By Gregory Gonzalez
Location is everything in the realm of craft writing. Put the main character on the top of a mountain, where they can swim through hidden lakes on its cratered mountain side and then talk to the wisest of sages amongst the tallest of pine trees, and they’re going to have a totally different outlook on life because they have it vastly different than those who reside in the Red River Valley below them. On other hand, put the very same character in the heart of a necrotic city, one that reeks of putrid flesh, and surmounting filth and they’re going to interact with different kinds of dangers than those who live in the meadow lands. After all, synthetic drugs aren’t herbal remedies. They’re not organic mushrooms or tight buds that’re meant to liberate the mind, rather than melt it. Because it should be obvious by now; gangsters aren’t lions, or tigers, or bears, oh my, and skyscrapers––the ones that’re towering over the multiple levels of intersecting highways––aren’t the monstrous glaciers in Dante’s Frozen Hell.
So, without words appearing on the page, everything else is left blank. Whether that be in the form of a screen write, something that’s destined for Hollywood, stimulating the mind through visual images, or if that form is in the novelty. Location, setting, and-or place must come after character creation because a character needs a vast open space that is full of ups and downs, loopy-loops, and barrel rolls, to navigate over, around, and through. It’s why Season 2, of NBC’s Television Comedy Series, Community, is all about Setting. It’s all about creating the world around Jeffrey Winger and Abed Nadir. They’re the main characters who’ve been established in Season 1, and there’s always going to be other people, and other locations, that exist outside the main character’s place of residence. It’s what lays the groundwork for how the characters interact with their given environment, and it is why Jeff Vandermeer says,
‘Every setting of every piece of fiction ever written is by definition a product of someone’s imagination and to some extent therefore phantasmagorical and, yes, fantastical, because it does not exist in our reality the way it does on the page, no matter how we might try to provide an illusion of a one-to-one ratio. For that matter, your version of Chicago is vastly different from the talking penguin’s version. Indeed, for the reason of subjective interpretation alone it is impossible to truly replicate reality.’
Knowing that––in the written medium––a writer must understand, even when dealing with fictional worlds, there are always different ways of viewing that said world. It’s how someone can say they live within the United States, but those who live in California have a much different experience than those who live in New York. Both places are very much real, yes, but every person who talks about California, or even New York for that matter, will have a different version of perceiving that environment, sometimes even telling stories that’re wild enough they can be fiction.
A snippet from Lee Herrick’s poem, My California, is the perfect piece to help demonstrate how perception is key in storytelling:
‘Here, in my California, the streets remember the Chicano Poet whose songs still bank off Fresno’s beer soaked gutters’
In those two lines, in those nineteen words, an entire story is captured. Even though he’s speaking about streets and gutters, the words themselves bring the context to life. The sounds of children aweing at the empowerment of words, transforming the essence of nothingness into vivid daydreams they share through a collective singular, can be heard in distant memories:. while the sounds of adults and grandparents, filling the ‘streets’, talking about past generations that are making way for the future, echo and fade, because they’re the memories not yet forged.
That’s just one opinion. It could evoke an entirely different image for someone on any other day, and that’s the point of setting. It should be general enough that every reader can place themselves within the given location, but it should also be general enough that those very same readers can implement all the unsaid details they want to see. So, depending on the location, the time of the day, and who’s accompanying the main character on their journey, it’s all going to have an impact on how the main character acts. All three are a part of the setting. They’re all fixed objects that envelope the main character’s world, and that’s how they learn to navigate its hold. At least if they want to succeed in their main quest.
For, Community, and its characters the setting is the fictitious Greendale Community College, and its hidden somewhere in the middle of Colorado. This is established in Season 1, but the idea of a living world helps to familiarize the viewers with a geographical location, a place they know is fixed, and can now trust the characters with how they exist in their natural environment. After all, some of the greatest examples of world building––of setting––in both the literary and cinematic realms, are Harry Potter: and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the Hungers Games, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and The Giver. While half of these stories take place within the real world, each one is so beyond established in their fictional one it allows the characters and the viewers to be immersed in whatever place the writer or narrator creates.
Without that physical establishment, the characters are stuck in a vacuum, static, with no purpose or direction. It’s why for Community, even though the setting takes place in the fictitious city of Greendale, where lawyers act as monsters, City College is enemy territory, and everything else is a part of a magical world that needs to be explored. The viewers instinctively trust the writers with the distance covered and the modes of transportation, because they (the audience) get to see everything with their own eyes. They get to watch Troy drive the drunken group home, and witness Abed cut his dinner short with Jeff all because he’s missing out on a Pulp Fiction themed birthday, one he ditched to play out an homage to, My Dinner with Andre. They also get to observe everyone at the local hospital, understanding that each one of the group members is beyond broken, and that’s why they all need each other.
What’s scary, though, is that
–in the cinematic medium–
setting is easy to implement.
The only hiccups come in picking the perfect location to capture the desired mood, and then acquiring the rights to film on that said location. Whereas in the written medium, it’s a bit more difficult to master. Choosing the right detail, over the thousands that are wanting to be seen, is the most difficult task a writer can face. Overwrite and the reader gets lost in exposition. They get lost in the endless detail of a stupid button that’s on the lapel of a fat man’s jacket. However, don’t put in enough detail and the reader can wonder where the character is, how they got there, what they’re doing, and when it’s all happening; both in the sense of era, and time frame within a 24-hour period.
So, if the narrator is looking to place the character in a dark forest with scary monsters, it’s easy enough to say. It’s just been said. But, for a writer, they need to show that scene. They need create the mushy floor of rotting earth beneath their feet. They need to capture spider webs that drape over tree limbs like hanging moss, covered in a dew so thick it mimics mucus and snot. Because if they cannot set the specific mood through setting, the entire tone of the story can get lost in translation.
Gregory Gonzalez is a graduate from Sierra Nevada University, where he earned both a BFA and an MFA in Creative Writing. He studied under Brian Turner, Patricia Smith, Sunil Yapa, and many other wonderful artists. His works can be seen in the San Joaquin Review Online, the Hive Avenue Literary Journal, and the Dillydoun Review. He reached at his professional email: firstname.lastname@example.org