The Sexy Unsung Hero

Characters? Everybody loves them. They sweep on stage, grab your attention, and demand the spotlight.

Plot? It’s right up there with character, stealing the show, swishing around with twists and turns, dipping, soaring, and making you zip through the pages.

But the silent partner in the performance, the floorboards, the rafters, and even the music that makes plot and character shine is the one I want to talk about today. The silent partner doesn’t get to take a lot of bows or many times even take any credit, but without it, character and plot would trip all over their feet, fall flat, forget their lines, and say stupid things.  Heck, they would stop breathing altogether.

The humble partner I am talking about is

setting.

See? It doesn’t even ask for a capital S.

I get questions all the time about the characters in my books. And a plenty of questions, too, about plot. But only the occasional question about setting which is, perhaps, how it should be. But setting is such a crucial element for a writer as they write a story. Until I get a bead on the setting, I can’t move forward; my characters speak in stilted language because the setting is part of them and it is like I don’t have all the vocabulary of their world yet.

With one of my books, I got lucky—the character and setting spoke to me in unison. I saw an image of a tired, run-down house and a girl who was equally as spent and I knew their worlds were entwined. But later I did make careful choices, choosing a small town in Texas. The enormous setting of Texas emphasizing how small and alone she was in a vast landscape, while the small town life echoed her limited options and the suffocating effects of her family situation.

With my next book, the physical setting didn’t come as readily. I knew it would be set fifty years in the future, but I didn’t want a slick futuristic feel to it. I wanted texture and a certain earthiness so that it wouldn’t feel so far removed from our present world. I wanted the reader to recognize it even if it was from a future time. So I chose a rural setting and used real landmarks to anchor it. I even reached back a few hundred years for one of the settings to emphasize continuity of time. The world may change but some things are constant. So I chose the Mission San Luis Rey as one of the key settings.

With my most recent book, I did get one of those rare questions about setting. An interviewer said they had a hard time pinning down a definite time and place for the story and they asked if that was deliberate. Yes! As I explained to her, as much as possible, I wanted to create a surreal setting so the reader wasn’t sure if they were standing on terra firma or not, or at the very least, they weren’t sure what world they had stepped into. So in this case, I tried to make the setting to double duty in the atmosphere department and create a certain cognitive dissonance in the reader. The setting supported the odd twists in plot and the unreliability of the character.

I think sometimes setting is almost relegated to the grab bag of afterthoughts when it comes to describing it, but setting is what makes the characters and plot come alive. It creates atmosphere that the reader can share. It reveals who the character is and how they came to be that person. It supports and pushes events so things happen. It is metaphor and motivation, and often even the janitor too, swishing its mop across the stage long after the performance has ended and you are still in your seat and don’t want to leave. The setting is the last to leave your memory. You may forget the character or just exactly what was at stake, but you will always remember the where, the heat on your back, the rain on your cheeks, the dark hallways, the soil beneath your feet, the colors of happiness and despair. It was China, it was Alaska, it was frightening, it was dark, it was stifling, it was cluttered, dusty, and hot. It smelled of roses, cider, and decay.

Years ago before I was published I attended a conference and heard Newbery Award-winner Karen Hesse speak about setting and describe how it made our characters real, “giving them a floor to walk on and air to breathe.” This insight seemed like such a light touch, a whisper even, and yet so monumental, too. These words resonated with me and gave me a new respect for setting. It wasn’t the boring endless descriptions I remembered from assigned reading in high school, but a delicate and essential part of character and plot.

I think we all appreciate setting, but maybe in much the same way we appreciate gravity. We don’t think a lot about it, but we would sure notice if it weren’t there. Even when I am talking about books I’ve just read, I will jump on the who and what of the story before the where. So here, I would like to give some shout-outs to setting.

The novel, Funny How Things Change by Melissa Wyatt, is set in contemporary West Virginia, and in just a few spare, beautifully written sentences the setting tells us about character, plot, and motivation.  “All around them, the late June air hung so sultry, Remy couldn’t tell it from his own hot, damp skin. No breeze moved the leaves and the only sound was the drone of insects, and somewhere not far enough away, the shuddering impact of blasting. Remy flinched, turning his head instinctively. The top of another mountain–another lush green haven like this one–was going down to fast and dirty mining methods.”  In this story, the character and setting or so closely entwined there couldn’t be one without the other. The setting, in essence, almost becomes its own character.

The same is true for the Printz Award-winning novel, The White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughrean. I was surprised when, at her award acceptance speech, she said she had never been to the Antarctic wilderness. Her descriptions were not only vivid, but the details also perfectly revealed the heart of the character. On first seeing the Antarctic, Sym says, “That empty, featureless plateau, rising up and up to high-altitude nothingness with no feature fixing at its center–it mesmerized me. The idea of it took me in thrall. It was so empty, so blank, so clean, so dead. Surely, if I was ever to set foot down there, even I might finally exist. Surely, in this Continent of Nothingness, anything–anyone–had to be hugely alive by comparison!”

Elizabeth George, in her book on writing, Write Away, says, “Through a character’s environment, you show who he is.”  That’s what setting does, it shows rather than tells.

Another book where I was surprised that the author had never actually been to where the book was set was David Macinnis Gill’s Soul Enchilada. Set in El Paso, Texas, the character and plot seem inseparable from the setting. They all support each other to make them even more memorable. But it is more than just the physical setting of El Paso that seeps into you, it is the carefully chosen details of the main character’s world and how she views it that reveal who she is. Making her living at delivering pizzas, Bug describes her route, “There were cacti and yucca . . . and rattlesnakes the size of a double gordo burrito. At night, though, the road transformed into something different. The hot winds blew, snow fell in high elevations, and you could see the whole Borderlands. On a clear night, the city lights of the Paso and Juarez burned like your own personal Milky Way.” Which is very revealing as to why she keeps the crappy, low paying job in the first place. This detail in the setting reveals a world of limitless boundaries in stark contrast to the one that has limited her options.

One of my favorite books from last year had a setting that wouldn’t quit. From the first word to the last, What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy Blundell, used setting to reveal character and move the story forward. Describing her family’s “vacation”  in Florida, Evie says, “Tall palm trees marched down a row, taller than any palms I’d seen so far. Or maybe they just seemed that way because they were rich palm trees, the way I thought of Humphrey Bogart as handsome just because he was a movie star. I knew we were headed toward the ocean because I could smell it. And then there it was, still blue against the lavender sky. The houses that lined the road were as big as hotels. They were painted in the colors of summer dresses, pink and yellow and cream.”  I can still feel the swish of crinoline, the heat of Palm Beach, see the blinding pastels of a bygone era, and feel the heavy contrast of these cheerful colors against a dark secret.

I could go on and on about more books, The Possibilities of Sainthood by Donna Frietas, or The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, and so many others where the setting is still with me, making the characters stick to me, too. And I have mostly just talked about setting in the macro, not the micro, where each scene has new details that give the character and plot a stage on which to spread out and show off their stuff.

So, why is setting sexy? Easy. It gives us chills one minute and leaves us hot in the next, makes our blood race, our heart pound,  and it leaves us breathless. That’s more than you could expect a lot of  heartthrobs to do.

So now it’s your turn. Tell me about a setting from a book that you’ll never forget. It doesn’t have to be a place on a map. Maybe it’s a room that is lit just so, or the shabby interior of a car, or a loud, crowded train station, or a moment on a dark starry night where every subtle breeze, chirp, and silence made the character and story come to life.

Tell me about a setting that has stuck with you.


Mary E. Pearson is the author of five novels for teens, most recently, The Miles Between just out in September, and newly out in paperback, The Adoration of Jenna Fox which has been optioned by 20th Century Fox for a major motion picture and translated into thirteen languages, both from Henry Holt Books.

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