Tuesday, November 16, 2010


I remember a graduate class where the professor seemed pretty much stuck on the idea that character and plot were one in the same. We talked about it for seven thousand hours, going over seven thousand lines of Henry James whereby that professor proved, undeniably, that Henry James could make both plot and character equally dull and therefore indistinguishable from one another.

I'm really sorry, but I can't stand Henry James.

 I'm not really sure why I took so much American Lit in grad school since that seems to be all we did. I actually do think there's a big difference between plot and character. What interested me way more, and what we almost never talked about, was the importance of setting.

Someone I read in grad school, when I was supposed to be reading Henry, was Eudora Welty. I saw her name on a bookstore shelf and I loved it.

Go ahead, say it: Eudora Welty.

It sounds like a children's book protagonist who is orphaned then left a fortune.I loved her name so much that I opened the book and saw it was about writing so I bought it. And she said this about setting:

"Every story would be another story, and unrecognizable if it took up its characters and plot and happened somewhere else... Fiction depends for its life on place. Place is the crossroads of circumstance, the proving ground of, What happened? Who's here? Who's coming?..."
When I sit down to write, I see a person, then I see where that person is standing or sitting or looking out a window. I have absolutely no sense of that person until I see where they are physically. It kind of fills in: rainy, city, Saturday afternoon, boy on bus, looking out sooty window. That kind of thinking. I put the character in the setting, then their personality sort of emerges.

I think I'd like to go back to graduate school now, as the teacher this time, and talk for a really long time about how setting is really a character in the story, right along with the characters who talk and interact and change or remain static.

I always wonder how other writers start their stories. I definitely think place before person. If someone said, "Quick! Write about a wedding!" I wouldn't think about the couple. I would think about where: if it was the Presbyterian chapel in Swedenboro, Minnesota (if there is such a place) it would be an entirely different couple than the couple waiting on the steps of the Little White Wedding Chapel in Las Vegas. The Minnesota couple would have begun saving for their first home and decided to use only green cleaning methods; the Las Vegas couple might be able to use the same public restroom.

I think everyone who writes works from a different circuit board. I'm just wondering what comes first for writers out there: the character or the place?


Glynis said...

For NaNo I had a Victorian farm, a pregnant woman and a field in my mind. The pregnant woman was from a story I tried in first person, and never got past one paragraph.

My Ripper, My Love novel, the twist in the story came first. The girl came second and the setting was already there. :)

For my children's book, I was eating a chewy bar. The name Chewy Chester popped into my head, and a little boy was created. No morning sickness, nothing...LOL

Marcia said...

Yes, setting is SO important. Without it, your reader doesn't get a mental picture, and without that, there's trouble. In a good, tight organic story it's hard to disassemble the elements of fiction. Since place goes so far in defining character, I do think they have to both be there at the start.

Marcia said...

Oh -- and greetings from South Africa. :)

Mary Witzl said...

I think setting is absolutely vital even though I personally think of characters first. I feel different in different places, and so does everybody I know. You may take yourself with you when you travel, but a different location can make a huge difference in your life.

And BOY, do I hate Henry James! The three days it took me to slog through Daisy Miller are three days I'll never have back.

Anne Spollen said...

Right, Glynis - you get a picture of the character standing or just being somewhere - like a pregnant woman in a field on a Victorian farm.

I'm not sure, but I think that image might win a prize of some kind just for sheer uniqueness! : )

Anne Spollen said...

Right, I think that's it Marcia - it is hard to disassemble the elements of fictions. It's that "smush factor" when they all blend together to create this one great story.

South Africa? Seriously?

That's an interesting perspective from you, Mary, since you have actually lived in more places than anyone I know.

And yes, Henry owes me quite a bit of time as well. What do people see in him? He's so dull.

Anonymous said...

mostly henry james is a lesser jane austin, seems to me. but... what about The Golden Bowl? or What Maisie Knew?

tahlianewland.com said...

They come together for me. Oops that sounds like romance!!! what I mean is I get a visual image of a scene that has the character and the setting together.

Do you have Light beneath ferns on ebook. I can't find one and would really like to read it. You can let me know at tahlia@activ8.net.au

I'm not sure if I've asked you this or not, but have you had a chance to check out ch 1 of lethal Inheritance on my blog yet?

Medeia Sharif said...

The setting is always on my mind and gives a distinct flavor to my writing. If I changed the setting, too many elements of the manuscript would change or would need to be changed.

Anne Spollen said...

Maybe, Anon, they are good novels, but they way James is handled in most American grad schools makes me want to run from reading anything else by him. We had to trace his use of the color blue - metaphorically. I doubt I'll ever recover from that...

Hi Tahlia - I'm pretty sure Light Beneath Ferns is on Amazon as an ebook - if by ebook you mean Kindle. Not sure about Australian Amazon though.

I will check out your blog soon and thanks for stopping by.

I agree, Medeia. To me, the setting is definitely a character in the story, and one that sort of holds it all together. The story would collapse without it.

Anonymous said...

I agree about schools abusing poor Henry. Not sure what that's about. But if you tried him on your own you might enjoy him. Overcoming bad memories of my own, I had to be convinced when I was in a book club -- and I was glad afterward. Henry James is no slouch, however he uses the color blue.