The Character of Place

NOTE: I have included the entire text of a talk/workshop I gave on this subject. I realize it is a lot to sort through and will edit it in the future. In the meantime, you may just want to skim through the talk and get to the exercises at the bottom.


The Character of Place

While writing a novel, setting can be intimidating because we generally aren’t as trained in how to approach it creatively. Plot, character, dialogue, yes, but not so much setting. But, if you do not want to be responsible for your characters’ surroundings, you should write screenplays instead and let the set designers take care of all that. In your novel, you must be the set designer as well as the propmaster and the cinematographer.

Whether consciously or unconsciously, we are constantly interacting with our landscape. The things around us bring us happiness and joy, sadness and despair, comfort, stress, longing. When we walk into a new room – be it at a hotel or a friend’s house or a restaurant – we immediately scan and judge. Just look around you right now. How does this room make you feel – the colour, the temperature? Do the objects on your table remind you of anything? Trigger memories or emotions? Is your chair comfortable?

Object details bring life to your story. We must not ignore the objects around our characters, for the smallest object in our setting can be the seed of inspiration. There are myriad jumping in places for storytelling, and objects in your character’s purview can be a great place to start.

An author friend once said to me, “I don’t know how you create entire worlds from scratch; I’d much rather just do research for a story.”

Creating worlds, in my opinion, is its own kind of research. Information I didn’t know before suddenly appears. The source is the mine of the imagination, and the way to get there is by digging. If your shovel were a pen, that is.

Sometimes I’ll read a novel and enjoy the story, think the characters are interesting, but there’s still something missing. Sometimes I never get a sense of the larger world beyond the story, a sense of the history of things. Flora, fauna, and sacred objects become cardboard props added to the story out of necessity for a prop to exist in that place. Or the setting will be tacked up like a painting or backdrop, existing separately from the characters. To reel me into a world, the landscape and objects in it should have a presence. I want to get a sense I could arrive in that world and touch, smell, hear what has been created. I want my landscapes full of life, and to have a life beyond.

As part of my world-building practice, I keep a World Book with a lexicon of invented objects, flora, fauna, and other items. More often than not, I will write a backstory for each new creation that’s serving the story.

For instance, in Brigitta of the White Forest I needed a way for my heroine to get down from a mountain through a poisonous fog. I decided that there was a plant she could eat that would stave off the poison. But I was too curious to stop there.

Of course I wanted to know what the plant looked like, smelled like, and tasted like, but I also wanted to know how it got on that mountain, being a somewhat helpful and friendly plant in an unhelpful and unfriendly place.

My process of discovery is generally through the writing itself. I always tell my students that the best way to brainstorm is via pen on paper. If you don’t know what an object does or where it came from or what its properties are, discover it on the page. Thinking on the page is far more effective than trying to squeeze your brain for information. (If you were doing research on a subject you knew nothing about, you wouldn’t get it by scraping your brain cells together)

If I return to the mining metaphor for a moment, it’s like dumping a load of dirt down and sifting for the gems. I don’t wait to be inspired; I write – I dump that dirt – so that the gems of inspiration emerge.

Timed-writing exercises work best for me. So, regarding my need to know something more about the helpful poison-eating plant on Dead Mountain, I performed a timed writing exercise that started with the line Delia grass came to Dead Mountain when . . . and discovered, through this writing (!), the history of that plant. Eventually, my definition for it became this:

delia grass: Delia means faith. Delia was also the name of the High Sage from the continent of Storlglenn who created the grass before the Great World Cry [which sent the world into elemental chaos]. The only place it exists outside of Storlglenn is Dead Mountain, because Delia planted some in the castle garden while visiting hundreds of years before [back when it was known as Dragon Mountain]. The grass grows from a spell that allows the chewer of the grass to resist harm or to rapidly heal, but only if the chewer believes she will. It has no power if the chewer does not have faith in the magic of the grass.

Now, I could have simply had Brigitta learn about this plant from someone or something and left it at that. But investing in historical discovery (i.e. research) pays off in more than one way. First, even if I never use this plant or information in subsequent stories, just having this information brings a richness to the world. If I understand the plant in its larger context, and the many more invented objects and plants and animals in their larger contexts, especially how they are interconnected, then I understand my world and that creates a consistency, therefore believability, within it. I can tell you how each plant and animal and structure came to be on Dead Mountain and how they differ before and after the Great World Cry.

Just like in our world, these items are connected. We are not talking heads in a room or a forest. We move through space, interact with it, and respond to it. I simply figure out ways to connect my imaginary surroundings through histories. If you want to try an interesting writing exercise, sit down at your desk at home and write the history of the objects on it – I dare you to do this and not discover a story!

Inspiration is a bonus of thinking these things out on the page. As a matter of fact, it turned out that I liked my delia grass’s little history so much that I decided to use its story in a later book (a prequel). Maybe readers will remember the delia grass from Book One, maybe they won’t, but in connecting the details it makes the world a richer, more believable space.

As I mentioned, because all my workshops and seminars are process-oriented, and I always want my audiences to walk away with new tools, we are now going to experiment with a process together.

Close your eyes, hands in laps, feet planted on the floor. Take a deep breath (it should fill your belly when you do so) and blow it out.

Meditation on The History of Objects

Visualize yourself at your best, most focused writing. Put yourself in your ideal place to create. It doesn’t have to be in your current place, but it must feel real. Surround yourself with all the things you like to keep around you that make you feel writerly. Where is your desk? What is on your desk? Are there writing implements, an inbox, a coffee mug, a computer, a window, photographs of your family? What surrounds you? Put yourself there, working on your novel.

Now let’s say that one of the characters from your story comes into your space and picks up an object from your desk. What does he or she pick up? (say it out loud). Your character then asks you a question about it. What does he or she ask? How do you respond?

Your character puts the object away and says “Now let me show you something,” and from the folds of his or her clothes, pulls out a “sacred” object and places it on your desk in front of you. What is it that he or she put there?

When I say go, you will open your eyes, turn to your fresh piece of paper and write, without crossing off, without stopping to think or edit, just write. Let it go in the direction it wants to go, there is no right or wrong here, just writing. The start line is My character’s object sits on my desk like a… (4-5 minutes).

(Take a moment to share that experience with your table group.)

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If you do not create a world with which your characters can interact, then you will succumb to the cliché eyebrow raising, lip-biting, eye-rolling or widening to give your character something to do. We are all guilty of this.

When your characters are going about their dramas, ask yourself, what do I SEE on the movie screen of my mind? Where are they and what surrounds them? Ask yourself, how would this interaction change if I placed it somewhere else? Imagine two friends having a spat in the private space of a living room. Now place them in the produce section of a supermarket. Now place them on a roller coaster, or, as in the opening scene of Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist, driving in the rain, during which the tension of the exterior world enters and exacerbates the tension inside of the car. (in the movie it’s in a house I believe)

Setting can distract your characters, inspire your characters, upset your characters, or challenge your characters, as in the gritty urban landscape of China Mieville’s (me-AY-vill) Perdido Street Station in which getting across town is a complicated exercise of strategy and avoidance.

Other settings that come to mind: There’s the impossibly cavernous spaceship world of Beth Revis’s Across the Universe in which the main character wakes up to a place where nothing is familiar.

There’s the fabricated noir-ish Sitka, Alaska of Michael Chabon’s Yiddish Policemen’s Union with its mash-clash of cultures.

There’s Robin Hobb’s masterful dangerous and beautiful Rain Wilds in her Liveship Trader and Rain Wild series, an author who has managed to use the same world for multiple series.

And there’s the heart-wrenching cold island silence of ­­­­­­­David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars.

All of the landscapes I’ve mentioned above add a richness and uniqueness to each story and create relationships between the characters and their settings.

Rebecca Stead, author of When You Reach Me and Liar and Spy, has much to say about relationship with space, especially from a child’s point of view. Both stories mentioned above take place in New York. In an interview she explains:

I try to remember what it was like to be a kid in New York . . . for a kid, the city is a lot about relationships — maybe for kids more than for adults. I felt like even though New York is a really big city, your neighborhood is always going to feel a little bit like a small town . . . I like the idea of a world even within a big giant city where you’re not anonymous. You have an identity and that’s an identity that’s known just sort of by shopkeepers. I felt that as a kid, and I loved it.

Stead says as a kid in New York in the 70s she was independent from a young age and that kids knew these stores that were almost invisible to adults – like a little coin store where kids would go in and look at these old coins, and they had a relationship with the guy who worked there, and adults never even really registered that this store existed. She says there are “things that we see and things that we dismiss or ignore without even really having it happen on a conscious level.”

What I want you to consciously do, when you leave here and beyond, is look at your world on this conscious level that Stead speaks of. Walk around your house. What do you notice that you had simply blended into your personal landscape? Walk about your neighborhood, noticing the personalities of the houses and cars and trees. Look at your own landscape, your city, your suburb, and note any emotions that come up about this landscape. Notice the things around you that bring you small joys or small frustrations. And remember that sacred objects can tell us stories. A chip in a dish you received as a wedding gift or from your child can be a jumping off point as much as any character or plot idea.

  • World, Voice, and “Setting the Table”

    • Building your world through exposition. Like “setting the table” while the people seated there go about their dramas.
    • Exercise: What’s in the Room?

A few more creative tools for your box:

  • Draw maps (of streets, cities, countries, etc.)
  • Draw other structures. In my notebook I have drawings of the Hourglass of Protection, of the secret circle of stones in the dark forest, of the lakebed of the River That Runs Backwards (which was vital for me to be able to describe how the faeries navigated the terrain)
  • Whenever you arrive in a new location in your story, take 10-15 minutes and do a free-write about the surroundings, not just what they look, smell, sound like, but how they make your character’s feel.
  • If you find yourself resorting to the eye-roll, lip-bite stand-by’s, find something for your character to DO in the space. Throw a rock into a lake, take a photo off the wall, wipe all the silverware down.
  • Take a scene that feels flat and place it in another location – like that lover’s spat example. A library would create a different tension than a supermarket.
  • Write a scene (i.e. with characters) with no dialogue. Just action and description.