Sunday, 27 October 2013

Setting or Characters – Which Comes First?


For me, story always begins with setting. It’s rarely a person, it’s rarely a ‘what if’, it’s usually a strong sense of place. It can be a place I’ve read about, it can be a place I’ve imagined, but, best of all, it can be a place I’ve visited. And it’s not usually in the present day. No, I don’t time travel, although that would be so useful, but instead, buildings and settings hold onto their history, their stories, and if you’re quiet and careful, you can hear them.

As a child I remember going to the Tower of London for the first time and really being able to imagine what life was like in the White Tower. The walls seemed to be alive with the memories of the people who’d lived there. I went back there recently and still got that feeling.

I’m lucky to live in London – lucky for the stories I write – in that there are so many buildings, streets, alleys that are just as they were when they were built. And if that’s not enough, we have fantastic museums that recreate whole worlds for you. TheMuseum of London has the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, as well as a whole gallery of Victorian shops. You can see a cell from Newgate Gaol too. Their Docklands museum has a wonderful model of the original London Bridge, as well as Sailor Town, a reconstruction of Victorian Wapping. You’re instantly transported to the heart of your story, and if you wait there long enough, your characters will come to you.

The Museum of London has a wonderful app based on Dickens' London - a series of interactive graphic novels. The first episode is free and is well worth a look.

My current novel was inspired by a visit to a Victorian mortuary in Rotherhithe. The building is now used by the local community so there is very little of the mortuary to be seen. I was quite taken, though, with the steel beam in the post mortem room from which they would hang bodies from the river to drip dry! But as I listened to the guide telling us how the building had been used, I could re-create that original mortuary, and its people, as I walked from room to room.

So, my world comes first and then, as it gets richer and richer, the characters start to come. Sometimes they just drift by, sometimes they flood in, but if I let my setting become real, they will definitely come and live in it.


18 comments:

  1. such an interesting post. And now that I am finally setting a story in a place I know really well, I so get what you say. I think one is often inclined to forget the power of setting when focusing on characters.

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    1. Thank you, Nicky! I really do believe that settings influence characters and vice versa.

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  2. I absolutely love this question as a stimulus to just sit and listen to the building or place. I have ancestors who were merchants in the City of London in the 1760's - sadly their abode was reduced by Mr. Hitler (Basinghall St), but the Museum of London would be a wonderful port of call to conjure up their spirits!
    I live here in a very old house - today I am going to sit and listen quietly (if the approaching storm will let me!) to what the house has to tell me. Oil lamps are at the ready - if the power goes out, I still have paper and a pen - all we really need in an emergency, eh? :-)
    Thank you for this, Sue.

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    1. Yes, Roz, you must go to the Museum of London! And I think oil lamps, pen and paper will definitely bring the stories out. Good luck with the storm!!

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  3. oh, great post, Sue. For me, setting is the first character. I've always wondered what drew me to London - and I've never realised until now - "it's buildings and settings hold onto their history, their stories..."

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    1. The little streets and alleys around Whitechapel are really good! Remember Jon's launch? Wonderful!

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    2. I do remember, Sue - perfect darkness!

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  4. Lovely post - so glad that I ma not the only one for whom a place-in-time is a fundamental character.

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    1. Thank you! Glad I'm not the only mad one! :-)

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  5. I love London Sue, I did a Jack the Ripper tour last year which was brilliant for evoking the atmosphere of the time and I just have to see Traitors Gate to be transported back! However my writing usually starts with a character, then I build the world around them.

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    1. Jack the Ripper tour - how wonderful! Interesting to see how people work. I tried to write character first once but ended up with no plot whatsoever! :-)

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  6. I go both ways. Sometimes the characters come boldly and then i build a world around them. But other times, it's a landscape and weather that invites things to happen. Lovely post!

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    1. Thank you! Wish my characters were bold. Most of them are far too shy!

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  7. Setting tends to come last for me (although I feel a bit of a fraud admitting that!). Generally the premise comes to me first, then the plot and characters follow more or less together. Finally, (often reluctantly) I will look for a setting that supports the tone and themes, as well as the social class etc. of the characters I've chosen. That isn't to say, of course, that the setting won't influence what happens in later drafts, but I do find that I'm not all that interested in it when I first start out to write a novel.

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    1. Interesting. I've always struggled with premise so am hugely impressed that you come up with that first. Perhaps you've cracked the whole process!

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    2. Well, we can but hope ;-)

      I think one of the reasons I can get away with working like this is that my novels are always contemporary and suburban, so I'm probably filling in a lot of the setting without really knowing it in the early stages.

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  8. I was in London at the beginning of the week and I passed so many places that make think what a wonderful spot for a story.So I suppose I do think setting first but very quickly after that, the person in it. What's actually going on in the story though that comes much, much later - which this time round has made for a very challenging process!
    Thank you Sue, great post.

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    1. Thanks, Jan. I think your process is very similar to mind. Which, as you say, can be very challenging!

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