Monday, January 27, 2014

Inhabiting Your Setting

 Actors sometime talk about “inhabiting” a character. As near as I can tell, they mean that they try to get inside the skin of the character and live—at least for a while—as if they are that person. They want to ‘think’ like the character so their actions will come natural.

We writers generally can’t do the same thing because we are writing “many” characters. We can’t inhabit just one or all our characters will sound and act the same. What we can do, however, is inhabit the setting our characters move through. Setting has a powerful influence on character thoughts  & actions. It affects every character.

Take the woods, for example. I grew up in the country and spent a lot of time in the forest. I’ve been there in daytime, in fog, in mornings & evenings, at night. I’ve camped out. Explored. I’ve been cold and shivering there, felt awe and fear. While writing the book Cold in the Light, which was set mostly in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas, I took many long walks in the woods at night to try and get back the feel for such wild climes. I was putting my characters through that kind of experience and wanted to feel what they were supposed to be feeling. I think it worked, and parts of that book made me distinctly uncomfortable while writing them.

Anyone can experience the woods, of course. But what if the story setting doesn’t actually exist? Under the Ember Star takes place on the frigid desert world of Kelmer. I’ve never been. So how did I ‘inhabit’ that environment?  First, my wife and I took a trip several years ago to Arizona & New Mexico. Lana is a photographer and took many pictures of barren, desiccated landscapes. We toured a slot canyon that showed the power of water in a desert setting. I spent a lot of time in those places, soaking in the feel. I also read a bunch of books about living in desert environments, such as Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire.

Then I did lots of imagination work related to the story. Not just on the storyline. I imagined and worked through scenarios in my head for all kinds of settings in the book. I asked questions like, what if I had been there a few hours before an event in the book took place, or a few hours after? What would the temperature be? How much dust would be in the air? Would there be bugs? Would there be any food?  How would the plants look? I followed these questions up, if needed, by Googling photos and chronicles that might help me.

A writer’s primary job is to get the reader to ‘experience’ what the characters are experiencing. Inhabiting the setting for a story is one way to do that.
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22 comments:

Cloudia said...

yes! I did a lot of research of all sorts on the location of my current project. Not all of the research makes it into the work, but it makes it into the author!


ALOHA from Honolulu
Comfort Spiral
> < } } ( ° >

Ty Johnston said...

And sometimes the location can be a character itself, if done right. Larry McMurtry can do this, in my opinion, as way of example.

Bernard Lee DeLeo said...

I agree with Ty. McMurtry does location to the point, it takes on a characterization of its own. I never thought I'd enjoy location in the detail he does it, but for some reason he makes it a gripping experience.

Merisi said...

There's nothing more disconcerting for a reader than to realize the author of the story did not inhabit the setting, be it the location or the period in history (sometimes both). Unfortunately, some contemporary writers' books still sell like hotcakes, because of the setting, no matter how little the place and time are reflected in the story.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Sometime we really have to use our imagination. I was fortunate I lived in Arizona as a kid, because those memories of the desert came in handy when crafting the world of my second novel.

Tom Doolan said...

Excellent insight. As always, you make me think.

pattinase (abbott) said...

This is a wonderful point, Charles. And why I love setting so much.

jodi said...

Charles-the best stories come form actual experience. You rock in all your efforts!

David J. West said...

Great piece Charles. I've done the same, utilizing places I grew up in to flesh out the mountains and forests in my stories.

Kinda surprised at myself at how many fantasy tales I've done that are set in deserts too, but I suppose I have spent quite a bit of time in those as well.

Riot Kitty said...

That is a very cool inside look, thank you. My characters are brats. They always do what I don't plan for them to do, damn it.

David Cranmer said...

Well said, Charles.

Brian Miller said...

i def agree on getting the reader into the experience and a well crafted setting does just that...lets them be a character in th story....every bit of life is research...that is why i try to capture little places in my poems, cementing the details...i will use them later in my stories...

Charles Gramlich said...

Cloudia, makes it into the author. What a cool way of saying it. 

Ty Johnston, I love when that happens too. L’Amour achieved this for me sometimes. I’ve not read a lot of McMurtry’s work.

Bernard Lee DeLeo, too little versus too much. It’s a delicate balance, but I tend to prefer more to less.

Merisi, absolutely. Especially tough with historical settings. But I love when it is done right.

Alex J. Cavanaugh, the imagination can do tremendous work if it’s fed with the right elements.

Tom Doolan, I appreciate that.

pattinase, thanks. Setting is tremendously important to me.

jodi said..., you are sweet. Thank you.

David J. West, deserts seem a natural for fantasy settings. Living on the edge, I suppose.

Riot Kitty, my characters don’t always either, at least consciously. Unconsciously , perhaps so.

David Cranmer, thanks, man!

Brian Miller, cementing experiences is a key. Getting them so well known that they inform your work without you hardly being aware of it.

Ty Johnston said...

Charles, I know you love Westerns, so I can highly recommend McMurty's work, specifically his four novels surrounding the Gus McRae and Woodrow Call characters, the first of which is "Lonesome Dove."

Charles Gramlich said...

Ty, I did read Lonesome Dove and liked it considerably. I will probably read the rest over the next year or so.

ivan said...

Donno about a character experiencing something, but here is something out of a play that I never managed to sell. It was a play version of my Fire in Bradford:

INT.
GREY GOAT ENGLISH PUB AGAIN. THE PLACE IS NOISY AND RAUCOUS. THE MAIN
ATTRACTION IS THE BUSY BAR WITH ITS FULLBREASTED, SATIN-BLOUSED BARMAIDS.
THERE ARE TWO OF THEM , A BLONDE AND A BRUNETTE SERVING. THE PLACE IS
INTERNATIONAL, THOUGH LARGELY SCOTS. SOME OF THE MEN ARE INDEED IN
KILTS.

LYING DOWN ON THE GREEN BAIZE POOL TABLE, ONE FOOT STILL ON THE FLOOR AS PER RULES, A SCOTSMAN LOOKS SLIGHTLY RIDICULOUS, KILT HIKED WAY UP, BUTTOCKS SHOWING, AS HE ATTEMPTS A TIGHT CORNER SHOT FROM THE MIDDLE OF THE TABLE.
ONE OF THE OPPOSING PARTNERS TAKES HIS CUE AND WORKS IT UP THE KILT OF THE SUPINE SCOTSMAN.

SCOTS POOL PLAYER.
Will ye just fuck- off, Mate?

.............
You shouldn't build character when you're hung-over? :)

Aimless Writer said...

Great post. I think its all a combination of imagination and experience. A great writer is one who can put it all together and make the reader "feel" it.

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Charles, I agree with everyone above—very well said. I liked the way you went about inhabiting the setting of the characters in your books. This way sounds more challenging than using one's imagination, I don't know. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

the walking man said...

It would be good to have multiple personalities. As long as your not writing a murder mystery. What do you do if your background is fully inaccessible like some of the Beat writers tried to do, imagine a place that simply does not exist?

Charles Gramlich said...

Ivan, judging from that snippet, I'm inclined to agree on the "hung over" part. :)

Aimless, yep, I agree.

Prashant, it certainly involves imagination, but that is not always enough. Certainly not to get some accuracy.

Mark, well, I do a lot of imaginary worlds, but the details can be worked out from real experience.

WordsPoeticallyWorth said...

An interesting post that I enjoyed reading. I like taking perspectives as a writer!

Thank you. Love love, Andrew. Bye.

Charles Gramlich said...

wordspoeticallyworth, thanks for dropping by. Glad you enjoyed.