Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Setting As Character

With all this talk of characterization, building better characters, and other such stuff, I thought it fair to look at the other side of the coin.  We all know that a good character is one to whom the reader can relate, but think of how certain stories would be without the one character who, though essentially silent, speaks volumes more than any character could.  I'm talking about places like King's Overlook Hotel, Matheson's Belasco House, Jackson's Hill House.  The way certain places are depicted places them in the center of the stage, and gives them a great deal of character without ever having them utter a word.  But how?  That's the point.

Let's take, for example, the classic trope of the haunted house.  To the casual passer-by, it's an eyesore, a collection of wood and termites more fit for the wrecking ball than human inhabitant.  But let's see how we can make it into a character by equating much of its structure into human terms.

  • paint = skin
  • windows = eyes
  • door = mouth
  • roof = top of the head
  • broken boards = teeth
So instead of a house with faded and chipped paint, we talk about its sallow, pock-marked skin, it's vacant eyes that stared out over the street.  We pass not through the door, but through its mouth and down its gullet.  If I were to say, in reference to the house, its poor balding top, you might immediately think that a few shingles were missing from the roof, which is exactly what I'd want you to think.  You can further the description through trees, overgrown front yards, and other things by likening them to other human characteristics.

But that's just description.  What about the house itself?  What makes it a character?  

Once again, we think of it in human terms.  We think of colors, yes, and smells, but more, we need to refer to it in terms that give it life.  We need for the reader to think of it as a living entity that reacts to the things that happen within its walls.  I don't mean the house has to literally come to life and try to eat people (though I've read a few stories and seen a few movies where such things do happen).  So how?  When I think of a haunted house, I think of several different types.  I think of the insidious kind that lulls the occupants into a false sense of security and shows no outward signs of being haunted, the overt craggy stereotype, or the type that can't escape its history.  The first type, I liken to an angry teenager.  Don't ask me why, but that's what comes to my mind.  The second, I think of as an angry old man.  The third, a shamed and embarrassed woman.  Since that's how I see them, that's also how I refer to them when I write about them. 

Take, for example, a draft through the house.  In the case of the first, I'd describe it in the same way I'd describe the angry exhalation of a petulant teenager.  A heavy sigh, perhaps, or a forced breath.  In the case of the second, I'd call it a wheeze, a rasp or even a snort.  In the case of the third, a gasp,perhaps.  Maybe a breath or a murmur or a whisper.  Any way I could possibly take that simple draft and turn it into something more meaningful, the breath of the house, creates a way to show the house is alive, and the words used to define that breath tells us more about the house's character.  Take the following two examples:

The floorboards creaked as he stepped on them.
The house groaned as it took his weight.

Both sentences mean the same thing.  Old house, noisy boards, overweight guy.  But in the first example, that's all we have.  Noisy boards.  In the second, the reader gets the image of the house protesting against his weight.  We get the image of the house maybe making a face as he steps on its floor.  Also, we get the idea that that the house isn't too happy to be trod upon by said fat guy. 

The example above is only a tiny part of personifying locations to make them into effective characters.  The same can be done with buildings, forests, even towns.  Even countries can be given a personality through description.  Don't believe me?  Ever heard of the Sleeping Bear that is Russia?  By using human terms (by the way, it's called "personification") to describe what happens inside a setting, we give that setting its own personality and create a character from it.  We stop writing about a world where buildings are made of brick and mortar, and begin living in a world where buildings welcome people inside, where houses stare out into streets, where hallways choke their inhabitants, and where hotels eat souls.  

Have a question?  Something to say?  Leave a comment!


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