Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Wal-Mart: the Enemy of Setting

We all know by now, or at least you should if you are a fiction writer, that setting is a character; that place should live, breathe, and move just as your characters do.  I can't tell you how many boring, static descriptions of places I've read in the first few pages that literally lulled me to sleep.  But aside from being static and lifeless, I'm finding many settings in fiction to be indistinguishable in their sameness.  And what do we expect?  With a Wal-Mart in every town, McDonald's and Starbucks peppering every corner, what is left to distinguish one place from another?

With emphasis on corporations, chains, and globalization, I think our culture is slowly moving away from the importance of place, and what makes place unique.  What ever happened to all the dives, greasy-spoons, and local haunts that make a place memorable?  They have all seemingly been replaced by generic, cookie-cutter restaurants and hang-outs.  And when was the last time we all stopped and truly took in our surroundings, categorizing each element of the place we call home? 

 If you are writing a story set in the desert, I want to feel the relentless sun, the dryness on my skin, see the southwestern style stuccoed houses, etc.  If you're writing about the south, I want to pass by the huge plantation houses, smell the magnolias, and sip sweet tea on the porch with your characters. 

I think Faulkner is an excellent example of an author that gave us memorable settings; places we could feel and smell, see and hold in our thoughts, as if we were really there.  In his novel, A Rose For Emily, he doesn't just describe the house where Emily lives as a bland, typical house somewhere in the south.  He artfully paints us a picture of a crumbling Mississippi town in the post-civil war south:

"It was a big, squarish frame house that had once been white, decorated with cupolas and spires and scrolled balconies in the heavily lightsome style of the seventies, set on what had once been our most select street. But garages and cotton gins had encroached and obliterated even the august names of that neighborhood; only Miss Emily's house was left, lifting its stubborn and coquettish decay above the cotton wagons and the gasoline pumps--an eyesore among eyesores."

 I suppose my point in all of this anti-Wal-Mart nonsense is simply to stress the importance of place in the world of fiction.  We are all products of place, and the characters in our novels should be no different.  Whether it be a fictional setting or a real one, make it memorable and alive and it will help bring your characters to life as well.  Be selective in your description, though.  It's quality, not quantity, we're after.