Setting As (Changing) Character in Fiction

I’ve mentioned a few times that I’m now writing a series of short stories which take place in the same setting as my first novel. (A community playhouse.) I’ll be putting them in a collection and probably self-publishing them like many of my friends have, as a prelude or interest-sparker for the novel. But that’s a ways off for now.

I thought about making the stories feature the same characters as the novel, at least in part. I decided that would be giving away too much of what to expect in the novel. The next logical thing was to have all the stories take place in the same building.

Of course settings are often characters of their own in fiction. Whether it be obvious, like Hogwart’s in the Harry Potter series, (where it is quite literally alive in its own right), or more subtle like a historical setting. Even a modern city. Chicago has a character quite different from New York. Setting adds to your story, as characters interact with it, and live their lives in the midst of it.

I confess that unlike the people, I don’t usually go out of my way to outline in detail what sort of “character” the settings in my novel are. I tend to begin in a utilitarian sense; I ask myself, “what sort of environment is needed to tell this story?” And then I create it. (I rarely set my fiction in actual places. Too confining.) In the process of filling in those blanks, character of setting tends to appear in an organic fashion.

I’m learning more about the character of my setting for the novel now that I’m writing these stories. Based on some real life experience, the main setting for the novel is mostly my own creation, meant to bring specific life to the exact story I wanted to tell in the novel, not the short stories. These stories take place within a pre-existing structure, and must act accordingly. (I’m not one to change the rules of a building or universe just to fit a specific story.) These short stories will reflect the character of the building in ways the novel did not.

Also, given the varied nature of the stories, (some funny, some more somber), I get to see how the character of the place actually changes depending on what is happening. The physical characteristics may remain the same, but their impact on people shifts depending on various factors. That is true in the novel as well, but it is not as fast or as obvious there.

In some sense, this is giving more life to the environment. New characters and incidents must respond to what is already there, just like in real life. I get to explore the particularities of the Little Dionysus Playhouse that weren’t always available to me in the novel. It is both confining and liberating at the same time as I write the short fiction. I may make use of this tactic again for future novels, only before I finish, as opposed to after.

I have the better part of two stories, (out of ten) completed to rough draft stage at present. I look forward to exploring what else my own setting has to offer in the remaining stories.

How do you handle setting in your fiction? How do you respond to it as a reader?

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