The fabulous Kathi Isserman (wife of fellow Bold Strokes author KI Thompson) has created a new blog especially for Bold Strokes authors. Yay!! As a long time blogger myself I’m super excited, because I’m awful at keeping up with emails and such but blogging… now that’s my thing. :P
This inaugural post asks authors to answer the following question:
I want to know more about using setting as a character. How hard is it to do? When does an author choose to go this route?
This is actually something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately as I’m plotting out the rest of the Ithyria series. The ongoing story arc connecting the novels is driven almost entirely by the war between the gods, and the consequent division of the land into two very different kingdoms. The entire world was originally one land that was divided by the gods’ war; this is something long forgotten by the time the series begins. So the master plan (haha) is to show how, through the events of these five books, the land and people — and the gods themselves — are able to restore unity to a thousand-year rift.
This means I’ve been thinking a lot about the world of the Ithyria series in terms of being its own malleable character that needs to develop as the plot progresses. Like a character, the world has a complicated and emotionally-charged backstory, and political, cultural and spiritual personality quirks that need to evolve in order to reach resolution. Like a character, different parts of the world have different moods and provide for different interactions. Some events simply can’t take place if they’re not set in a specific part of the world, since neither of the gods can extend their powers very far into the other’s territory (a fact that actually plays a very BIG part in Prayer of the Handmaiden.)
As a romance series, each Ithyria book focuses on the story of a different couple. But though the “stars” of each book change, always in the background as a sort of silent third-wheel is the world that molds them all, and that they in turn mold for themselves and for those who will come after them.
Is it hard? HECK YES. There are so many questions that, as the author, I have to find a satisfying and sensible answer to before I can move forward. Sometimes the answer I come up with then undoes some other part of the story I had planned, and I have to go back and figure out how to make them mesh. I have to be as true to the setting as I am to the other characters or the trust that’s built with the reader just falls apart. And as I’m currently still floundering around in that development stage I have to say I’m finding it particularly difficult. But, thinking of the setting as a character in and of itself also feels very… organic, I guess. It’s this treatment that adds depth to plot, that connects the characters and books to each other, that allows the background story arc to progress in a way that (hopefully) keeps the reader in that “willing suspension of disbelief” that Coleridge so aptly described, and which we all know is the only way a person will actually enjoy speculative fiction. :P
I’ve been reading Henry De Vere Stacpoole’s The Blue Lagoon series, which does very much this same thing. I have to admit that perhaps he spends just a little too much time waxing poetic about the beauty of the island and lagoon, when I’m ready for him to get on with the events of the story… but at any rate, I still think his series is probably one of the most perfect examples I can imagine of a writer using their setting as a character. The lagoon is very nearly described as having a will of its own, answering the pleas of the characters from time to time, and then ignoring them at whim as well. It eternally changes, yet it never changes, and throughout all three volumes it is the only constant (though the final book is at last deviating a bit…)
Anyway, I think every story uses its setting as character, whether intentionally or not. It’s pretty much unavoidable, really. Many things that can happen in Ithyria probably could not happen in modern day NYC. The way something goes down in a swamp is probably going to differ quite a bit from they way it would happen in a desert. Night offers different possibilities than day; so does winter from summer. So it’s not so much a question of whether to use setting as a character as it is how that characterization is going to get handled. Some characters are naturally more prominent than others, so it seems to me that setting doesn’t necessarily have to be a main character… just so long as it’s not forgotten!