World First? Or Power to the People?

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Sara asked a question after my last post: "Do you find developing characters immediately is typically the most effective, or is it sometimes equally effective to develop setting and then think about the kinds of people who would inhabit that setting?"

My first response is a simple: Yes. For some, it will be easier to develop the characters and flesh out their world around them; others (like me) find it easier to consider the setting in tandem with the characters.

Think about some of the fictional people you've read along the way. Now, try to move them into a different setting. For example, if you think of any of Jane Austen's heroines, you may be able to transport Emma to the 21st century, to 13th-century Paris, or to America, but would she still be Emma? While many stories are universal, their settings are often intertwined with their characters.

Characters or setting first? New York City, for example,
could play a major role in your character's life.
Credit | krishorvath81 @ Flickr
To me, the setting an author chooses informs many other choices she may make and often may be what the author considers first. The way I write my fiction, I consider the setting at the same time as fleshing out other characters. And yes, I may even consider the setting first and think of who might inhabit the setting.

But I find it difficult to write characters without considering settings first. If you don't consider the setting first, aren't you considering only a portion of who your characters are? And vice versa? You would need to know the setting well to know who would want to inhabit such settings, right?

Setting can become an additional character--if you were to set your story in New York City or Denver, where would you do it? A single woman living in the Brooklyn sets up a different message and cadence--sometimes subtly and sometimes blatantly--than a single woman in Denver. (I've been both, so have patience with me while this becomes randomly autobiographical.) Just consider: modes of transportation, homes, and what each woman chooses to do on a free afternoon.

When I lived in Brooklyn, I might take a subway from my third-floor walk-up to spend a day in Central Park (or if I didn't feel like the subway, walk to Prospect Park). But as a single woman in Denver, I might go with friends to Elitch's Amusement Park or for a hike in the mountains. In either place, my home might include roommates. Particularly in a long piece of fiction, the setting can play a large and important role.

In one of my manuscripts, I set the action in Europe. Many of the scenes are interwoven with elements that I found there and, therefore, I definitely needed to develop the setting along with the characters. The surroundings become actors within the action and interacting with the characters, in my opinion.

These are a few examples, but hopefully they illustrate that the setting should definitely be a consideration.

Sara, I hope I've answered your question! I'd love to know: Do you consider setting before, during, or after you develop your characters? Also, if you have a question, please leave it in the comments section and I'll do my best to answer it.

Elizabeth King Humphrey, who received her M.F.A. from UNC Wilmington,  writes and edits in North Carolina. She wishes you a wonderful--and word-filled--2013. 


Sarah Butland said...

I write my stories with both interchangeably. I don't know the character without knowing the setting and vice versa and both change as they need.

Thanks for reading,

Sarah Butland author of Sending You Sammy, Arm Farm and Brain Tales – Volume One

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