Can you think of a novel or short story that describes its setting in ways that seem to you, as reader or writer, to reflect the emotions of its point-of-view character? For some writers this happens without planning or forethought. They discover the setting and the emotions it evokes in the POV character in much the same way they find the story trail itself: by following their noses. The result is an intimate connection between the character and his environment that is difficult to describe. When it happens to me, it feels like magic.
I will try to illustrate this connection with an example from my own work because I know something about what happens inside me as I write. In Boundaries, my novel about a lawyer and a client in a child custody case, much of the story takes place close to the Pacific Ocean on California’s Northcoast. There are scenes that take place on the beach, in nearby dunes, on bluffs high above the ocean, and on the gauzy edge of fog induced by the collision of cool, moist ocean air and hot, dry inland air. Without knowing it until late in the first draft, my placing the story on the boundary between continent and ocean was significant: I discovered that I was exploring the way people push against important boundaries in their lives – personal inhibitions they may need to cross in order to grow and ethical/moral requirements they are expected to honor but feel driven to violate. Regarding the latter, I suppose I am challenging my readers to reach for compassion that may not be easily forthcoming given the nature of the transgressions.
Describing Boundaries’ “found” settings unwittingly became one of the ways I explored my two POV characters’ inner lives. Ben Snow, the lawyer and a solitary soul, lives along an isolated stretch of road one pasture and a low rise of dunes away from a mostly empty stretch of beach. Sydney Bouquet, the client from another place and a woman of great fortitude in the face of a dramatic challenge, learns to appreciate him in part by becoming acquainted with where he lives and how he lives there. The reader learns about Sydney’s inner struggles when I take the story to her home in a small southern town. The settings reveal the moods and deepest aspects of my POV characters’ natures.
I could mention other stories in which the writing reveals the connection between setting and character, but I’d rather hear from you. What have you read or written that illustrates this connection?
In the meantime, in future posts I may include selections of Boundaries’ settings to illustrate my point and engage you in conversation.