Jul 30 2010 11:27am

City as Character

She’s one of fiction’s most famous enchantresses—capricious and charismatic, capable of breaking the heart and enriching the spirit. She demands her place as the center of attention, the axis around which a writer’s world spins, the protagonist in any web of fiction a writer might weave.

Spend all the time you like on goals, conflict and motivation. Build worlds and populate them with vivid characters doing heart-rending, world-saving things. But if you set your urban fantasy—or any other fiction—in New Orleans, prepare to welcome the Crescent City as a character in her own right. She will demand it.

With her history of voodoo and pirates, yellow fever and heat-fueled violence, insular populations and their perpetual juxtaposition of poverty and opulence, New Orleans has been home to a Who’s Who of classic Southern authors: William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Lillian Hellmann, Truman Capote—they’re only a few on this mind-boggling list. Long before Anne Rice laid one of the cornerstones of the modern vampire/urban fantasy empire, authors linked New Orleans with the paranormal, the vampire, the loup-garou, the ghost of the infamous Madame LaLaurie, the cities of the dead.

One of my favorite stories is of an early twentieth-century construction crew that went into an old New Orleans dowager of a mansion, planning to refurbish it for a new owner after years of neglect. In an upstairs bedroom, hidden in a cache beneath the floorboards, was a human skull placed atop two crossed human femurs—a “real” Jolly Roger, believed to protect one against vampires.

How can any writer of the paranormal resist New Orleans, I ask you?

Urban fantasies are, by definition, set in real locations, places where we live and work and, if we peer into the right corner, where we might come across some stranger-than-usual citizens or a portal into an alternate world. Yet, strangely, few make deep use of their settings. Jim Butcher drops in enough Chicago spots to ground his series, and Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series needs its setting in Washington State, with its rich Native American history and geography, to make us feel as if we’re in the middle of Mercy’s world.

Some of the biggest urban fantasy series, however, use location as more of a prop than a character. Would anything really change if one plucked Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake from St. Louis and moved her business to Toledo? Would Kim Harrison’s alternate version of Cincinnati work as well if Rachel Morgan were chasing demons through an alternate version of Louisville? Even Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse series, which feels well-placed in its imaginary town near Shreveport, Louisiana, is more generically Southern than uniquely Louisianan. (Not so the HBO adaptation True Blood, but that’s a subject for another day.) The settings provide a general feel, a subtle ambience that doesn’t appreciably affect the story or its direction. That’s not a bad thing, just a curious thing.

Which brings us back to New Orleans. Whether because writers fall in love with it or because some paranormal spirit implants pods in the brain of any author who wanders too close, New Orleans is never just a placeholder. There’s nothing subtle about her.

A journalist once wrote that only five cities in the United States were truly unique. Only five where, if you were dropped blindfolded into their midst, you’d automatically know your location. I don’t remember the order, but the list included New York, Boston, San Antonio and Washington, D.C.

And New Orleans. Which is the beauty and curse of using NOLA as a setting. People know New Orleans, or they think they do, and they feel strongly about it. It’s either the coolest, eeriest, most wonderful city in the world—or it’s a hotbed of evil and sin and stupidity (because who would build a city below sea level anyway?).

People who’ve lived in NOLA have heard it all. They are proprietary and weary of bad portrayals of silly accents, mangled vernacular, marginally sane characters, and bizarre clichés. (Locals still make merciless ridicule of the accents in “The Big Easy” a quarter-century after the Dennis Quaid movie hit the theaters.) New Orleanians, and fans of the City That Care Forgot, love their city with a passion usually reserved only for other people.

Which is why an urban fantasy set in New Orleans has to get it right because the city WILL be a character, like it or not. A story set in NOLA can’t be lifted and plopped down in Los Angeles. Bury your story in cliché and careless geography, and your story will be lost. But give New Orleans a starring role—well, at least a co-starring role—and she’ll love you forever.

Think about your own favorite urban fantasies (or other fiction)—who do you think makes good use of setting as character? And is using a distinctive setting like New Orleans effective or distracting?

Photo by And all that Malarkey

A longtime New Orleans resident and veteran journalist, Suzanne Johnson writes urban and rural fantasy and spends too much time on Facebook. Her book Royal Street, scheduled for release in April 2012 by Tor Books, has the gall to be set in New Orleans, which plays a starring role.

This article is part of Paranormal Romance and Urban Fantasy Month: ‹ previous | index | next ›
1. CounterDax
As someone who lived in New Orleans, including through the Katrina aftermath, before moving back to the old world, I get annoyed by people writing mostly about the French Quarter, about goth kids, gutter punks, the tarot readers on Jackson Square... or, nowadays, about people living in Treme. There are other fascinating neighborhoods in New Orleans such as Bayou St. John, the Marigny, the Garden Districts, Uptown, University Area, etc. It's a charming city were normal people live together with rather eccentric types, all trying to make a normal living, spend time with their families, etc. Most fiction make it seem like New Orleans is either all depression, all partying, or all gothic magick.

I guess the last time someone really used New Orleans as a character doing it justice is in Confederacy of Dunces. I know it's age-old, but a lot of that New Orleans still survives in the city this day.
2. Katrina C
Wonderful post, Suzanne. You made me want to go back and revisit New Orleans, and you made me eager for Royal Street to come out! What a perfect setting for an urban fantasy.

When I was studying lit at UCLA, I took a class on spies and detectives. Of course, we had to read The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler, and I remember thinking it was a book that couldn't have been set anywhere other than LA. I made the same point that you just made - LA is more than a setting; it's a character.

Novels rarely pull that off, I think, but when they do they can make you yearn for a place. You may never be able to meet a book's human characters in real life, but you can meet a book's city character.
Suzanne Johnson
3. SuzanneJohnson
CounterDax--You're so right! I think it's gotten worse since Katrina, too. New Orleans is so much more than the decadence of the Quarter (mostly tourists) and the devastation of Treme or the Lower Nine but those make good sound-bites. I'm waiting for something on Broadmoor or the Marigny. My books are set in Uptown and Lakeview. "Confederacy of Dunces" will always be the quintessential New Orleans book.

Kat--"The Big Sleep" is a good analogy, and I can think of several films, especially, that captured Los Angeles like that. San Francisco is another city that tends to take on character status in books.
Rachel Hyland
4. RachelHyland
Thank you, Suzanne, what a beautifully written and wonderfully evocative post! I've never been to New Orleans, and know it only through it's prominence in literature, but this gave me a real feeling of proprietary interest in this most Urban Fantasy-friendly of cities. Also, you're very right: there are few modern urban settings that are absolutely integral to a story, and your town in assuredly one of them.

And now I'm heading back up the page to read your post again...
5. Sharon Hamilton
I once was in NOLA for a convention and took a torchlight vampire tour. The city is a personality, and I've felt it every time I've visited. And like any personality, there are many facets to it.
Our tour guide I'm sure took advantage of the wide-eyed tourists huddled together, not wanting to get lost in an unfamiliar dark place at midnight. I'm sure some of the stories he told were of his own creation, but it didn't mar the experience for me. My favorite was a locked upper floor building that used to be a convent he claimed no one had entered in about 200 years.
Even San Francisco, a city I know well, wouldn't hold so many fascinating secrets.
Thank you.
6. Dawn McClure
Great post, Suzanne. :) New Orleans is one of the few places I have yet to visit, and your blog makes me want to set a date to go see it soon. :)

It's funny. I've been sitting here thinking about the UF/Paranormal books I've read in the past, and I can't recall the setting of most. Kenyon's Dark Hunter series takes place in New Orleans. And though I love love love JR Ward, for the life of me I can't remember where the BDB call home.

Like you said, the Sookie series is Southern, but I couldn't recall which state.

Very interesting blog post. :)
7. SuzanneJohnson
Thanks for the comments, guys! Rachel and Dawn--you have to visit NOLA! But go between October 15 and November 10. I'm not kidding. The weather is perfect and it's the only time of year the humidity drops below 100%!

Sharon, I've been on one of those vampire tours as well--and some of the ghost tours. Who knows how many of those stories are real--they're probably embellished a lot--but the ambience fits really well.

Oh, and Dawn. You know how I love the Black Dagger Brotherhood. I only know the setting is Caldwell, N.Y., upper NY State, because I just finished the most recent one. The setting is irrelevant in those stories, though.
8. blueworld
How about "Interview With A Vampire?" It's mostly set in a historical New Orleans.
Rachel Hyland
9. RachelHyland
Dawn @ 6 and Suzanne @ 7

Oh, I dunno, Caldwell, NY is to the BDB what Sunnydale, CA was to Buffy... the setting is important because the town is fictional and therefore obeys the rules of its creator; it's imbued with all the character and personality that the exigencies of that particular series require it to possess.

The difference between Caldwell, Sunnydale, Fell's Church, Broken Heart or any other made up UF or PR town and the city under discussion is that no one could have invented New Orleans; it comes to us fully grown with character and personality already built in. J.R. Ward and others like her mess around in their own playgrounds; any author setting their story in New Orleans is frolicking in one that effectively belongs to a lot of other people, and so woe betide them should they mistreat her. (Like I said, I've never been there, but I've read enough Anne Rice, James Lee Burke and Poppy Z. Brite to know when something in a book feels wrong.)
10. SuzanneJohnson
blueword--You're right! Anne Rice's vampire novels began the whole modern vampire era, IMHO, and certainly used New Orleans as a character and set up all the NOLA-based paranormal fiction that came after it. It was an amazing series, although DON'T get me starting the casting of the movie--LOL.

You make a really good point, Rachel, in differentiating between the fictional towns like Caldwell, N.Y., or Bon Temps, La. (for the Sookie Stackhouse series)--those are essentially new worlds built for their respective series, as opposed to working a series into an existing world. There are a whole different set of rules when a real setting is used.
11. Foxessa
Having lived in New Orleans and studied and still study its history intensively and professionally, I wish that people wouldn't set so many New Orleans novels and movies in Storyville, using the same characters every time, or at least name-dropping them, from Buddy Bolden to Ernest J. Bellocq. As if there wasn't any other period in New Orleans's history that matters or is of interest. I also wish that there was a moritorium of putting 'Blues' and / or 'Jazz' in the titles of anything! Of anything, unless the work is, you know, actually music in those modes.

The best recent historical novel, comparatively speaking, even though it was published in the 20th century (1979), was Anne Rice's Feast of All Saints. The 2001 cable television miniseries was also good, though for some reason it was shot in Ontario!!!!!! not New Orleans. The trees and flowers, that lack of the heat and humidity haze that characterizes New Orleans in summer, the
buildings' architecture entirely missing the influence of Spain in what is supposed to be the Quarter, the streets, everything screams to any viewer who knows anything, that this is not only not New Orleans, it's not even in the U.S. South.

Barbara Hambly's series about a free man of color is set in the same general era as Rice's novel. Hers are the next best novels set in New Orleans, to my taste.

But my very favorite fiction of New Orleans and Louisiana is George Washington Cable's work in the 1880's, which harks back also to that 1830's and 1840's era. In some quarters still of the New Orleans Old Guards, he remains excoriated as a traitor to the South and his people.

A little earlier Lafcadio Hearn was prowling about New Orleans and writing about it for national and local publications. After that he went to Martinque, and then, finally to Japan, for which subject matter as a writer he continues to be famous.

New Orleans produces many writers -- as well as fine artists of all kinds. Music tends to overshadow this in terms of national consciousness

Love, C. who has just returned from New Orleans where her husband cut and mixed a record, "Kiss You Down South," forthcoming May 2011.
12. C.J. Ellisson
Excellent points you all have made. And it makes me yearn to see NOLA with all my heart. My husband was lucky enough to go back in his early twenties and I'm looking forward to the time we can go together and see not only the touristy-spots, but all the cool places I'll be reading in Suzanne's book when it comes out!
13. SuzanneJohnson
Foxessa/C--I love to read the old writings by Lafcadio Hearn and GW Cable, too. "Feast of All Saints" was a great book--hadn't thought about that one in a few years. I think I remember reading the film was made in Canada because it was cheaper than filming in NOLA, which is a shame since the city is so integral to the book.

I'm ready for a trip back to NOLA too, CJ--I'm so homesick!
14. wandering-dreamer
YES, there are so many books where I read them and go "so WHY are the characters in some made-up little town where the author has given nary a thought to the setting?" ("why is this in NYC?" also pops up often since so many books seem to be set there). Wish more people would put more thought into their settings.
Ashe Armstrong
15. AsheSaoirse
While I'm not focusing on NOLA here, creating a setting that is a character in its own right is extremely important. On deviantart, a group I'm a member of just did a Gothicness of Setting workshop wherein the assignment was creating a setting and fleshing it out, using the pillars of gothic literature and around 1000 words. There were several excellent entries, including an anachronistic house in a cyberpunk future, an retirement home and, not to sound egotistical, my setting of a desert town. It was a really fun workshop and stressed the importance of setting.
16. blueworld
@SuzanneJohnson @ Foxessa yes, I think Anne Rice does a great job with New Orleans. You can tell that she's lived there.

I think writers should be careful when using settings that are real places, but places they haven't spent significant amounts of time. I've lived in the northwest all my life, so I would feel fine writing a story set in Forks, WA. I'm familiar with the culture of small ex-logging towns. Stephanie Meyer had never been there when she picked it as her setting for Twilight. Doesn't that seem like a mistake?
17. SuzanneJohnson
blueworld & wanderingdreamer--it's a hard thing for an author to write about a place he or she doesn't know. Interesting to hear Stephanie Meyer was so "off" about Washington. I remember reading a book (I'll not say what) set in New Orleans after Katrina, and throwing it against the wall several times because it was so off-the-mark. I finally looked up the author and found he lived in Wales. So maybe that was the Welsh version of New Orleans--sure wasn't the one I was living in after Katrina!

AsheSaoirse --that sounds like a great workshop. I agree authors miss adding a whole dimension to writing by not making more use of their settings. LOL. I love "gothicness of setting." That's a great title/description.
Leigh Butler
18. leighdb
Just wanted to say, as someone who grew up in New Orleans and still considers it her spiritual home despite all the years I've lived elsewhere, thank you.

New Orleans is unique unto itself, in every way. There's something about walking through the streets and breathing the heavy scented air that feels like dancing and celebration even when there's no one there. Even the decay and run-downness of it has a peculiar charm. Every time I go home, I find an excuse to just drive around and watch the graceful live oaks cracking the sidewalks and overhanging wrought-iron balconies, and listen to random music everywhere, and stop for shrimp po-boys and Zapp's chips and Abita root beer, and I fall in love all over again.

I tell people there's a rule: you have to go to New Orleans once before you die. It is a VERY SERIOUS RULE. If you are in violation, you need to fix it. I'm not kidding. Get on that, would you? You won't regret it, I promise.
19. Foxessa
So many genre writers don't get NYC right because they've never lived here. Particularly in graphic novels.

The HBO Treme production and writing team have done everything to get New Orleans in that period right. Mostly, people in New Orleans congratulate them on very well they've done. But then, Simon, Overmeyer -- and Burns, who died close to the end of shooting the first season -- have spent enormous amounts of time in New Orleans; several of the writers were born and live there, as are the cast, whether actors or musicians.

For me character comes from landscape, i.e. location, and also 'voice.' Character, voice and place are the holy trinity for fiction, one and undivided, un-separable. At least for me.

Love, C.
20. shel99
I have never been to NOLA and don't know much about it besides what I see on the media - but regarding other unique cities, I have to tell you that I've been a Boston resident for 15 years and I absolutely *love* Margaret Ronald's Evie Scanlan novels - they are true Boston books, she's nailed it. Also Neal Stephenson's Zodiac.
22. SuzanneJohnson
leighdb--I agree! Everyone should go at least once.

Foxessa-The "Treme" crew has done a great job. New Orleans is such a complex city with so many distinctive neighborhoods no single series could ever capture the whole experience, but they do an amazing job with the Treme/Upper Ninth feel.

Shel99--I love Boston! I have never lived there, but talk about character :-) I'll have to check out the Evie Scanlan novels.
23. CounterDax
@Foxessa (11): Ah yes, Lafcadio Hearn, he married a girl from an ancient samurai family in Matsue, only lived there for several months before moving on (I believe to Kyoto) but even now, the city is completely in love with him. The old-fashioned street lights are adorned with banners honoring Hearn and the museum is such a lovely, tiny, venue of adoration for this author. It's amazing to see.

But back to New Orleans. French Quarter Fiction, an anthology edited by the uberfriendly Joshua Clark, though set mostly in, as the name implies, the Quarter, has some amazing stories by locals such as Andrei Codrescu and Poppy Z. Brite. It's a nice addition to any bookshelf.

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