As we all know, setting is an essential element of story-telling. In fact, in Chris Roerden’s “Don’t Murder Your Mystery” she notes that “[w]e humans have a primal need to orient ourselves in our surroundings. Studies have shown that rats that are kept in entirely undifferentiated surroundings become psychotic in a matter of days.1 Unfortunately (for me and my readers), I am not as skilled with descriptions of setting as I would like to be.
My series, The Letty Whittaker 12 Step Mysteries, takes place in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin—a beautiful scenic town that was chosen in 1997 by Time magazine as one of America’s top ten small towns. It’s a pretty place. There are authors who would certainly do justice to its charm and unique north-midwestern style. I’d love to be able to bring a setting to life the way William Kent Krueger does for Minnesota’s Iron Range.2
However, one aspect of setting that I find comes more naturally to my writing style is that of community. When I was pondering what to write for this post, it occurred to me that much of my book is based on the communities that Letty is immersed in. All of us—unless we’re living in a remote Montana cabin proofreading our manifesto—are a part of some community, usually several—family, neighborhoods, work, church, friendship circles, special interest groups such as writers’ organizations, or political affiliations. The list is endless. Heck, even blogs, if we are regular contributors or commentators, are a community.
There is an obvious connection between communities and settings. Setting descriptions are a way of orienting the reader to the character’s world. Unless the character is working in a vacuum, her communities are going to come into play when describing her life and the external surroundings.
For instance, Letty is a member of Alcoholics Anonymous—a fairly insular group—and one of the “hooks” in my series is to open the world of AA to the curious. In fact, each book is thematically structured on one or two of AA’s 12 Steps. I wanted readers who haven’t “sat around the tables” to feel what it’s like to walk into a (typically) shabby old building where everybody knows your deepest secrets and it feels as though you’ve just come home even though the coffee is atrocious and the person sitting next to you has disgusting B.O.3 I also wanted readers who have been to AA to say, “Yeah, that’s what it’s like.” Needless to say, AA is highly significant to my story. As Roerden points out, “In some fiction, setting plays a role as significant as that of a character.” It was in this context that I then considered community as a technique for developing character.
After all, the communities our characters belong to tell readers a great deal about them. Is your character a reluctant member, forced to participate in a community because it’s a necessary evil? Harry Bosch of Michael Connelly’s thriller series comes to mind. He’d much rather be on his own but the guy’s gotta make a living. Lee Child went even further with Jack Reacher. Or perhaps your character is a hearty enthusiast, someone whose personality makes him or her a “joiner”? Something like Claire O’Donohue’s Someday Quilts series where the quilters group solves murders in between stitches. Where our characters feel at home is highly descriptive and is as much a part of his or her personality as how he dresses or what sports she follows.
Another aspect of character development is the need to bring alive the characters and relationships within the community that our characters interact with. After all, a community is empty of meaning without people.4 As writers, we’ll have to examine how those personalities fit into the whole of the community, and what relationships with them says about the main characters. Communities provide oodles of secondary or tertiary characters that add depth and “flavor” to our story.
But there is a larger consideration than the individual members.
When we’re speaking about communities we aren’t referring merely to individuals—isolated and distinct—but to the unique entity that is born when its members identify with each other and decide to belong to the entity. “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts” to steal from Aristotle. We could argue “greater than,” but let’s not quibble. My point is that the whole is separate from its parts.
What’s amazing to me (and to community psychologists) 5 is that this “whole” can essentially become a new, distinct character. As such, a community has a personality, if you will, and therefore requires as much thought as any other character. Communities have certain norms, mores, belief systems, etc. that its members either adhere to or rebel against and that either invite or exclude non-members from entering. A community can put pressures on a character, can become an obstacle as in bureaucracies, the source of a threat, or, of course, a vast network of support and affection.
In my WIP,6 Letty has infiltrated an Armageddon-style cult in order to rescue a friend’s daughter who has disappeared in their midst. Part of what Letty is up against is the disconcerting reality of balancing the feelings she has for some of the individuals against her fears of them as members of a complex and potentially dangerous community.
I’d love to hear others’ thoughts on the importance of community in their writing or reading.
1 I made that up.
2 Of course if I could do that it would negate the whole premise of this posting, wouldn’t it?
3 Well, maybe not with that much clarity.
4 Or sheep, if you’re Leonie Swan. Have you read “Three Bags Full”? Loved it!
5 Yes, there are such things. Why don’t you trust me?