a book, setting can be a predictor of character. Sometimes publishers give out ‘tip sheets’ so character and setting will ‘fit’ one another.
SETTING PREDESTINES CHARACTER
Setting often forms character in ways you can analyze and use in your stories. The type of topography, industry, incomes and opinions all influence the kind of people who live in a certain area. Even history makes a difference.
The people from Appalachia are a good example. Many of their ancestors emigrated from Northern Ireland and the border between England and Scotland. They led hardscrabble lives in Europe and learned how to survive in harsh lands against political and military forces that were often hostile. In America, many settled in mountainous regions where circumstances were as difficult as they’d been in their original countries. These were strong, hardy people who valued individualism and were skeptical of government in both Europe and America. Their background and history helped them adapt to a new country.
When you begin a story, determine the setting for your character. It’ll help define the kind of character you’ll create.
Readers quickly doubt story people who seem out of tune with their setting.
PROTOTYPES AND STEREOTYPES
Be aware of the type of characters expected in particular genres. For example, Miss Marple fits in with her village setting perfectly.
This is a picture of Lower Slaughter, an English village in the Cotswolds, where my husband’s family originally came from.
Observe real people and then draw up a “setting list” for your character.
If I asked you to describe a typical surgeon you might say he’s gray haired, middle aged and distinguished. You might place him in a large, urban hospital.
Surgeons work in big city hospitals.
They work long hours and like their work.
They tend to live in large suburban houses.
They come from well-educated family backgrounds.
Most love their work.
They drive expensive cars.
He sounds too typical to me. He’s stereotypical and possibly/probably a bit boring for a fiction hero.
Obviously, not all surgeons fit this description.
Some are women.
Some work in clinics in rural communities.
She might live in an inner-city apartment and take the subway to work.
If she resides in the country, she might drive a jeeps or other rugged SUV.
She could be young and still paying for her education through scholarships and loans because her family was poor or middle class.
Who interests you the most? Who seems most credible?
If you can, spend some time following a real surgeon around her working environment.
The point is, take a good look at the setting you want to use and grow characters out of it. A woman surgeon in rural New Mexico can be equally as believable as a male surgeon in New York.
Whether you create your character first and your setting second, or vice versa, remember to make them fit together.
CASTING AGAINST SETTING
If you don’t mind taking a risk, create a character and put him in a setting where he won’t automatically fit in. Do you remember Northern Exposure? Dr. Fleishman, a Jewish doctor from New York City, was transplanted to Alaska. He was definitely cast against his setting. This creates surprise and contrast and can lead to conflict. Since he doesn’t fit his setting, he has continual and comedic problems.
Transplanting a character can work, especially in a comedy. But sometimes it doesn’t. Can you imagine transplanting Scarlett O’Hara from the Old South to the North? Do you think this would be a good or a bad idea?
American missionaries in a foreign land is also a good example of casting against setting. They’d encounter all kinds of culture shock.
USING SETTING TO CHANGE A CHARACTER
A writer can consciously change her setting to effect change within a character. The easiest way is to move the story person to a new setting. If you want the character to change, show her noticing the differences between the old and the new setting and make her react to it. The change can be as simple as changing neighborhoods or as great as moving to a foreign country with differences in topography, climate, language, food, music, social and moral values, culture.
At the beginning of Gone with the Wind, Scarlett O’Hara is a beautiful but spoiled southern belle. War changes her. In order to survive and take care of her home and family, she rolls up her sleeves and gets to work. Although it’s hard at first, she accepts her world has changed. She adapts. Eventually she learns she has a head for business. She’s a survivor like Rhett.
Rhett Butler has no problem adjusting to the changes caused by war. He becomes a gunrunner and even thrives and becomes prosperous. No matter what the circumstances (excluding love) he ends up doing well.
Ashley Wilkes wasn’t totally comfortable in the Old South and he certainly didn’t adapt to the new world of Reconstruction. He was brave but he didn’t conquer his situation and use it for the benefit of himself and his family, IMHO. He couldn’t move on with his life like Scarlett and Rhett did.
Think about how you want the character change.
I’ve been watching Indian Summers on Masterpiece. It takes place in 1930s when India was still controlled by the British. You can see how the Brits don’t want to lose their English identity and assimilate into Indian culture. The program shows how both groups of people interact with each other. They love, they rebel and they clash, often because of such differences in culture and power. The setting (an occupied country) and dissimilar peoples create lots of great conflict.
The writer has to decide which kind of change within the present setting will jar the character into changing something in his character. War is a great example of this. Some people rise to the occasion, others fall apart.
To push a story person into changing character, you can change the setting completely or make changes in the present setting. Or you can leave the setting essentially the same but have the character notice differences he never noticed before. Then you show how he changes because of the setting he’s in.
Can you think of any more changes in character that come about because of setting?
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Cara Lynn James joined Myra Johnson and Sandra Leesmith in writing Love Will Find a Way, a collection of three novellas. In Staging a Romance by Cara Lynn, a home stager Jenna Carlyle meets businessman Nate McKenzie who is trying to sell his family camp in Connecticut. They slowly fall in love while attempting to find a solution to their career issues which threaten to keep the apart.