Setting as Tightrope

Last night, at a meeting of my wonderful critique group, I got to thinking about settings and how vitally important they are in a novel. By skillfully weaving together the threads of place and time, the author gives the story a texture that can feel more real than truth and transports the reader in a way that's very difficult to duplicate in plays, TV, or movies.

So many of the books I love are distinguished by their use of setting, whether it's real (The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society, The Help, The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, The Other Boleyn Girl) or imagined (Dune, The Lord of the Rings, etc.). But the author has to consider far more than a bunch of pretty descriptions, which can easily obscure the real story and bore a reader to tears. To really make the "exotic" setting work, the writer has to consider what characters would grow organically out of that setting and what the impact of living under those particular circumstances would be on that person. The author's goal should be to create characters that could only exist in that milieu.

We've all read stories that read as if the author plucked a modern-day (or urban) character with modern-day attitudes and dropped him/her into another place/time. This misfit character then proceeds to show the misguided yokels how very wrong they are in light of our current society's perceptions.

Ugh. Doesn't work, but neither does alienating today's readers by confronting them with attitudes most would find repellent. The challenge is finding shared values between the culture you're writing and our own and creating a character that champions them while remaining true to his/her own milieu.

It's a tightrope, definitely. But nobody ever promised that this writing thing was easy.

Do you have a favorite setting or an example of a book that makes excellent use of setting? Can you think of any books with contemporary settings that accomplish the same feat?


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