Sunday, March 11, 2007

Some Where, Some Time, Pt 2

Where were we?

Oh, yes. I was afflicting you with my Opinion regarding Place, or Setting, in writing.

The spell that Place casts upon the reader is different from that cast by a character; more subtle, the Place exerts its powers on the characters as well as the reader, so that character and reader share the same world. What makes the characters afraid makes the reader afraid, or joyful, or tense, or relaxed.

Setting is marvellous in creating tension, mood, atmosphere. Read the first page or two of Lovecraft's The Dunwich Horror, or the opening paragraph of Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher, and you will see what I mean. Yes, I know, those are dark examples. It helps to read them at night. Really.

Place can also help to define or delineate or explain a character. Narnia cries out for an Aslan, and the description of Hobbiton tells us much about Samwise Gamgee. And we intuitively understand why both the characters in the tales feel they are places that must be saved; just as we know Barad Dur must be destroyed, along with Giedi Prime.

For Places may be Good, or Evil.

One of the reasons I write speculative fiction is that it is a genre that has perhaps suffered less at the hands of a PostModernist ethos that eviscerates fictional Heroes than some other genres. It is quite acceptable to find Heroes in Fantasy, though in deference to the Zeitgeist they may have more flaws than in the old days. You know, before nylon.

The reason Reepicheep wants to go Further In and Higher Up is that the Place really is worth it; it answers the (often inarticulate) yearning in our breasts for something nobler, richer, purer. The reason Barad Dur must be destroyed is because everything that instinctively feel is Evil thrives there, nourished by a fallen Maia, Gorthaur the Cruel, who perverts all that is good. As he learned from his master Morgoth, so he influenced his pupil Saruman; the Orcs that were made by Morgoth in mockery of the Elves were bred into the Uruk-hai...

The Place, therefore, requires much thought, at least as much thought as the main characters. And they may change over the course of the book, or across a series. Dune comes to mind, since we mentioned Giedi Prime earlier.

Someone once asked Mallory why he climbed Everest. "Because it's there," he said.

That's why we build worlds. To go there, even if 'there' is a place no one has ever been before. Gene Roddenberry understood; where did the Enterprise go?

To create a Place so real, a Setting so captivating, that the reader's primal yearnings and fears are touched, that they want to go and live there, or run away from it as quickly as possible; a Place they almost really feel and touch and taste and smell -

Now that would be Writing.


rosemerry said...

interesting food for thought. I'm definitely going to be thinking about my settings in new ways.


Gillian Polack said...

I had to read this post twice. Spirit of place has a particular sense in Australia. You made me think, though, about the relationship of your definition of place with my own. My current writing is all about place, but not in the aching-to-reach or the evil sense, more in the Australian sense. I'm fascinated by how we create places and give them character and meaning. Lots of food for thought in adding a different definition to the mix - thank you.

Imelda said...

That was a very inspiring piece. :)

I find writing my own places to be far more satisfying than setting my stories in a world I already know. The places themselves are, in the main, not of important, because my story is about people more than anything, but I can't imagine my characters doing what they do in anywhere other than the places I created. Setting is undoubtably one of the most important elements in writing fiction.

Joshua Palmatier said...

This (and the previous post) are interesting reads because I intend to post about setting tomorrow in my LJ. But what's interesting is that my post won't be anything like this. Not because I just read this and you'd sue me, but because my post on setting is going to be about what setting means for a particular scene, as opposed to you global novel view here.

But I agree. Setting in and of itself IS a character of the novel, especially in fantasy and SF books. It plays just as important a role as character and plot (which is the thrust of my recent posts). But you can't just put someone in a place and call it setting. It has to be something deeper than that.

And just like characters, there are good, and evil, and ambiguous settings (gray settings) as well. If you're building your world right, if it's going to come to life, you need to treat the setting with as much respect and consideration as you do the characters in your novel. The setting needs backstory and flavor and its own quirks, just like the characters. And you need to be aware of them as the writer, so that your world will come alive.

Good posts. I enjoyed reading them.


Peggy said...

It's interesting that you mention Star Trek, since I think the original series did a generally poor job at world building. Of course the planet of the week couldn't be given too much detail, but, even so, they were often just a cliche (the Mob planet, the planet like ancient Greece, the Nazi planet, etc). Even the old Enterprise itself doesn't seem to have that much of a special feel to it, other than the bridge.

Zonk said...

Thanks to all for the kind words :D

Rosemerry, I'd love to see that setiing - in print!

Gillian, I would love to discuss with you the Australian 'spirit of place' you mention: does that refer to the type of place it is, or the type of spirit it produces, or the type of spirit that inhabits it? Or something else entirely?

Imelda, I know what you mean. Although I used my island as a kind of template, the place is not New Providence Island at all. At least I know of no inter-dimensional Gates in the bush around my house...I was surprised at how much fun it was to make up the 'Rules' for the place. Who or what can or cannot pass through the Gates and why: Who or what lives in each dimension and why etc., etc.

Joshua, you needn't worry about litigation: I am not, as far as I am aware, related to Barbara Bauer :P. I'll have to try and get on your LJ blog an check that post out. I very much agree with your statement that the setting 'needs backstory'.

Have to agree Peggy, with your assessment of the original Star Trek sets; the same could be said of Doctor Who, another favorite of mine, whose cheesy special effects were legendary. What was special about the original Trek, though, was that Roddenberry did go to 'places' never before visited on TV. Who can forget Uhura's line: "We've learned not to be afraid of a word."? What I meant was that you have to take the reader someplace they haven't been before...for Star Trek that was often social commentary.

I often wonder what Roddenberry would have done with a good budget. Would the series have been truly spectacular, or would it have fallen on its face, like the last three episodes of Star Wars?

Which reminds me - I have a couple of posts brewing about when I feel SF/F has worked as social commentary, and when it hasn't.

Thanks again all for your comments.

Susan Flemming said...

Excellent article. So many people forget that we are to a large extent a product of our environment. It's something that writers need to be aware of if we are going to write believable characters.

Midwestern Writer Wannabe said...

The trick about Place, however (especially true in the fantasy and sci-fi genre), is that one can quickly bore the reader if we try to explain too much of the setting too quickly.

Some things should simply be inferred...I need to make sure and keep that in mind, myself, when I get cranking on the next WIP.

Brian said...

"The spell that Place casts upon the reader is different from that cast by a character; more subtle, the Place exerts its powers on the characters as well as the reader, so that character and reader share the same world. What makes the characters afraid makes the reader afraid, or joyful, or tense, or relaxed."

Greatly said Zonk.

I sometimes wonder where the line is drawn on how much detail is enough for a setting. How much is left to the audience to fill in the gaps and how much must be explained?

Particularly in some fantasy work I find that too much explaining and realism ruins the overall effect.

I suppose it is different for each reader.

Haynes said...

Most of the places I write about are those I'd rather not visit - run-down industrial areas, bureacratic government offices, shops with attendants from hell and so on.

Still, I do have a spaceship in my books and that's a safe haven and refuge for the main characters - when it's not breaking down or crashing into things.

Simon Haynes said...

Sorry, that was me - signed in with the wrong account.