Conflict In The Kitchen

kitchen

Kitchens are wonderfully useful for writers. Of all the rooms in the house, the kitchen offers props for fleshing out body language beats. It offers implements that might kill you, as well as food that might sustain you. People naturally gather in kitchens, even people who despise each other.

Not surprisingly, I find far more examples of kitchens in work by women. Some writers really enjoy the kitchen as a setting — Alice Munro is one such writer.

KITCHEN NUMBER ONE: “QUEENIE” BY ALICE MUNRO

I looked at the rusty-bottomed bread tin swiped too often by the dishcloth, and the pots sitting on the stove, washed but not put away, and the motto supplied by Fairholme Dairy: The Lord is the Heart of Our House. All these things stupidly waiting for the day to begin and not knowing that it had been hollowed out by catastrophe.

This contrasts with Queenie’s new kitchen, after she elopes:

The kitchen was the nicest room, though too dark. Queenie had ivy growing up around the window over the sink, and she had wooden spoons sticking up out of a pretty, handleless mug, just the way Mrs Vorguilla used to have them. The living-room had the piano in it, the same piano that had been in the other living-room. There was one armchair and a bookshelf made with bricks and planks and a record-player and a lot of records sitting on the floor. No television. No walnut rocking-chairs or tapestry curtains. Not even the floor-lamp with the Japanese scenes on its parchment shade. Yet all these things had been moved to Toronto, on a snowy day.

— Alice Munro, “Queenie

KITCHEN NUMBER TWO: “FICTION” BY ALICE MUNRO

In the following scene, the reader is reminded that Joyce now feels old. The devilled eggs symbolise this change: once popular party foods of the 80s, by the late 90s, nobody was eating eggs anymore.

They are washing the dishes in the kitchen. Joyce and Tommy and the new friend, Jay. The party is over. People have departed with hugs and kisses and hearty cries, some bearing platters of food that Joyce has no room for in the refrigerator. Wilted salads and cream tarts and devilled eggs have been thrown out. Few of the devilled eggs were eaten anyway. Old-fashioned. Too much cholesterol.

“Too bad, they were a lot of work. They probably reminded people of church suppers,” says Joyce, tipping a platterful into the garbage.

“My granma used to make them,” says Jay. These are the first words he has addressed to Joyce, and she sees Tommy looking grateful. She feels grateful herself, even if she has been put in the category of his grandmother.

“We ate several and they were good,” says Tommy. He and Jay have worked for at least half an hour alongside her, gathering glasses and plates and cutlery that were scattered all over the lawn and verandah and throughout the house, even in the most curious places such as flowerpots and under sofa cushions. The boys—she thinks of them as boys—have stacked the dishwasher more skillfully than she in her worn-out state could ever manage, and prepared the hot soapy water and cool rinse water in the sinks for the glasses.

“We could just save them for the next load in the dishwasher,” Joyce has said, but Tommy has said no.

“You wouldn’t think of putting them in the dishwater if you weren’t out of your right mind with all you had to do today.” Jay washes and Joyce dries and Tommy puts away. He still remembers where everything goes in this house.

— “Fiction” by Alice Munro

KITCHEN NUMBER FOUR: “JAKARTA” BY ALICE MUNRO

Sonje’s kitchen is described via the viewpoint of an older male visitor, so Munro is channeling a male when she points out what he would notice:

The kitchen was another big room, which the cupboards and appliances didn’t properly fill. The floor was gray and black tiles — or perhaps black and white tiles, the white made gray by dirty scrub water. […] As they passed through the kitchen Sonje had put the kettle on for tea. Now she sat down in one of the chairs as if she too was glad to settle. […] The telephone was rining. A disturbing, loud, old-fashioned ring. It sounded as if it was just outside in the hall, but Sonje hurried back to the kitchen.

— “Jakarta” by Alice Munro

KITCHEN NUMBER FOUR: “PINE” BY ROBIN BLACK

This description opens the short story. The kitchen is used to introduce us to the first person narrator (our viewpoint character) and to Heidi, the focal character. This is an example of a character sketch—really two character sketches—using choices about kitchen design as a point of difference between them. So, a different kind of conflict:

Heidi’s kitchen floor is marble tile, a hard and unforgiving platform for her clumsy gait. If it were me, I think, watching her, I would have put down pine—soft, uneven planks of gentle pine to absorb the step-clump, step-clump sound of my own feet. My foot, and then the pause that would be seared into my soul, that sad and silent pause. And then my other foot.

If it were me, I would have built a smaller kitchen too, I’m sure, a room of easy reaches and rolling carts. But Heidi, with her latest-model leg—her fourth she told me, since losing the original—Heidi is more defiant than I, perhaps. More feisty. Or possibly just more in denial. And so her kitchen is bowling-alley large. Stadium large. Super-dome large. There are two cooktops, two dishwashers, two ovens, and a microwave. There are appliances so modern that their function is indiscernible, and these marvels are spread across three islands all in all, an archipelago of kitchen design, which Heidi navigates with great goodwill, cheerful as she clumps across each expanse.

KITCHEN NUMBER FIVE: A COUNTRY WHERE YOU ONCE LIVED BY ROBIN BLACK

The father in this short story is seeing his estranged daughter for the first time in four years. He focuses on the knife in her hands, which makes him feel uncomfortable. Or is it really the knife that’s making him uncomfortable?

“We’re not there yet.” Zoe is peeling a potato — with a knife — so rapidly Jeremy is fearful for her hands. “But we’ll get there. We do have bills to pay, and designer veggies are like gold.”

“I’m looking forward to hearing all about it,” Jeremy says. His gaze is fixed on the course of her blade, on the flying strips of skin. “I’m looking forward to seeing it all.”

“I’ll give you a tour,” Colin says. “The whole operation.”

“Not today, though.” Zoe’s potato falls into a ceramic bowl: another takes its place in her hands. “Dinner’s in just a little while. I hope everyone’s hungry.”

“A Country Where You Once Lived” by Robin Black

KITCHEN NUMBER SIX: WIFEY REDUX BY KEVIN BARRY

In this short story, Kevin Barry’s main character — a middle-aged dad of a teenage daughter — is coming to terms with the fact he is no longer young himself. His own teenager is an unwelcome reminder of lost youth. Although he has everything he could possibly want — a nice middle class house, the works — now all he wants is to be young again.

Note how Barry paints a portrait of a well-off family — the food they eat, the alcohol of choice, the ‘island counter’ — these details turn the main character’s life into a caricature of middle class success, thereby questioning the very notion of success.

A sunny Saturday, heaven-sent, in peejays — it should have been perfection. Saoirse was sitting at the island counter, trembling, as she ate pinhead porridge with acai fruit and counted off the hours till she could start glugging back the ice-cold Pinot Grigio. I was scraping an anti-death spread the colour of Van Gogh’s sunflowers onto a piece of nine-grain artisanal toast. Ellie was vexing between flushes of crimson rage and sobbing fits and making a sound like a lung-diseased porpoise.

— “Wifey Redux” by Kevin Barry

KITCHEN NUMBER SEVEN: ITHACA IN MY MIND BY PETER TEMPLE

The main character in this short story is a self-important writer, annoyed after being fired by his literary agent. We see him take his annoyance out on everyone and everything. Here, it’s the toaster (I think it’s a dig at the Thermomix and similar kitchenware). I like this example because there can be conflict in the kitchen even when a character stands alone in it:

He made toast in the machine she had bought: five hundred and forty dollars. The bloody thing had twelve settings. Numbers one to six barely warmed the bread, seven and upwards charred it just as effectively as some twenty-five dollar piece of shit from Target.

— “Ithaca In My Mind” by Peter Temple

FURTHER READING

Photo in header by Jacek Dylag

Hotels and Motels In Stories

Photo by Jake Stark on Unsplash

Hotels and motels, it seems, are inherently scary.  My theory is that they fall into the uncanny valley of attempting to emulate home without actually being our home. Hotels and motels mimic the dream version of home, like when you ‘know’ within a dream that you’re ‘at home’, but the dream home is nothing like your real home.

Hotels and motels can be considered heterotopias.

For storytellers, it follows, hotels and motels are endlessly useful as settings. But are these establishments going the way of CDs and landlines? With the rise of Airbnb, the entire nature of holiday accommodation is changing. That said, I can’t see any downside for storytellers. Staying in someone else’s home in a different town is the perfect potential horror set up.

HOTELS AND MOTELS IN SHORT STORIES

John Irving is expert at writing the creepy, and he does so here in his description of a hotel. The creepy language builds to a disturbing simile:

As a family, we dutifully followed Theobald and my grandmother down the long, twining hall, my father counting the paces to the WC. The hall rug was thin, the color of a shadow. Along the walls were old photographs of speed-skating teams — on their feet the strange blade curled up at the tips like court jesters’ shoes or the runners of ancient sleds. … Grandmother’s room was full of china, polished wood, and the hint of mold. The drapes were damp. The bed had an unsettling ridge at its center, like fur risen on a dog’s spine — it was almost as if a very slender body lay stretched beneath the bedspread.

– from The Pension Grillparzer, a short story by John Irving

Annie Proulx is equally expert at painting a setting in few words. Focus on the cheap building materials and the tackiness of the situation is one of Proulx’s strengths. I don’t want to be with this guy in this room, do you?

Thursday night, balked by detours and construction, he was on the outskirts of Des Moines. In the cinder-block motel room he set the alarm, but his own stertorous breathing woke him before it rang. He was up at five-fifteen, eyes aflame, peering through the vinyl drapes at his snow-hazed car flashing blue under the motel sign, SLEEP SLEEP. In the bathroom he mixed the packet of instant motel coffee and drank it black, without ersatz sugar or chemical cream. He wanted the caffeine. The roots of his mind felt withered and punky.

— from The Half-Skinned Steer by Annie Proulx

By the way, ‘stertorous’ means ‘laboured’ (in regards to breathing).

Alice Munro has a gift for describing the ordinary buildings of an ordinary town and she describes hotels quite frequently, but here she describes an imaginary motel in an example of side-shadowing:

She would have preferred another scene, and that was the one she substituted, in her memory. A narrow six- or seven-story hotel, once a fashionable place of residence, in the West End of Vancouver. Curtains of yellowed lace, high ceilings, perhaps an iron grille over part of the window, a fake balcony. Nothing actually dirty or disreputable, just an atmosphere of long accommodation of private woes and sins. There she would have to cross the little lobby with head bowed and arms clinging to her sides, her whole body permeated by exquisite shame. And he would speak to the desk clerk in a low voice that did not advertise, but did not conceal or apologize for, their purpose.
Then the ride in the old-fashioned cage of the elevator, run by an old man—or perhaps an old woman, perhaps a cripple, a sly servant of vice.

— Alice Munro, “What Is Remembered

In a similar story, Munro describes another hotel where a young woman has been taken by a bad-boy doctor who perhaps wants to have sex with her:

They stopped, finally, in Kaladar, and went into the hotel—the old hotel that is still there. Taking her hand, kneading his fingers between hers, slowing his pace to match her uneven steps, Neil led her into the bar. She recognized it as a bar, though she had never been in one before. (Bailey’s Falls Inn did not yet have a license, so drinking was done in people’s rooms, or in a rather ramshackle night club across the road.) This bar was just as she would have expected—a big, dark, airless room, with the chairs and tables rearranged in a careless way after a hasty cleanup, the smell of Lysol not erasing the smell of beer, whiskey, cigars, pipes, men.

— Alice Munro, “Passion

Almost immediately changes came to the hotel. In the former dining room there was a false ceiling put in—paperboard squares supported by strips of metal. The big round tables were replaced by small square tables, and the heavy wooden chairs by light metal chairs with maroon plastic—covered seats. Because fo the lowered ceiling, the windows had to be reduced to squat rectangles. A neon sign in one of them said WELCOME COFFEE SHOP.

The owner, whose name was Mr. Palagian, never smiled or said a word more than he could help to anybody, in spite of the sign.

— Alice Munro, “Trespasses”

We find other wonderfully evocative descriptions of hotels and motels in the following short stories:

HOTELS AND MOTELS IN STORIES FOR CHILDREN

Isaac Bashevis Singer‘s “The Fearsome Inn” is one classic example from 1984. Some have said this picture book is not in fact for children.

Hotels and motels make for great settings if your child character lives in one, because the child is always meeting other people. It’s a good way to get the character ‘out into the world and mingling’ without them needing to leave ‘home’. This is a good workaround for writing contemporary children, who generally aren’t allowed out alone without some author contrivance.

pip-in-the-grand-hotel

Actor Carey Mulligan grew up living in motels.

“Until I was eight we lived in hotels,” Mulligan explained. “So I lived in The Mayfair when I was first born in London, then… we moved to Germany and lived there for a bit.

“It probably gave me a strange perception of life. We finally got a house when I was eight and we got a key, a proper key, and I was like, ‘Why don’t we just swipe things [like a hotel key card]?'”

However, Mulligan added that she felt like she belonged in the hotels she stayed in.

She joked: “I’d sit in the maid’s dirty laundry trolley and we were part of the hotel.”

Digital Spy

My own grandmother ran a motel when I was a very young child. I remember the big spa pool and I also remember the linen closet. Motels in New Zealand and Australia always seem to smell like hot buttered toast at certain times of day. That smell, especially when it includes bacon, makes me think of a motel.

Pip in the Grand Hotel by Johannes Hucke, Daniel Müller (Illustrator) is a picture book with a setting and inciting incident reminiscent of Roald Dahl’s The Witches. A child with a pet mouse goes off through a hotel looking for the escaped mouse. This one is more of a madcap adventure than a life or death situation:

Mary has a new pet mouse named Pip. But no sooner has she lifted the lid of Pip’s box than he’s off straight into the Grand Hotel! Young readers can join in the search for Pip, hidden in the hotel lobby, the kitchen, even the Royal Suite! Its a merry chase and a hunt-and-find game combined.

In Withering By The Sea by Judith Rossell:

Stella lives with her three Aunts in a majestic hotel along the coast. Her Aunts are miserable and mean, demanding that Stella be quiet and dutiful. Stella though would rather read the dilapidated atlas that she discovered only partially burnt in the garbage pile behind the hotel. That is why she is in the quiet conservatory and witnesses something being hidden in one of the planters. The knowledge is just one part of the mystery that is about to unfold in the hotel. It is a mystery that Stella finds herself caught up in, taking her away from the hotel and her dull Aunts and into a world of magic and new friends and enemies that even the atlas could not fully prepare her for.

HOTELS AND MOTELS ON TV

hotel love

Gilmore girls features a hotel as a central setting. In later seasons, Lorelai and Sooki’s Inn, and even Lorelai’s chain hotel, are utopian settings. Even though things apparently get stressful, it is still to be seen as a glamorous job being Lorelai, who never seems to actually be doing much. (She’s said to be doing much.) The kitchen is always overflowing with food, much like in a scene from Brambly Cottage. Melissa McCarthy does a great job of the slapstick, almost killing herself and others with her klutziness.

Schitt’s Creek features a rags-to-riches family who go bankrupt and are forced to move to the small town purchased as a birthday present joke. Mother and father share a bedroom right through the wall from their grown son and daughter, plunging them back into adolescence.

Fawlty Towers (1975-1979) is the British ancestor of Schitts Creek and if you look closely, you’ll see a lot of the same gags and comedic structure in common. I don’t know if the creators of Schitts Creek were influenced by Fawlty Towers — it’s hard to say, because the comedic structure employed can be seen across many sit-coms, whether set in a motel/hotel or otherwise.

Courage The Cowardly Dog’s pilot episode features an inn managed by an evil cat who has engineered massive spiders to capture visitors for meat.

HOTELS AND MOTELS IN FILM

Road trip stories will likely include a hotel or motel or horror inn somewhere along the journey, as part of the plot if nothing else.

This idyllic pool scene in Thelma & Louise juxtaposes against what just happened. The grazes on Thelma’s knees become visible to the audience after she lies down, reminding us that this is no idyll.

Thelma and Louise
Thelma and Louise

No Country For Old Men has permanently ruined me for motels that look like this (most of them) and also for people standing right outside a dark room with the hallway light on — worse when they switch the light off.

No Country For Old Men
No Country For Old Men
No Country For Old Men
No Country For Old Men

Little Miss Sunshine is another road trip film which includes a motel.

Little Miss Sunshine
Little Miss Sunshine

These aren’t even the films most famous for their motels.

See the spooky Stanley Hotel that inspired Stephen King’s The Shining, from LA Times.

TROPES RELATED TO HOTELS AND MOTELS

  • The Inn Of No Return — Hotel California, basically. Most popular in stories coming out of France.
  • Hell Hotel — scary and possibly abandoned hotels. I include one of these in our story app Hilda Bewildered.
  • Inn Security — the bit in a story where the hero is super tired (probably because of some big struggle) and goes to rest in an inn, but is woken up by the inn security in the middle of the night for some reason.

RELATED

 

The header photo is by Jake Stark

How can setting be a character?

setting as character

When asked to write something about setting, for an essay or an exam, what exactly are we being asked to describe?

When I was in high school my English teachers advised us all against writing the exam essay on setting. So I did. But I wouldn’t advise the same thing. Setting essays provide plenty of opportunity for demonstrating knowledge and understanding of a work.

At about junior high school level, setting comprises two things: TIME and PLACE.

But a more sophisticated breakdown of the concept of setting involves different aspects to include:

  1. PERIOD – a story’s place in time. This can actually be broken down further into ‘author period‘ (the time when the author originally created or published the work, and ‘narrator period‘, which is the time when the narrator of a work supposedly narrates the story. (Reader period. Counterpoint this against when the reader reads the work, if this is useful.)
  2. DURATION – a story’s length through time. Maybe it takes place over a year, cycling through each season. Maybe it takes place over 24 hours. Some people call this the temporal setting.
  3. LOCATION – a story’s place in space — On a scale: a real place, fictional but based on a real place, completely made up, otherworldly.
  4. MANMADE SPACES – towns, cities, parks. Manmade places tend to symbolise the conscious, tamed part of our minds.
  5. NATURAL SETTINGSforests (which usually border a town in fairytales) tend to represent the subconscious. Forests are especially interesting, but we also have rivers and mountains.
  6. TECHNOLOGY CRUCIAL TO THIS PARTICULAR STORY – in a fantasy it might be a system of magic in lieu of technology. In speculative fiction this will be at the forefront. Even in non-SF work, the tech of the time is relevant to setting.
  7. LEVEL OF CONFLICT – the story’s position on the hierarchy of human struggles. If ‘time and place’ refers to temporal and physical location, this refers to the social one. What’s going on in the wider world of the story, politically, socially, environmentally…? A ten dollar word to use here is ‘milieu’.

If applied to Breaking Bad:

  1. PERIOD – The first season aired 2008, and the story is set in either that year or very close to that year.
  2. DURATION – Although the series has taken 6 years to watch due to the time it takes to produce a series, the duration of the story is 2 years.
  3. LOCATIONAlbuquerque, New Mexico; Mexico; in the homes of Walt, Jesse, Hank; in factories and small local businesses
  4. MANMADE SPACES – the houses, the factories, the high school, the streets, the hotel (depending on the episode, there are many)
  5. NATURAL SETTINGS – the Albuquerque desert, which can also kill you if you’re not careful
  6. TECHNOLOGY CRUCIAL TO THIS PARTICULAR STORY – equipment to produce methamphetamine, later in its purest form
  7. LEVEL OF CONFLICT – At a time when teachers aren’t paid enough to support a family, when health care is unaffordable to those working in the caring professions, when methamphetamine use is causing criminal harm and much victimization

If applied to Courage the Cowardly Dog:

  1. PERIOD – The style of house, the dress of the characters suggest contemporary late 1990s.
  2. DURATION – Each episode seems to ‘reset’ back to the beginning as if nothing happened before and nothing was learned. As evidence, Courage is never, ever believed when he raises the alarm about intruders. If this was a story which built upon itself, you’d expect Muriel to take him seriously after a while, because he’s never wrong.
  3. LOCATION – The fiction town of ‘Nowhere’ represents any Midwest rural town in America — anywhere flat, where it’s possible to live miles from anyone else.
  4. MANMADE SPACES – the house, the retail outlets, the nearby factories and experimental labs.
  5. NATURAL SETTINGS – the Midwest plains
  6. TECHNOLOGY CRUCIAL TO THIS PARTICULAR STORY – Opponents bring their own technology to each episode and use whatever they’ve got to try and defeat Courage. Courage has only a PC at his disposal, which is anthropomorphised and talks to him. It doesn’t give Courage the information he wants. This represents an early form of search engines, and comments on to a time when people were just starting to use the Internet. The Internet was much smaller then, and results were much fewer.
  7. LEVEL OF CONFLICT – Some have hypothesised that the setting of the farmhouse in Nowhere represents a dog’s experience rather than a real place — that Courage’s experiences are those of any dog who is housebound, not taken out for regular walks, and who sees every visitor as an opponent no matter their intention. The entire series could be considered a metaphor for what goes on inside a dog’s head, presented as understandable to human viewers, using familiar human tropes.

The cinema’s master storytellers give us the double-edged encounter we crave. First, the discovery of a world we do not know. No matter how intimate or epic, contemporary or historical, concrete or fantasized, the world of an eminent artist always strikes us as somewhat exotic or strange. Like an explorer parting forest leaves, we step wide-eyed into an untouched society, a cliche-free zone where the ordinary becomes extraordinary. Second, once inside this alien world, we find ourselves. Deep within these characters and their conflicts we discover our own humanity. We go to the movies to enter a new, fascinating world, to inhabit vicariously another human being who at first seems so unlike us and yet at heart is like us, to live in a fictional reality that illuminates our daily reality. We do not wish to escape life but to find life, to use our minds in fresh, experimental ways, to flex our emotions, to enjoy, to learn, to add depth to our days. Story was written to foster films of archetypal power and beauty that will give the world this dual pleasure.

Robert McKee

GENIUS LOCI

When talking about places as characters in literature, the Latin term Genius loci is useful. In classical Roman religion, a genius loci was the protective spirit of a place. If you ever come across a picture of a figure holding a bowl or a snake, that’s probably an ornament of the genius loci. (The plural is genii, by the way.) Light is important here. The genius loci is powered by the sun.

If you go to somewhere like Japan, or watch Japanese anime, you’ll see the Eastern equivalent, for example the butsudan in traditional Japanese homes. (A butsudan is a corner of a room where you put photos of dead loved ones and incense and food offerings.)

But in the West we simply refer to ‘the spirit of the place’ rather than something that’s actively guarding.

The term used to refer specifically to gardens, but now can describe the spirit of any kind of place.

SETTING AS CHARACTER

Then there’s the ultimate in sophisticated essays about setting. This is where you write about how setting is basically one of the characters.

What do people mean when they talk about setting as character?

To the list above, let’s add the following of any work:

  • Who else is there (apart from the main character)?
  • How are these characters interconnected?
  • What values do they share and disagree on?

Now to that fourth dimension: How is the setting a character in its own right? Let’s start with what makes a ‘character’.

Let’s address these specifically human attributes one by one, as applied — this time — to a setting.

How does a setting want something?

Unless you subscribe to an olde worlde religion where you believe spirits exist in the river, in the mountains, in the trees, you probably agree that a physical setting doesn’t want anything — it just is.

However, there are certain aspects of setting — such as weather events — which can take on the persona of a monstrous character. A tornado behaves like a horror villain in its ‘single-minded’ wish to follow its course, caring not for the havoc its wreaks upon those in its path.

Hollywood is fond of odd-couple films, so you’ll be familiar with stories in which two contrasting characters are stuck together to achieve some kind of goal. Lethal Weapon, The African Queen, and Rush Hour are stand-out examples of that genre. Sometimes you get an odd-couple film which doesn’t contrast two characters — instead, it contrasts a character with their setting. This is known as a fish-out-of-water story.  Beverly Hills Cop, City Slickers, Splash and so on. When a setting is used to contrast a human character, the setting itself seems to take on human qualities, turning a story into a different take on the odd couple story. Hero against setting this time. People have a tendency to anthropomorphise, and sometimes it really does seem like nature itself is against you. In reality, the setting doesn’t ‘want’ anything, but when it rains six weekends in a row and you want to get out into the garden, it can seem like the weather has some sort of vendetta against you. Writers can utilise this natural human tendency in storytelling by juxtaposing the main character’s goals against natural events in the environment. Weather is a great one, but it might be a forest which characters can get lost in, or something much less dramatic, like a tall building which prevents an old man’s yard from getting any sun, thereby affecting his tomatoes.

How does a setting have a psychological shortcoming?

The only way a setting can have a psychological shortcoming is if we’re talking about the collective shortcoming of the people who are there — its visitors or inhabitants. For instance, the insularity of a community who is forced to accommodate strangers, or the lack of community of a big city which is later forced to band together to fight a common evil.

The concept of pathetic fallacy is crucial here.

If a setting is ‘gloomy’, that’s because the viewpoint character feels gloomy. Of course, in real life, a setting just is. If everything around you seems gloomy that’s because you’re seeing it that way. In fiction causality is presumed to work backwards — a character feels gloomy because the setting is gloomy. In earlier times in history, people really did think backwards in this way.

How does a setting have a moral shortcoming?

How does a setting treat ‘other’ characters badly? Your human characters can feel let down and abandoned by their home environment if they’ve dutifully tended to the land only to be faced with a drought which renders them unable to survive. In this way, farms can ‘betray’ farmers. Of course, it’s the farmers feeling this emotion. It’s entirely one-sided. That doesn’t matter in fiction.

How does a setting get caught up in a big struggle?

In a disaster story like Twister, the setting creates the big struggle. But it doesn’t have to seem ‘proactive’ — a desert just sits there minding its own business, but because a desert is inhospitable to human life, any human who tries to walk across desert sands is going to find themselves in a big struggle against the desert.

How does a setting have a anagnorisis?

Since this stage is inextricably linked to the ‘psychological shortcoming’ part of a story, the same holds true. A community of people can realise something at once, after some common big struggle. Or, maybe the community doesn’t realise anything, but the reader does.

How does a setting undergo a character arc?

To sum up, this portion of  Cheryl Klein’s newsletter explains what most people mean when they talk about ‘setting as character’:

I would love any tips on how to make the setting come alive. Seems sometimes the setting is like a character.

I’d say treat the setting like a character, and try to develop it the way you would a character. Some questions to contemplate:  What is the history of this place? Write out a timeline of it. What did it look like before any beings lived on/in it—its landscape, its climate? If it’s a human-made place (e.g. a house or a business or a town), who built it, and for what purpose, and why at that location? Who has occupied this place since, and how have they used it? If there were a “spirit of the place,” what would that spirit be like, and how would it have reacted to each of these occupants? Think of at least three specific details for each of its historical iterations:  the kind of flora and fauna that dwelled there, a game played there, the surnames of the families that lived there. Which of those details have survived into the present day of your story?

FOR WRITERS:

BRINGING A SETTING TO LIFE

  1. Write about the people who live(d) there.
  2. Write about how the setting either props up or opposes humans who enter its territory.
  3. Personify the setting at a line level. (I write about the difference between personification and anthropomorphism in this post.)

Individual writers create their own regular tricks to evoke the feeling that a setting is alive.

Annie Proulx is a master at this. For example, Proulx doesn’t care if a verb is transitive or intransitive. She uses it as she sees fit. Below she describes a snowy, sleety, windy scene in which a family of men are about to go out hunting:

Something outside, the garbage can cover, hurled along, stuttering metal.

A Run of Bad Luck

Hurl is a transitive verb — it takes an object — but Proulx using it as an intransitive verb. This has the effect of making the environment sound like it is alive, and also like it’s antagonistic. I’d say the technique of manipulating standard grammar is related to personification, but not quite.

FURTHER READING

comic from Poorly Drawn Lines

If you’ve read Educated by Tara Westover, Matt Bird has a blog post about why (rather than how) Westover turns her mountain into a character.

For a different take on the exact same topic as this post see Person, Place or Thing?: Characterizing Setting by AYŞE PAPATYA BUCAK at Fiction Writers’ Review

The Earth Is Just As Alive As You Are from the New York Times

“The history of life on Earth is the history of life remaking Earth.”

A Meditation on Our Relationship to the Landscapes We Inhabit from the New York Times

“Lessard devotes much of the book to exploring what she terms America’s ‘atopia,’ our vast, seemingly unplanned, inchoate, exurban sprawl, which remains to her largely inscrutable and tragic. She writes about such places from what you might call an exalted literary remove. The mode is epistolary, poetic, occasionally honest to a fault.”

The way in which place interacts with human beings is one of the focal points in philosophy, so if you want to know more about that, philosophy is the place to go. For example, Heidegger coined the phrase Dasein to describe the state of ‘being-in-the-world’.

Buildings As Character In Fiction

New Zealand As Depicted In Fiction

How is your country generally depicted in fiction, by writers outside your country? New Zealand in fiction, not surprisingly, is the stock country for ‘a place really, really far away.’

Will grayson New Zealand

Now, I am not generally given over to excitement, but Neutral Milk Hotel sort of changed my life. They released this absolutely fantastic album called In the Aeroplane Over the Sea in 1998 and haven’t been heard from since, purportedly because their lead singer lives in a cave in New Zealand.

– from Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan

In the English light-hearted drama Last Tango In Halifax, a relative who came from New Zealand to England had made a REALLY big effort to be at a wedding celebration, and therefore his very presence was amazing.

In Louise Rennison’s Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging (or Perfect Snogging, depending on which side of the Atlantic you’re on), the main character’s father is sent away to New Zealand to work, which is a plot device to keep him really far away.

Angus-Thongs-and-Perfect-Snogging-2008-Hollywood-Movie-Watch-Online

New Zealand sometimes even gets a mention in American fiction. Even in Breaking Bad! In this case, New Zealand is the stock country that ‘no one knows anything about’ and is the perfect place for Americans to go if they want a new start. Forget that in order for an American to enter New Zealand with intent to live you actually need a visa. (Works both ways!)

Jane Margolis: Do you know what this is? [refers to a bag full of money]
Jesse Pinkman: It’s a whole lot of cheddar.
Jane Margolis: This is freedom. This is saying, “I can go anywhere I want. I can be anybody.” What do you want to be? Where do you want to go? South America? Europe? Australia?
Jesse Pinkman: Is New Zealand part of Australia?
Jane Margolis: New Zealand is New Zealand.
Jesse Pinkman: Right on. New Zealand. That’s where they made “Lord of the Rings”. I say we just move there, yo. I mean, you can do your art. Right? Like, you can paint the local castles and shit. And I can be a bush pilot.

– from Breaking Bad, penultimate episode of season 2

Sometimes, though, ‘distance’ equals ‘stupidity’ or ‘naivety’. Which makes me wonder what Americans think New Zealand teens do with their time. Because New Zealanders are watching the same shows, listening to the same music, wearing the same fashions, more or less. I’m pretty sure Kiwis know more about American culture than the other way around.

Wit from Riverdale actress. Riverdale is an American TV show.

That’s because America has a long history of exporting its culture, while admitting very little in.

What is New Zealand really like?

Here’s an article from a European whose version of New Zealand — from books introduced by his Kiwi girlfriend— turned out to be quite different from the New Zealand he met when he eventually visited the country.