Friday, November 18, 2011

Set Me Up

By Russel D McLean

And yes, that goshdarned whippersnapper Jay Stringer beat me to the punch yesterday with his Batman/Superman bit, but I’m not rewriting this week’s entry…

Setting and place are often overlooked by writers. A presiding sense of “well, its just a backdrop, innit,” crowds too many stories. But here’s the facts, Jack: Place is pivotal. Your story can’t just happen in a vacuum. And despite what you think, your choice of setting informs everything about your work.

Long time (and short time) readers of this blog will know that – along with a few of my fellow DSDers – I’m a big comic book geek, and when it comes to setting and importance, I can think of no finer examples than Batman and Superman.
Batman stories tend to take place primarily in Gotham City; a place that feels like hell has literally sprouted roots from the earth. It is dirty, urban sprawl at its worst and most rotten. It is the kind of place where not even money can buy you safety, as millionaire Bruce Wayne’s parents found to their cost.

On the flip side, Superman tends to hang out in the city of Metropolis. It’s a vibrant and dynamic city. We usually see it in the daytime, with the Daily Planet building – standing as it does for good, honest journalism – standing erect as a monument to truth and honesty. It’s the kind of place where a man like Superman can help to bring out the best in its citizens. Okay, it has its problems – as does any city – but unlike Gotham, those problems are rarely overwhelming. Metropolis is – relatively speaking – a city of hope.

Both cities reflect not only the characters who inhabit them but also the very feel of a story. The choice of location allows you to set mood and to play themes and ideas in unexpected ways.

Let’s take an example from my own writing life. The decision to set my crime novels (at least, those featuring J McNee) in Dundee was no accident. It was partly a case of wanting to write about somewhere different, but also because I could use the setting – an industrial town that had been through poverty and was seeing money come back through new industries – as the perfect setting for a crime novel. There was a natural tension to the setting that perfectly matched what I wanted to write about. It was more than just a place I could give street names to.

Which, of course, is a mistake many people make. One novel I read years ago tried so hard to make itself “local” that it lost all colour and atmosphere. Dropping in street names and referencing local publicans is not enough to create a strong and vibrant setting. No, I’d rather read about the feel of a place, how it affects the characters and the action of a novel.

But before you go thinking that I’m limiting a setting to one description, one aspect of itself, let’s think about it a while: a setting can be one thing to one person and something entirely different to a novel. After all, the Edinburgh of Tony Black, Ian Rankin and Allan Guthrie may be a horrible, terrible, dangerous place where it always bloody well rains, but through the eyes of someone like Alexander McCall Smith it becomes far more genteel, a place of a sunnier disposition where things tend to work out for the best.

And yes, all of those writers are using the same “setting”, the same city.

But they’re using it in very different ways.

Which makes you wonder if one could write a happy go lucky comedy of errors set in Gotham City and a dark, twister tale of broken bones in Metropolis. Maybe you could, if you used the settings correctly.

Setting is a matter of perspective. Same way as a character can be a hero from one point of view and a villain from another, a setting can achieve a certain mood from one perspective and quite another if you view it from a different angle.

So use your setting. Tie it in to your characters, your story, your mood. But remember that you have to consider how you’re using your setting, what kind of eyes you’re seeing it through. And that you are never, ever, ever writing characters in a vacuum.

1 comment:

Mike Dennis said...

Well put, Russel. I use Key West in my latest (and upcoming) novel, showing how it affects the characters and the events, how the characters are molded by the island, not the other way around. I intend to lift the veil off Key West, revealing it as a true noir city, on a par with Los Angeles, New Orleans, Miami, and yes, Edinburgh.

Thanks for validating my feelings about setting.