Friday, September 30, 2016

1 A Setting Is More Than a Set or Stage Prop: How to Use It To Your Advantage

By Anne Boles Levy

I'm trying to picture Hogwarts without its moving staircases or ghosts or talking portraits. Geez, it’d be just another musty castle. Or Hunger Games without its deadly tech, including the tracker jackers that make killer bees look wimpy. It’d just be another walk in the park.

One of the first things we notice in a book is its setting, yet it’s one of a story’s assets that we often overlook in judging whether it’s a must read or a yawner. We’re plot-obsessed – what happened and when and to whom? But plots are famously mostly templates that can be stretched to fit many characters in many situations. It’s their setting that often determines how a plot plays out, and whether the protagonist is made of the right stuff.

Settings aren’t just sets where props get rearranged scene by scene: they’re places and times that work their magic on characters. Where someone lives or works or plays influences how they act, what choices they make, and how they grow. It’s where every story starts and ends, and all points in between. Without attention to the details in a setting, an entire plot can lose its shape, to the point where we readers don’t know the wheres and whens, making even the most compelling characters seem lost in time and space.

But when well crafted, a setting can take on a character of its own, until we can try to imagine what choices we’d make for ourselves if stuck in Divergent’s mutilated version of Chicago.

I like to try this thought experiment with my 8th graders: imagine two identical twins, separated at birth. For simplicity’s sake, let’s say they’re boys, they’re white, and their DNA is the same in every respect. One boy is raised in the wealthy part of Scottsdale, Arizona, where some of my students live, amid the McMansions and gated communities, the tennis clubs and horse ranches and four-star spa resorts. The other boy is raised in the ugliest parts of South Phoenix, spending his childhood shuttling between bug-infested, crowded public housing and homeless shelters, soup kitchens and social workers.

Imagine their futures, I ask them. When they’re your age, what do you expect each boy to be like? What would it be like to sit next to them in class? What would each boy be wearing, how would he sound when he talked, what would be his relationship with his adoptive parents?

It doesn’t take long for students to realize that much of what we call white privilege and entitlement would evaporate for the second boy, while the first boy would probably dial those traits up to 11. Most of my students, bless their hearts, say they’d like to get to know Boy 2 and his struggles, and thought Boy 1 would likely be a snotty jerk.

While there are many political and sociological discussions we could have about the twins, in keeping with the setting theme, the class usually concludes with a short exercise on imagining how other settings in stories they’ve read may have influenced the characters. It’s an eye-opener for most of them, and, I think, helps them assess why they feel so uncomfortable reading classic dystopias like Fahrenheit 451 or Harrison Bergeron.

(Oh, and if you’re now inspired to update Twain’s “The Prince and the Pauper,” be my guest. I’d read it, for sure!)

When I set about to create the setting for The Temple of Doubt and its sequel, The Well of Prayers, I knew I wanted a place that really rang true for the protagonist, Hadara. In the story, the forces of magic work against nature, and so the reader had to see this conflict and Hadara’s place in it. More than that, I wanted readers fully immersed with Hadara – hearing the steady buzz of insects and birds in the swamp, feeling the sea breezes wafting in, even smelling the aromas of the open-air market.

By grounding readers in Hadara’s experience, I wanted them to understand the pull of her two worlds as the magic-using temple and the natural world clashed around her, affecting the city and island she loved. My reasoning was to create a character at one with her world until it began to split into two, which in turn sparked Hadara’s own inner conflict.

My 8th graders would, of course, already be pointing out that I’m talking about imagery, and I’ve trained them to avoid saying imagery’s purpose is to “paint a picture in the reader’s head”. I’m not painting pictures; I’m hoping to characterize Hadara and make her inner conflict visceral, tangible, and more fully relatable. A description that simply describes has failed. A setting needs to have its own personality, including both strengths and flaws, and it has to have both direct and indirect influence on the characters. And while that is done through the use of the five senses, it’s not merely to describe or create pictures.

Again, think of orphaned Harry Potter in his cupboard under the stairs, compared to the Harry Potter warmly ensconced in the Gryffendor common room. You could describe either so the reader “sees” it, but JK Rowling instead chose to make Hogwarts emblematic of an entire world, one only slowly revealed to Harry, until its every astonishing nook and cranny was part of his soul, and worth defending with his life. He has metaphorically emerged from a narrow, dark hole into a vastly richer and wondrous existence.

That is a when a setting can not only be described, but characterized. And once it takes on a degree of life on the page, the setting becomes a unique part of the story, far more powerful in influence and open to almost infinite variation. 


It’s been two six-days since a falling star crashed into the marshes beyond Port Sapphire, putting the wilds of Kuldor off-limits to fifteen-year-old Hadara. She feels this loss deeply and is eager to join her mother beyond the city limits to gather illegal herbs and throw off the yoke of her tedious religious schooling. Medicines of any sort are heresy to the people of Port Sapphire, who must rely on magic provided by the god Nihil for aid. And if people die from that magic, their own lack of faith is surely to blame. At least, that’s what Hadara has been taught—and has so far refused to believe.

Hadara and her mother have ignored the priests’ many warnings about their herb gathering, secure in knowing their tropical island is far from Nihil’s critical gaze. Then two powerful high priests arrive from Nihil’s home city to investigate the fallen star, insisting it harbors an unseen demon. This sets off speculation that an evil force is already at work in Port Sapphire and brings one of the holy men to Hadara’s doorstep. When he chooses Hadara as a guide into the wilds, she sets off a chain of events that will upend everything she’s been taught about the sacred and the profane.

The Temple of Doubt is the first installment in a series that follows a teenager who is given a greater destiny and purpose than she could’ve ever imagined.

The sequel, THE WELL OF PRAYERS, is out now and available.


Anne Boles Levy currently teaches English to middle schoolers after more than two decades of writing and editing for print, web, and radio. Anne is a graduate of Smith College and studied abroad at University College London. She also has her master’s in journalism from Columbia University. Anne is an amateur silversmith and the absentminded wife to her long-suffering husband, Brett. They run around after two children and a cat in Scottsdale, Arizona.

1 comment:

  1. Yes! The setting should be a character on its own. Great post.


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