Some Attempts at (Re)definition: Setting

I have been thinking for a while about how our attempts to define craft terms influence our students’ (and our own) aesthetics, and I have wanted to try other definitions. The first post is here.

awareness of the world

Though it has somehow become common to praise setting for acting “like a character” of its own (a compliment I get on my novel set in Prague), this is often a veiled way of praising work from unrepresented communities if it caters to the white gaze.

Let’s face it, setting is not a character. Only certain books (often ones set in locations unfamiliar to a white American audience) qualify for “setting as character,” because only certain books are read as if setting needs to play a primary role for the audience and a secondary role for the characters in the book itself.

As always, this is a question of who the implied reader really is versus who holds power with regards to literary criticism and workshopping.

Setting is about what the characters/narrator/implied author of a book notice. Sometimes, as in a human character visiting an alien planet for the first time, what the character notices might also sync up conveniently with what the audience is curious about—how different this planet is from Earth. But in other cases, say an alien returning to their alien planet, what the character notices might be quite different from what the audience is curious about—how different the alien’s home is now from the last time the alien was there (perhaps) versus how different the planet is from Earth.

If the alien were to focus instead on the differences from our human planet, then it must be presumed that the alien is speaking to a human audience. This, of course, makes sense, since the author is human. It becomes more complicated when instead of an alien you have, for example, an immigrant returning to the country they left, written by an author who has had this experience, for an audience of people who have had this experience. Or even a farm kid returning to the farm, written by a former farm kid for an audience of kids who grow up on farms.

If the farm kid starts describing what a tractor does, then the book is not for farm kids. It’s more like how a (empathetic) scientist will dumb down what they are doing in order to explain it to a lay person.

You have academic books written by academics for other academics in the same field, and you have general interest books written by academics for a lay audience. These books have different purposes.

Maybe the former farm kid wants to reach other kids like the kid they were. Though maybe it wouldn’t hurt their sales to describe what a tractor does, that description might now take the place of what the farm kid would really notice, and would signal to the farm kid reading that their experience is not the lends from which the setting is viewed. Maybe you think, innocent enough. But I remember reading so many novels as a child that seemed so much like my experience as an outsider, a kid picked on by the popular kids—yet not quite, because the reason I was picked on was so different. The outsider smartypants who solves a school mystery—that solution might change the fates of some, but it wouldn’t stop people from calling me racist slurs. I had the feeling always that these books were written for someone else, that they were possibilities for someone else, that other kids might read them and find the comfort that I could not. That the world they were in was different from the world I was in.

I’m getting away from how to use setting, because the effects of noticing are profound. What is noticed depends on the person noticing. What I mean is, the weather affects someone not used to the weather far more than it affects someone used to it. A man walking to his car in the parking lot at the same time as a female protagonist is a totally different setting than a man walking to his car in the parking lot at the same as a male protagonist. And add ability, race, sexuality, etc.

As writers we make choices about audience with each and every decision about what goes into a book and what does not. And these choices matter. Perhaps one of the reasons a white author might have trouble writing a protagonist of color is that the author is noticing the wrong things. The author is thinking of setting as a character of its own rather than reliant on character.

Like everything else, setting is tied intrinsically to character, plot, theme, arc, etc. A narrator who doesn’t notice the economy collapsing is different and has a different arc that says something different about the world than a narrator who notices nothing but the economy collapsing or than a narrator who notices the economy collapsing but really has to figure out how to take care of their ailing family member or escape a murderous ex, and so on. What is your protagonist aware of? What forces shape their awareness? What is the implied author aware of? What forces have shaped that awareness? What you notice says something about what is worth noticing and who is worth noticing and what kind of world they, in particular, inhabit.

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