Writing advice, publication opportunities, and thoughts on books, language, and life from Donna Volkenannt, winner of the Erma Bombeck Humor Award. Donna believes great stories begin in a writer's imagination and touch a reader's heart.
Monday, February 6, 2017
Dixon Hearne on "Setting as Character"
I'm pleased today to have acclaimed author Dixon Hearne as my guest blogger to speak about "Setting as Character." His works have been published widely, with his most recent, Delta Flats, published by Amphorae Publishing Group.
Photo courtesy of author
Dixon Hearne (photo on left) is the author of three recent books: Delta Flats: Stories in the Key of Blues and Hope (nominee, 2017 PEN/Faulkner Award) and From Tickfaw to Shongaloo (Second-Place, 2014 William Faulkner Novella competition),both set in Louisiana, and Plainspeak: New and Collected Poems. His website is dixonhearne.com
Setting as Character
discovered that my own little postage
stamp of native soil was worth writing about and that I would never live
long enough to exhaust it. ~William Faulkner
Beginning writers are often told: “Write about what you know.”
Consequently, many of their first writings center on where they live and the
people in their orbit. Once they have the basic elements of fiction (plot,
character, setting, theme, and style), they typically feel more comfortable
trying their hand at various genres. Fiction offers particularly rich ground
for cultivating possibilities. Setting alone presents unlimited opportunity for
More than Backdrop (physical, social milieu)
Setting must be as well fleshed out as any other character,
by the use of specific and telling details. It can't be selected on a whim,
with no purpose in mind; but it must feed into the story~Elizabeth George
is replete with examples of places imbued with human qualities—beyond mere
personification, symbolism, or metaphor. Consider, for example, the
characterization of the moors in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights—a dark, brooding entity, ominous and
ever-present, more than simply a literary device to set the tone of the story.
also Scarlett’s Tara, more than mere symbol of strength and security. It
beckons, nourishes, influences. She views Tara as a living entity—revels and
wallows in its splendor, its spell. It is friend, healer, guardian angel.
Similarly, Anne Shirley imbues Green Gables with life and joy-giving.
of “setting as character” can be found in any number of novels and in noir
films set in New York City, New Orleans, London, and other places alive with
their own personas—where setting speaks to the reader/viewer, sets the tone/mood
of the story, and exerts influence and control over characters and plot. Place
is carefully developed into an unforgettable part of the story. Nowhere are
examples more clear and abundant than gothic tales and horror movies set in
haunted places, settings portrayed as living entities that act and react with
writers seem particularly adept at featuring setting as character in fiction—from
Dorothy Allison (Carolina) to Tennessee Williams (New Orleans) to James Lee
Burke (swamps) to Faulkner (Yoknapatawpha County). Contemporary
“raw South” fiction typifies the impulse of many southern writers to interweave
place with other characters in their stories. Authors like David Armand
(southeast Louisiana, The Gorge),
Daren Dean (rural Missouri, Far Beyond
the Pale), and Skip Horack (Gulf South, The
Southern Cross) create settings well beyond the dimensions of mere time and
place. They bring place to life.
from my own writing:
of my stories spring from a single image, a place in my head. I almost
immediately step back and consider how place might affect my characters. They
are often powerful images, like a cabin porch in fallow fields, as in my short
story “This Side of Canaan.” A sweat-drenched couple and their ragged children
peeking through the doorway complete the picture, tell the story.
is central to my comic novella From Tickfaw to Shongaloo.
Stokely, a Southern town, reflects universal themes and motives and actions. The
dialect immediately identifies the geographical setting. We get to know the
town as more than a place—its identity is inextricably tied up with its interactions
with townspeople. Place is paramount in the story.
Photo courtesy of author
Flats: Stories in the Key of Blues and Hope is about place as well as characters. In
some cases, place is featured as a character itself, as in “Crescent City Blues,”
which conjures images of decadence and a general atmosphere of laissez
les bon temps rouler.
“Waves wash upon its muddy banks
like the incessant beating of the Crescent City’s heart. Like eternal applause
for the drama, with all its shadowy plots and subplots, unfolding in the
decadent world of the French Quarter. No one escapes its influence, New
Orleans. One might curse or spurn or dismiss it with the contempt of a
religious zealot, but deny it—no. It floats like an island unto itself, a world
shaped by half a millennium of vibrant tenancy.”
Native Voices, Native Lands brings landscapes of
the Southwest and the central plains to life in story and poem. Indeed, many
native Americans believe that the earth and its constituent natural parts
(land, rivers, mountains, etc.) have souls. They write eloquently of waters and
tribal lands as living entities.
Place as Character
crafting a story that will feature setting/place as a character, one might
consider the following:
How does a writer bring
life to a setting—complete with mood, motive, and emotions?
How can the senses be used
to add dimension and shape the character of the setting?
does a writer introduce deliberate conflict and interaction between other characters
and setting to create a believable entity. Like any other character, setting
can cause problems or trouble for the protagonist(s).
what motives a place might have as a character in the story. What is to be
gained or lost? Use that to help develop a persona.
a list of words that capture conflict, mood, atmosphere, and setting. Carefully
selected words add dimension and layers to place as character.
yourself as the place in the story. What do you see, feel, hear, smell? What
might your own actions/reactions be?
careful attention to language and detail.
importantly, read other stories—many stories—that feature setting/place as
Thank you, Dixon for your wisdom and advice, and congratulations on your many accomplishments.