Setting and Story – Context and Character

Two sides of the coin

Annette at our Quadra Island writing course, winter 2014.

Annette at our Quadra Island writing course, winter 2014.

Does the story container matter? Isn’t it all about “character, character, character”? After all, it’s the characters we fall in love with, cheer on, grow frustrated with, and psychoanalyze. We even feel our characters’ pain, whether they are ancestors never met, historical figures of note, or purely fictionalized  creations. We humans read in order to learn more about the human experience – how folks besides ourselves figure things out and solve their problems. And we want to see what kind of shenanigans they get up to in the process.

Compared to the significance of character in story, one might assume that setting essentially provides backdrop, filler and maybe a little colour against which the dynamism of character + situation + response plays out. But one would be wrong in that assumption.

A few years ago I led a dual life between Vancouver, where I was studying, and my island home.  I was dramatically effected by each of these landscapes – emotionally, spiritually, psychically and physically; and by my comings and goings between the two. My dual destinations rose up in sharp relief, each against the other, as I crossed the ocean from island-rural to urban-mainland and from urban-mainland to island-rural. With each commute, I underwent a palpable, visceral transformation.  I came to think of this time as my Ping-Pong phase of life and it occurred to me that the very sound of those words




also carried a distinct energy, attitude and flavour. I set about deconstructing Ping and Pong according to their respective languages of environment.

PING                 I came to think of the city as Ping, because of it’s higher aural frequency, its vertical attitude, its components of cement, steel, glass, and asphalt – elements that surround us in the heart of the city and are embedded with Ping. The pace is Ping. The high wire tension of urgency and motion is Ping. The word has a vertical attitude. It catches attention, it zooms, it rockets, it pops and bubbles like champagne. Ping tells you to stand up straight, look sharp, have a destination in mind.


Orchard Bay July 2010 017The island rural setting is a deep, resounding, low-frequency Pong. It is pongy in the forest and at low tide; pongy in the garden. Community is pongy with familiarity and closeness, a cozy collection of individuals smooth and prickly, each with an abundance of personal space and demonstrating informality, making requests for rides, dispensing advice, appealing for spare change to make up a shortfall at the check-out; giving volunteer service, commenting on your hair, your life, your outfit and making queries about the children while and dispensing hugs… Rural Pong is pure dark, starlight, quiet, muffled night voices.

How about a little compare and contrast to illustrate how the urban and rural contexts each wield their influence on narrative, character, mood and atmosphere.

The lay of the land

Ping: The familiarity of street names, routes, directions, overpasses, underpasses, sidewalks and landmarks, grids, gridlock, geometry galore.

Pong: The familiarity of trails, gravel roads, potholes, long driveways, hand-painted signs, honour system egg sales, roadside freebies, bicycle and horse signs.

Emergency Sirens

Ping: – a frequent day and night byte in the urban sound-scape. A distant howl or close ear splitting wail – a crash, metal and glass, a pile up, a fire, an ambulance, a death?

Pong: – siren in the distance, coming north, lights flashing through the trees, disappearing into silence… Concern – a friend, a neighbor, an ailing elder, a tourist? It’s always someone.


DSCN1385Ping: Skytrain – tunnel – a wailing vortex – voice ascends, descends, bodies squeeze into the crowded capsules, hold on. Day noise, night noise, rush hour crush, steel, cement, push, push, push. Buss exhaust, crowded seats, thigh to thigh and blank faces electronically lit. Teeth grinding gridlock. Energy and intention suspended… idly burning through fossil fuels… spewing frustration. Horn blare, fist, attitude; punchy shift change, squealing tires.

Pong:  The smell of chlorophyll and deep moss. The shape of gnarled root and branch and branch and branch above silent trails. The ferries, the speeding on pot-holed roads to catch the ferries while brushing teeth and hair. The unpredictability of hitchhiking. The cutting of corners, the risky weighing of minutes, the alternate plans, the late arrivals, the apologies.


Ping:  High heels, thigh high boots, haute couture, make-up, coiffed hair.

Pong: Arch support, comfort, winter gumboots, hair.

Ping: Avoid eye contact with the homeless.

Pong: Give change to the next person in the grocery line.

Ping: No one knows me. I could do anything here.

Pong: I could do anything here, and everyone would know before day’s end.

Ping: A puzzle, a shifting maze, a dissonant encounter.

Pong: A question with infinite answers, a simple complexity.

Okay – that was a bit of fanciful fun, but the point to be made is that setting explored and used to its fullest influences character and can play a key role in plot. Setting is a tool with the potential to illuminate everything from character to theme.

A Prompt for Free Writing

Using a work in process, invite the main character/protagonist and a situation from your narrative into a “Ping” environment. How does she behave, respond, navigate in this context? Try out the “Pong” environment with the same character and  situation. Or simply choose other distinctive environments that will test your character and require that they adjust and grow. (For tips on how to use freewriting to engage in this prompt see:

Setting is seen in the large sense of where the story takes place, and it also has a role in the separate locations in which the story’s individual scenes will play out. In both cases, draw setting that will show your readers the subtle and not so subtle influences of place on character and story.

You know by now that your characters need to be real people with flaws who suffer human foibles. You also need to bear in mind that the settings they inhabit over the course of the story will influence their plans, their attitude, their expectations and – if he or she can meet adversity and acknowledge the need to adapt to something new, setting may even change their world view, their belief systems and/or their goals.