Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Get My Setting Checklist at Cynsations!!!

Guest Post: Kimberley Griffiths Little on Deepening Character with Setting

By Kimberley Griffiths Little

By the time you've written several manuscripts, most writers begin to realize that you're either a Character Writer or a Plot Writer. Meaning that the jump-start in your brain comes from a particular character that inspires you–or a tidbit of a plot, some sort of quirk or danger in the world.

Me, I’m a setting writer. Beautiful plantations, medieval cities, unique terrain, are a springboard of ideas. Setting inspires me deeply. When I feel that tingly magic of a certain place oozing through my soul, I dive into my research with arms stretched wide and then nearly drown, surfacing only to hit more libraries, buy more books, do university or special collections research, and interview local folks to explore it as fully as I can.

Of course, character and plot intersect constantly. They are the two most talked about novel elements.

But which comes first, plot or character?

It’s the chicken-and-egg phenomenon. Which is more important? Is our main character the most important element in our stories or books; their personality and relationships and motivations? Or is it plot, the problems, the personal journey, and the very cool adventure we’re weaving together?

Character and plot do go hand in hand–but to me they are very much the same because you cannot have one without the other.

“Your novel is the story (plot) of a person (character) and how they grow and change (character) during the course of the events (plot).”

So you may be wondering how setting intersects with character and plot? Does setting really matter? Isn’t it one of those elements that can be added later, or decided at any time, and does it actually play a crucial role?

Well, try getting away with that to any science fiction or fantasy writer! World-building (setting) for a believable science fiction story can take months or years and is an integral element in a can’t-do-without-it -way for the world and plot elements to make sense.

Think of Harry Potter without Hogwarts, "Mad Max" without Thunderdome, or Jane Eyre without Lowood School, or Katniss without District 12.

Your characters simply cannot be floating “somewhere” in time and space. We’ve all read novels where the story takes place in an undefined or made up city. Any Town, USA. Maybe the state is named, maybe not. The characters and plot of a story set in the Bronx is going to be completely different than Tucson or San Francisco, the plains of Kansas, or the swamps of Louisiana.

Stories I wrote eons ago were like that—set Anyplace, Someplace, I’mNotSureWherePlace—and they weren’t very strong stories. My characters did not come alive, they weren’t three-dimensional people, and my plots just didn’t matter that much because where was everything happening? Some cliff? Some desert? Some shopping mall? A vanilla person living in a vanilla environment having a sort of vanilla adventure. No offense to vanilla lovers out there!

Setting, is the place your characters were born, the place they live, the neighborhood, house, specific city and state.

Checklist of How Setting Influences Your Character and Plot
  1. The type of person they are, their personality, likes/dislikes, fears, habits.
  2. The family they have, the neighborhood/town/city/state they live in.
  3. The problems they might encounter.
  4. Other people who influence them--for good or ill.
  5. Their religion and belief system.
  6. The culture/quirks/mannerisms of the setting.
  7. The nuances of your character's dialogue, their inner thoughts and problem solving.
  8. How your character(s) view the world.

All these elements spring from setting.

In a book that takes you to a place you’ve never been before.... When the author brings that place--that location--alive, setting often become its own character. You can practically feel the setting, taste it, touch it, hear it, and smell it. When a book does that, the reader is truly transported to a new world and is able to get inside the main character in a whole new way and on many different levels.

Adventures in Setting

Over the years, I’ve practically become an amateur historian or anthropologist. I love to see new places, to experience what the local people do, find out what they eat and wear, what they think and believe, discover the types of families they have, their environment, work, dialect.

Twelve years ago when I first stepped onto a boat on Bayou Teche, Louisiana, I knew I was in a completely new and magical world. I’ve returned so often that now I stay with local friends I’ve made. I've visited every small town in Cajun country, eaten the food, talked with everybody I can at stores, gas stations, restaurants, and museums. I've danced at several fais-do dos, visited schools and graveyards and homes.

I also make sure I'm out in those bayous and swamps every time I visit, too. It is deeply magical and satisfying to me. I breathe the air, feel the sun, take in all the sounds and smells and sights.

It’s gratifying when local people read my books and think I was born and raised there. I want to punch the air and shout, "Yes! I did it!"


Cynsations! by the fantastic and talented Cynthia Leitich Smith.

If you haven't read Cynthia's novels and picture books you're missing out: Go here to see them all!  Books by Cynthia Leitich Smith on Amazon!


Donna K. Weaver said...

Love the post and especially hearing about how familiar you've become with the setting of these books. I had to opportunity to go to a conference in New Orleans a couple years after Katrina, and one of my favorite excursions was the tour of the bayou. It was amazing and I learned to really admire the resiliency of the people.

Barbara Watson said...

The MS I'm working on right now is one part plot-driven with characters who make that plot what it is. As I revise, I'm having to enhance the setting--not that it doesn't have a distinct place because it does--but setting is something I have to work at. If this MS ever gets published and locals to my setting say, "I think she lives here"--that will be awesome!

Augusta Scattergood said...

I totally agree with so much of this post. However, I know some writers do an amazing job with a strong setting, fabulous characters, strong plot and No Clue when the book was set. So the "time period" thing is what they often call Everylasting Present. ie no mention of popular culture. Often the stories feature kids living in a small town where perhaps the actual date isn't as crucial as it might be if you wanted to tie it to some historical event.
And really, aren't your bayou books kind of like that? Strong setting, but they could be today or 20 years ago?

Kimberley Griffiths Little said...

Thank you for this comment, Augusta. You make a good point about Everlasting Present, although I've never heard that actual term before! I can now add it to my repertoire of writing knowledge. :-)

And yes, my books do not have a date attached to them. That was actually a deliberate and conscious decision. Originally, The Healing Spell was set in 1969, but after it sold, my editor and I discussed the fact that there was no real reason to set it then and we decided to take out the mentions of dates and music and clothing of the 1960s and make it *timeless*. Which I think was a good decision because it is a story and lifestyle that has been going in the bayous for decades and continues presently. So it doesn't have to be *historical* per say.

Interesting ideas!



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