How Settings Help Shape Characters’ Character
by Anne Boles Levy
I love long walks on sunlit beaches, or watching it rain outside my window, or listening to the happy screams of kids on a playground. I love settings, in other words. I’m in different moods in each of those places, and I’m always curious to see how that’s true of characters in novels and movies.
People react to their surroundings – think of yourself, stuck in traffic, with someone cutting in front of you. Honnnkkk! Then think of yourself in your favorite reading spot, curled up with a book and a cup of cocoa. I know where I’d rather be.
And why shouldn’t characters be the same? How would one of your students describe Katniss Everdeen hunting in the woods near her home versus her state of mind in the Hunger Games arena? Or Harry Potter living in the cupboard under the stairs versus his first view of Hogwarts?
I love teaching about setting to my middle schoolers, and I think I achieved a Zen-like bliss creating my own setting for The Temple of Doubt.
In it, my protagonist, Hadara, squirms with discomfort in a hot, sticky classroom on a tropical island. She can’t wait for the open spaces of her town and its surrounding wilds. She too reacts differently in each place, until it was hard for me to separate setting from situation, and situation from characterization. Her ability to wade through a swamp, shimmy up a tree, and find her way among treetop huts says something about the choices she makes and where she feels she can be herself.
Characters don’t merely interact in their settings – it’s not just a place where stuff happens. Take these two characters: one wakes up each morning between silk sheets, the sun streaming through high windows into an airy room. The other wakes up on a hard pallet in the hayloft of a barn, with only a scratchy horse blanket for warmth.
Without knowing anything else about the characters – gender or age, ethnicity or national origin – you’re likely already inferring a few facts about their life circumstances. Maybe you’re imagining that one is likely well off and the other, not so much. Were they born into these circumstances, or is this a recent quirk of fate for each? What might happen if they met?
When I taught 6th grade, I had my students keep a little chart for all the settings in A Wrinkle in Time, since Meg and her companions land on several planets, including a two-dimensional one! But we start at Meg’s comfy home, with its brightly lit kitchen, and we compare not only all the different places she winds up, but how her attitude and reactions also change.
Characters, like real people, are at least partly a product of their environments, and their sense of belonging – or not – can in turn spark the central conflict. Sometimes they fit perfectly in a setting, and it comes under attack, forcing them to act. Other times, home is no longer where the heart lies, and it’s time to journey on.
When seen through the character’s eyes, setting becomes so much more than a place and a time. It’s often a map to the parts of themselves that matter most.
About the Book:
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.
Excerpt from the Book:
My sandals thunked across age-worn planks on a bridge that linked the two halves of the city, east and west, commerce and families. The bridge’s arch gave me a flawless view of the flat rows of warehouses, the ships in their berths, the gleaming white of the Customs House at the mouth of the harbor. I could hear the singsong street vendors that gave Callers Wharf its name. It was already filling with crowds anticipating a spectacle. We hurried across the bridge and plunged into its teeming market. A brass trinket lured here, a whiff of savory spices pulled there. Amaniel tapped her foot impatiently while I took a peek into a few stalls before they closed.
“What if Nihil himself is coming? Honestly, Hadara, you’d make him wait while you tried on scarves.”
“The kiosks are always closed by the time school lets out.” I was sure I could face anything, even Nihil, in a pair of cloth slippers dyed a vivid pink, but they were about to vanish behind a reed shutter. “If Nihil’s coming, the port might be closed for a long time. If he isn’t, then maybe he won’t be offended if I shop some.”
Amaniel gripped my sleeve. “I’m dragging you if you don’t come. I mean it. I’m not missing this.”
“Alright, alright,” I said. “I don’t know what bitter root you’ve been eating today, but you’re all pucker.”
About the Author: Anne Boles Levy has lived in eight states, forcing her to make up settings for her fantasy novels since she can’t remember what any real place looks like. She currently teaches English to middle schoolers after more than two decades writing and editing for print, web, and radio. Anne is a graduate of Smith College and studied abroad at University College London, and has her master’s in journalism from Columbia University. She’s also an amateur silversmith and the absent-minded wife to her long-suffering husband, Brett. They run around after two children and a cat in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Thank you to Cheryl at Skyhorse Publishing, Inc. for connecting us with Anne!