MORE THAN MERE SETTING
When we first study creative writing, we’re told that the principal elements of fiction are plot, character, and setting. My sense is that teachers of writing spend a good deal more time on plot and character than they do on setting. Perhaps that’s justified. After all, the plot of a novel or short story is essential, whether it’s an action-packed thriller or a psychological drama. Without the plot there is no story. And it is widely recognized that plot and character are inextricable. Plot—a convincing plot, anyway—arises from character, and the reader learns about the characters in a work of fiction from observing how those characters react to the complications that develop in the plot.
But what about setting? It’s as hard to imagine a story without a setting as it is to imagine one without characters.
The absence of setting—some kind of deep space vacuum, perhaps?—would itself be a setting. Even beginning writers will expend some effort in describing the landscape of their work. In the best fiction, though, setting is more than just a backdrop. The time and place of the story are as fundamental to the plot as character and help to establish a credible narrative. Think of a classic story, like Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” The familiar plot arises from the conflict between the Grandmother and her son, Bailey. In the process of the telling, the reader learns a great deal about who these people are and the forces that compel them. One of those forces is the story’s setting, both its time and place. The Grandmother’s longing for the Old South of her childhood and her distortion of its romance motivates her, not only in her relationship with her son but also in her interaction with The Misfit. The story is really about the setting, in some ways, as much as it is about religion and belief, and the convincing details of the setting establish O’Connor’s authority.
Another favorite story where setting plays a crucial role is Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain.” In the first half of the story, the main character’s experience of the setting—the ornately decorated bank lobby—is revealing of his character. And after he is shot by the bank robber, the bullet passing through his brain encounters the landscape of his memory, a completely different setting. In this story, the character and the setting are one. A more recent example is “The Littoral Zone” by Andrea Barrett. The principal setting is named in the title of the story, and also provides the story’s controlling metaphor. The story works on multiple levels because of the setting.
While setting may not always carry the symbolic weight Barrett gives it in “The Littoral Zone,” it should never be an incidental element of a story or novel. In my first collection of short stories, In an Uncharted Country (Press 53, 2009), I explore a fictional landscape—a small town and its rural surroundings—that is as much a character as any of the community’s residents. In many of the stories, which are linked by this setting as well as by overlapping characters and recurring thematic elements, the protagonist is displaced for one reason or another: a teenager estranged from her family; an African American sheriff’s deputy experiencing prejudice; a drug-addicted woman returning after a long absence; a gay newcomer; and so on. These people are looking for a place within the community, a setting that is at the same time welcoming and resistant to change. Like the southern landscape in O’Connor’s story, the setting provides an implicit context for the characters and plots. Set somewhere else, the stories would likely be very different.
I was even more deliberate with setting as I wrote my second collection, the novel in stories What the Zhang Boys Know (Press 53, 2012). For that book I created a fictional condominium building occupied by a diverse cast of characters, a menagerie that reflects the larger population of Washington DC. The confined space of the building, which contributes to the plot’s central narrative, has features that are somewhat anthropomorphic. The building’s location, near Chinatown, and its name (Nanking Mansion) are also significant because of the country of origin of the main characters as well as one of the book’s principal thematic elements. Also, the building’s lobby features an art gallery in which a good deal of the book’s action takes place, highlighting the contrast between its artistic and bureaucratic residents, another of the book’s themes.
My most recent book is one that I curated and edited—Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet (Press 53, 2014). The book includes 20 stories by 20 authors set in 20 countries, so obviously the settings are critical. The stories that I chose for the book do not feature tourists, travelers who might have only a superficial understanding of their temporary environments. Instead, the stories involve expatriates or locals who know their places intimately. The writers and their characters are able to explore more deeply, digging beneath the surface of the settings. While the locations are mostly very different from each other, the stories share the depth of international experiences, and discover that no matter where you go, it’s a dangerous world.
Place is more than mere setting for fiction. Through setting, an author has an opportunity to establish authority—does she really know what she’s talking about?—and also can deepen and emphasize pertinent aspects of character and plot. Ideally, setting is more than atmosphere. It’s an indispensable element of the work.