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Saturday, 5 November 2016

Characterised Setting

I promised in a previous post (Opening a Story) that I would post a discussion about the necessity and importance of characters and setting in writing. Therefore, I present to you a post on the interaction between characters and setting. Or as I call it, characterised setting.

I recently had a discussion with a friend about what it is that truly drives the best novels. Or for that matter the best television shows or films. In short, the question was 'what element or ingredient are readers and viewers truly looking for?' He argued that it is characters that drive the core of the story - that readers want to meet the main character in the opening chapter (hence my removal of the prologue from my novel) and form that emotional attachment. I argued that the setting of the novel - the world and its rules were equally as important.

The argument for the importance of Character

Popular works of fiction all feature fantastic character dynamics. Think about the last time you watched a film, or read a book that lacked any kind of important relationship between characters. The Lord of the Rings becomes less interesting without the members of the fellowship. Sherlock is nothing without a relationship with Watson. Iron Man is merely Tony Stark without Jarvis or the Avengers to bounce-off. Batman again is simply Bruce Wayne, and a boring incarnation of the character without Alfred or Robin and so on and so forth.

The following image, from helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com details five important character archetypes in stories. A later post trims this to three necessary characters - the protagonist, antagonist and relationship character. I would argue therefore that a strong story opening would introduce one of these three key characters - either the antagonist or protagonist preferably. Or even both. Another post over at thewritepractice.com argues that the clown archetype is also crucial for comic relief and humour.


The argument for setting

Without characters there is nothing propelling the story. The story I would argue is the most essential aspect of any novel. Without characters to propel a story, there is no point to running a storyline. So lacking characters, or worse: writing weak or boring characters is a cardinal sin for writers. However, I would argue it is not enough to simply have characters. They need a setting to frame them and provide dilemmas. They need a world in which they can develop and thrive.

Well-written characters in a dull, poorly-written setting would be akin to buying tropical fish and placing them on display in a simple fish tank. In other situations it could be more similar to putting beautiful fish into a dirty tank where no one can see them. So ideally you want to create an atmospheric setting in which your characters thrive.

Therefore, picking the right setting is crucial for your story. If you are trying to create a futuristic science fiction novel then picking a 1920s setting is not necessarily the best choice. Unless of course you are trying to create a futuristic novel set in a 1920s-esque world. However, my point is that the setting you choose needs to fit with your novel's aim. 

To state it firmer: your setting is purposeless unless it is contributing to the story. If you are intending to write a sappy, romantic fairytale then creating a dark, gothic castle setting will not provide your audience emotions which are light, airy and delightful. The tone that a writer designates for their setting will contribute directly to the mood in which the audience receives that world.

Characterised Setting

My argument is not that character or setting are by themselves more important. I argue that they are crucial together. My favourite fictional worlds are littered with characters that I have emotionally invested in. My favourite characters adorn fascinating worlds. The two, I believe, must rest hand in hand.

Some authors choose to begin a story focusing on their setting and elaborately crafting it in order to drive their characters. Others focus on their characters to drive the setting. In and of themselves either method may work. 

Either option, I believe, is only a mistake if in the process the novelist loses sight of the story they are telling and by extension lose their audience. The number one purpose of any writer must be to maintain the focus on their central ideas that they are communicating and to remember who their audience are. Once an author loses sight of that purpose and audience, they lose sight of the reason to write in the beginning.

Hence why I am attempting to wrap my ideas into one concept I consider 'characterised setting.' Whereby the novelist creates a setting which is as defined by its characters as the characters are defined by their setting. It is a concept in which writing must become more organic and flow - rather than purely remaining a stagnant art. 

I have drawn this conclusion from personal experience. I considered the notion that there are some elements which are unique to every individual - were I born in Southern Africa it is likely I would still have a passion for storytelling for example. However, would I necessarily have the same love for English novels, for films and for sports unique to my area of the world? I doubt it. There are some aspects of my character - particular, peculiar passions and desires - that have been honed by my location and the worldview formed by that location.

The writer must, therefore, strive to balance how their setting is defined by the characters they have created. They must also balance how the characters are defined by the setting. A failure to do this is a failure to create honestly written work. Instead, readers will sense that the characters do not fit into their surroundings or that the surroundings do not match the characters and the suppression of disbelief will fade.

The process of characterising setting

How does the author do this however? It is a process I am still practising myself. However, I believe strongly that as all writing stems from ideas (from thinking, and editing those thoughts) that the creation of appropriate characters and settings must likewise stem from a process of careful editing. The writer must choose particular key adjectives and adverbs (where appropriate) to convey strong emotions about their character and then link the cause of those emotions to the world around the character. And conversely, to be able to choose whether to describe a castle as merely 'haunting', 'gloomy' or 'shadowed with the souls of its former masters' to appropriately create an image of how the setting will appear.

There is an art to writing that can only be met once the writer has achieved their goal. There is a fine balance between seeking to be descriptive and creating vivid images, or merely being prescriptive in the use of exposition. There is also a balance between attempting to create characters who readers emotionally envision as real and trying to write in a manner which follows realistic patterns. How many dialogues in novels follow the same halting, awkward patterns as everyday human speech?

In essence, the true skill of writing is in being able to mentally work out methods of tying words together to express varying emotions in the reader. The article From Fables to Facebook discusses that, "It seems, therefore, that narrative language and literary techniques can stimulate the entire brain, which is why storytelling can make us feel alive, as if we’re really in the action. This thorough mental immersion shows that our brain, at least, doesn’t make much distinction between reading about something and actually experiencing it." Words have power, the skill of being a writer is in being able to use that power effectively.