Your Most Important Character
Developing Place in Fiction
by Denton Loving
Character and good characterization in writing are so important, for obvious reasons, that we often categorize stories and books (as well as television shows and movies) as plot-driven or character-driven. Readers love characters that they can learn to know intimately. The most memorable of these characters are carried in readers’ memories long after they’ve finished reading.
Too many writers, especially in the beginning of their careers, forget about the most important character of their narrative: place. Or, perhaps the problem is that not enough writers think about the places they write about as characters.
Place is so much more than providing the reader with the story’s physical location. Place, or sense of place as some would refer to it, demands that a writer closely and deeply examine the physical world that provides the stage for a story’s characters. Particular attention can be paid to natural landscapes, but the man-made landscapes of the world are just as essential. Those landscapes—both natural and man-made—affect characters, their dialogue, their actions, and therefore, their stories. These are the details that inform the reader about the spirit of a character’s location.
One way to think about this is in the context of other works of literature. In his book Naming the World: and Other Exercises for the Creative Writer, Bret Anthony Johnston writes, “If a story would unfold in Costa Rica just as it would in Siberia, then the author hasn’t yet fully developed the characters or their environs. Try imagining Huck and Jim floating down the Rio Grande or the Amazon and the novel not being changed.” Likewise, try to imagine Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina set outside of Russia or Willa Cather’s My Antonia somewhere besides the Great Plains of Nebraska. These examples are from classic pieces of literature, but the best contemporary writers also know that good stories are set in unique places. Ron Rash writes about the western mountains of North Carolina in novels like One Foot in Eden and Serena. Philipp Meyer’s novel American Rust is set in the rusted-out steel belt of Pennsylvania, and it wouldn’t be the same story if it happened anywhere else.
What these writers, from Tolstoy to Rash, do so well is depict a world that is unique to their story. What is it about the world of your story that is unique?
Scan the world as if you were looking through a camera lens. Envision the location of your scenes as if you were filming a movie. What’s in the foreground? What’s in the background? If you’re writing about a place that is based on a real location, use a real camera to photograph locations and study those pictures for details later. While you’re on location, pay attention to the moment in real time. A photo is often nowhere near as good a substitute for the real thing. However, the benefit of the photo is that it allows you to slow down your investigation of the scene.
Draw a map of places important to your character. The first time I did this was in a workshop with the writer Darnell Arnoult. It was an in-session exercise that I didn’t like, and the reason I didn’t like it was because I didn’t know enough about the place where my character lived. Over time, though, I’ve gone back to that map again and again, adding locations and often changing details as they changed in the story. Your first map doesn’t have to be exhaustive. Rather, the map, like your narrative, will grow and change.
When you think about the natural landscape in your narrative, consider the forces that formed that physical world. It’s not necessary to become a geologist or a botanist, but if knowing certain details about the natural world can add depth to your story, so much the better. Does it matter why your character’s home sits on a hill or a plateau? Does it matter why the woods behind your character’s home contain more white oak trees than yellow pines? That’s up to you to decide, but a little basic knowledge and some thought into areas such as these might aid your story. This question shouldn’t be limited to rural settings. If your story is set in an urban location, think about how the history of the city might influence your character. How landscapes and cities are formed is the equivalent of knowing when and where and under what circumstances your character was born.
Does your character live in harmony with his environment, or are the two at odds? Many writers use a sense of place to work as an extended metaphor for other events and actions in a character’s life. Other writers use a sense of place to thicken the plot and cause action. Both are powerful tools that will strengthen your writing.
By answering these questions, you’re building a distinct fictional world that will be memorable to your readers. The details of your fictional world will vary greatly depending on the writer, the character, and, among other factors, the place being described. Ironically, the more attention you pay to the place of your story—no matter how unique or unusual—the more universal experience you provide your readers, and really, that’s what all readers of good literature are looking for. ■
Denton Loving (“Your Most Important Character: Developing Place in Fiction,” p. 27) is enrolled in the Writing Seminars MFA program at Bennington College in Bennington, Vermont, where his critical work is focused on sense of place in literature. His fiction, poetry, essays, and reviews are forthcoming in River Styx, Flyleaf and [PANK].