All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.
Shakespeare, in ‘As You Like It’, Act 2, Scene 7
The concept of the World as a universal theater was already a common one at the time Shakespeare wrote the above quote. The character of ‘Jacque’, who utters these words, is purposely being a bit pretentious with them. For the beginning writer, however, the concept of choosing WHERE your story or novel takes place is an important one. Long before you put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, you should have done the planning, the research, and the outlining necessary to know WHERE your story begins and takes shape over time.
As a friend of mine once joked in College, “The stage precedes the character. If you place a character in thin air, they will fall to their doom, each and every time…”
To that, I would add that the stage determines the nature of the character, as well, and that’s crucial to our theme development. Placing your barbarian warrior hero on top of a wind-swept alien landscape might make them seem strong, determined, and powerful. Placing them, sword drawn, in the midst of the busy season of Macy’s Department Store makes your protagonist seem a just a little bit mentally disturbed, if anything!
The topic of this piece is the SETTING of your story or novel. What scene, geographical area, city, or building can best be used to establish your character, their history, their progression and their ultimate resolution to your theme?
Picture this, for example: You’ve decided to write a novel that decries the horror of war, how its principle motivation is financial, and how innocent people suffer needlessly when one group of people wage war to exploit the wealth and resources of another. Your story opens….
…in a candy shop! Cheerful, tinny music is playing in the loudspeakers throughout the store. Little children are dashing merrily about, examining the incredibly wonderful products for sale. Mom and Dad, arm in arm, are moving slowly behind their offspring, happy and content. To the far right, a clown wearing bright pink hair and a fake red nose, is juggling balls in the air.
Wow, now THAT’S pretty horrible! War is Hell, isn’t it? But unless you’re about to have a massive Bradley Armored Vehicle come plowing through the front display window of the story, scattering candy displays, frightened children, and parents, then this happy, merry scene may just prove to be a pretty poor STAGE for your story.
Now, if you’re writing Horror, and playing on the age old ‘fear of clowns’ concept, then this opening may just work for you fine and dandy. There are two key components to setting that we have to remember, then: WHERE will your theme be portrayed and enacted, and HOW will this setting affect your principle characters? WHAT opportunities will it provide them to act out their story; the one that is going to present your theme to your readers?
As I’ve done before, I will draw from my own meager experiences that led to the creation of the character ‘Ceylo Krinn’ in the recently published novel ‘Ceylo Krinn and the Fourth Faction’ (http://www.amazon.com/author/ralphstadig) to demonstrate this process.
My theme: The concept of ‘Good’ and ‘Bad’ isn’t determined by a social group, a belief system, or by the company your character keeps, but rather is an admission that each of us contains the seeds of both good and evil deep within ourselves and it’s the choice of our path and direction that we take through life that ultimately determines whether those choices and actions are beneficial to ourselves and others.
I chose a medieval setting, for a variety of reasons. For one, I was involved in a group role-play activity that was medieval in nature. Secondly, that setting was one where personal choice and action was often required, not chosen. There were no relief agencies: a character either chose to act or they perished. Other than using an American ‘Wild West’ setting, I can’t think of a better stage to develop a character that could endure both good and evil urges and choose to be ‘good’, no matter what the risk or consequence. Finally, this setting provided an easy way to develop minor themes in the story, as well: There would be a love story (or two, as it turned out), conflict between opposing interests, and sorcery to impress upon the reader the more mystical and ethereal elements of the choices that young ‘Ceylo’ made for herself.
Again, had I been working on a purely different theme, this setting may not have worked as well. In the end, the choice is yours, and I can only advise you to consider the impact of your stage and choose wisely.
In the case of ‘Ceylo’, she has a huge back story that deals with the horror of her original enslavement and the murder of her family. Yet, I chose not to begin my novel at that point in her history. My principle concern was her journey into adulthood and how she chooses to use the awful pain of her tortured past as a focal point for change. So Ceylo’s journey instead begins much later in her life within a simple medieval tavern; a dead mercenary guard lying in the alley outside, and a blacksmith no longer able to perform his craft because my heroine chose to remove two of his five fingers from his hammer hand with her blade.
The novel was about personal choice, so I started with a huge one. The setting of the tavern gave me some tremendous freedom. Your own setting should be just as flexible and just as meaningful to both your theme (the motivation behind your story), and your principle character.
Don’t place your hardened, battle-weary, professional soldier in a candy store! (I’m tempted to add ‘Don’t choose Cable over Satellite TV Service’, but that feeble attempt at humor won’t help establish my point very well…)
That’s the point, in the end: Choose a staging, a SETTING that best provides you the tools, the descriptions, the scents, the objects, the trappings and the fabric of the theme you’re working with. The best way to begin researching your own setting and see if it will work to support and develop your theme is by examining it with a critical eye and asking yourself some key basic questions about it:
- What opportunities or tools does your setting provide that will help advance your principle character and your story? In my own novel, the medieval setting gave me the opportunity to develop ‘Ceylo’ as a free-lance, a lone heroine forced, in most cases, to resolve her problems on her own. That tavern used in the opening scene allowed me to portray both the ‘deadly trained killer’ nature of her as well as showing her ‘frightened, haunted young girl’ nature.
- How do the elements and nature of your setting affect your characters? How do these elements hinder your characters? (You can write a beautiful story about a mermaid, for example, but if you start off your epic tale with this mermaid high in the thin atmosphere of a mountain chain, it will turn out to be a far different tale than the one you had originally planned.)
- How can you use this setting to draw your reader INTO the story? We’ve seen above how a setting that is TOO alien to your theme hinders your story-telling effort, but equally important is how you can get your reader, who may have never even attended a medieval faire, to feel comfortable in your story? Your ultimate goal is two-fold, then: You want to choose a setting that provides you the tools and opportunities to show your story, but you also need to find ways to make your reader feel as if they’re PART of that story, as well.
My best advice here, in conclusion, is that you place a strong emphasis before you begin writing on initial planning and research. Know the area your story takes place in as well as you can; an especially difficult task if you are using a stage that is alien to your own reality. Consider how that stage will affect not only your principle characters, but your readers, as well. Isolate the possibilities within that setting that you can exploit to both develop the history of your characters and to promote your message, your theme.
There’s good precedence for this plan of attack, when it comes to developing a novel. There was this ‘writer’, once, who needed to contrast for his own story the often stark differences between things dwelling in darkness and those things that dwelt in the light.
Long before that writer placed any characters into action, he handled that division quite nicely.
He said, “LET THERE BE LIGHT…”
The rest of his epic tale hinged quite perfectly on that one, simple choice of setting.
(to be continued…)
Ralph R Stadig, East Haven, CT