The Interaction Of People And Place

Places shape people, and people shape places. This is why the effect of your choice of setting is so profound. The interaction of characters and setting plays a big role in determining what the story is.

Take Jerry, a fifty-year-old flower child who has never recovered from the Summer of Love. He still dresses in tie-dye shirts and pulls back his hair, what's left of it, into a ponytail. Years ago he played bass in a rock band called the Bamboozles, dreaming of hitting the big time. The band came within a hair's breadth of signing with a big-name record company, but the deal collapsed at the last minute. Disheartened, the Bamboozles split up. Jerry drifted around for a while and ended up in Los Angeles, where for years he has grubbed out a living as a hardware store clerk. Now and then he sits in with a combo that jams in a local bar and sighs over what might have been. Now his mother, who lives a long distance away, is dying. Jerry moves into her house because she has no one else to take care of her. His goal is to care for his mother while creating a satisfying new life for himself.

Suppose Jerry's mother lives in San Francisco. From the moment he arrives in the city, he fits right in. When he walks to the market near his mother's home, no one pays much attention to his long hair, his psychedelic shirt, or the peace sign hanging from a leather cord around his neck. Most likely he'll find a network of kindred spirits without much trouble, including plenty of out-of-work musicians who will commiserate with him and perhaps invite him to join them on an occasional gig. His new friends and activities might well interfere with his giving proper care and attention to his mother.

What if we move Jerry to a Pennsylvania coal-mining town? He grew up there but, feeling stifled and longing for adventure, he dropped out of high school and fled. When he lugs his duffel bag into his childhood home and greets his dying mother, it's the first time he's been back in three decades. In this town Jerry stands apart. His demeanor, his mode of dress, his habits and tastes mark him as odd. Even though his mother's neighbors agree he is a dutiful son, they may view him with suspicion, skepticism, or disdain. He will have a harder time creating that satisfying new life here.

Same character, same situation, same goal. All we've changed is the setting. Either place could give you a compelling story, but it will play out very differently in San Francisco than in Coalmont, Pennsylvania. The location will influence the complications Jerry encounters and the choices he makes.

Examining the interaction of person and place can help you develop your story. Here are three perspectives to consider:

• The character's reaction to the place. Has this person lived a long time in the area, or is he a visitor, a newcomer? Natives and strangers notice and respond to different things. Longtime residents have greater knowledge about a place, but they take for granted sights, sounds, and quirks of culture that an outsider finds novel or colorful or strange.

Here's an example: When I moved from the East Coast to Oklahoma, my new neighbors asked what impressed me most about their state. I replied, "The sky." They thought I was crazy; surely I'd had a sky overhead back east. Yes, but Oklahoma's was a different kind of sky, a vast sweep of blue with sunsets that spread around a full 360 degrees. The sky I was accustomed to was smaller and hazier, hemmed in by buildings and tall trees.

To depict a setting more vividly, consider making at least one character a stranger there. This person's observations can draw the reader's attention to details that a local wouldn't even notice. This works with the smallest-scale settings as well as with large ones. Suppose your story concerns a pair of elderly people, one of them a chain smoker, who have shared a tiny apartment for many years and rarely go out anymore. Smoke hangs in the air like a mist; its smell clings to the heavy drapes and overstuffed upholstery. Neither of the inhabitants is aware of it, not even the non-smoker, because it has been part of their environment for so long. When a long-lost grandson arrives, he, and through him the reader, will immediately be struck by the thick air and strong odor.

The character's emotional response to the place is equally as important as his sense of familiarity or strangeness. Does he feel comfortable here or out of his element? Is he an insider or an outsider? A person's attitude toward a place has little to do with the amount of time he's spent there. We can fall in love with a locale at first sight, or dislike a place where we've lived for years.

The reaction of the place to the character. In most places, people are part of the environment, and your protagonist must deal with their reactions to him—their level of knowledge about him, their attitude toward him, and their degree of affinity to the kind of person he is.

This is one reason Jerry's story would change drastically if you moved it from San Francisco to Coalmont. The residents in these two locales are likely to differ in their backgrounds, lifestyles, and concepts of proper behavior. As a result they will have diverging opinions about Jerry and the sacrifice, if that's what it is, that he's making on his mother's behalf. Jerry's goal, remember, is twofold: to take care of his mother and to create a satisfying new life for himself. Whether he's in the big city or the small town, the reactions of the people around him will set up complications for him; the nature of the complications will depend on which part of his goal they choose to support or oppose.

The reaction of the place to your protagonist is a good source to check when you're looking for the conflict your protagonist faces. In what ways is she at odds with the environment? The answer to this question can inspire the ere-

ation of your antagonist or a strong secondary character who personifies the local point of view.

• Environmental circumstances to which the character must respond. To a large extent, the place where they are dictates people's behavior. Our choices for action are constrained by such factors as the weather, the terrain, the nearness of neighbors, the distances between important points, and the objects that we do or don't have at hand. Eudora Welty's traveling salesman might have enjoyed a different fate if his car accident had occurred someplace where there was a telephone.

Even such simple matters as the clothes we wear are determined by our setting. Once I hiked down a trail from the top of a waterfall to the pool below. It was not long, only a mile or so, but it was steep. The footing was treacherous, with lots of soft sand and loose pebbles, and I was glad to have sturdy boots. At the bottom I encountered a young woman in high heels and a flowered dress, looking as if she had just arrived from church. What was she doing there, I wondered, and how was she going to climb back up without breaking an ankle? In other words, what was her story?

Such incongruities—people and things that are out of place in their environment—are a rich vein of fiction material. The setting offers both writer and characters an abundance of resources and challenges.

0 0

Post a comment