Karen Harper on How To Write Setting as a Character
by Karen Harper, author of Silent Scream
Everyone admits that great characters help to sell novels. But setting can also lift a story above the ordinary if it is treated like a character. Even an obviously romantic setting, such as Paris, can come even more alive if it really becomes part of the story, not just background or “lovely wall paper.”
Since I write romantic suspense, it helps if the setting is evocative but unusual, ominous or dangerous. A setting should change so that each has its own character arc.
Here are two examples of a classic novels and movie with such strong settings that they emerge as participants in the story.
Gone With the Wind: The pre-war South, like Scarlett, is dragged through the mud and ruined, but the people will change and rise again, just like the plantation and the heroine.
Titanic: The ocean liner begins as a posh haven and elegant host but turns into a villain. That sounds like a great character arc for a person you like at first in a book, but he or she turns out to be the killer.
Can you think of other movies or novels where setting as a good or evil character makes the story more memorable?
I have loved using unusual settings as characters in my novels. Ohio Amish country gave me locations that were beautiful but solitary and dark with cultural clashes. Using South Florida and Caribbean Islands which I know and love has given me exotic and at times treacherous settings for the South Shores Series. In Silent Scream, I’ve used not only a decrepit southern mansion but a prehistoric graveyard excavation as plot—and characters—in the story.
I was surprised to learn that there was a prehistoric burial ground with some grisly finds not too far from Disney. So I have forensic psychologist Claire advising archaeologists with such a dig near lovely Naples, Florida where she comes across a trio of bodies which look somehow connected in bizarre death poses.
Also Claire and a friend discover a recently frozen body in a kitchen freezer. The ancient graves in the peat bog and the modern woman in the freezer become dual mysteries in the steamy south which always makes a compelling character.
The sense of surprise works best if the characters and reader expect one thing but find another. The classic example of this highlights the horror in the book and the movie Jaws. The setting is a lovely, sunny day at the beach with people playing and swimming. But how quickly that fin in the water changes everything.
Likewise, readers have a certain perception of what small town living is like—somewhat rural, friendly, slow-paced with people you can trust. So the shock is much bigger when evil and danger lurk as in my Amish novels or the South Shores settings. I’ve used rural Appalachia in the same way in stories like Shattered Secrets and Broken Bonds.
Part of frightening settings, of course, can be the weather. As overused as it is, a description such as “It was a dark and stormy night,” doesn’t have to just be an introduction to a spooky scene. My next novel in the South Shores Series is titled Dark Storm and for more reasons than the weather!
I believe dynamic settings can be much more than another element in a story with a strong plot and compelling people. Setting can be a character readers love—or love to hate.
About Silent Scream:
When an old college roommate invites Claire Britten to join her on an archaeological dig at a Florida peat bog, it’s an offer the renowned forensic psychologist can’t refuse. Claire’s husband, criminal lawyer Nick Markwood, is comforted to see Claire working on a prehistoric burial site instead of an open grave for once. But Claire’s investigative instincts kick in when some of The Black Bog’s perfectly preserved corpses show signs of a grisly fate. What really happened to these people?
What started as an exploration of the past soon escalates into an all-too-current danger. Someone is watching—someone who really doesn’t want Claire digging into the past or Nick making connections to a current, violent murder case he’s investigating. The bog’s corpses may be long dead, but if Claire and Nick don’t figure out who’s gunning for a fresh kill, the next bodies to be discovered will be their own.