Setting, my favorite character

by Ayesha Siddiqui

Lately I’ve been steeping in the details of setting. The shocking cold of a marble floor even in the height of summer, the joy of lightning bugs on their first flight of the season as the sticky humidity holds you up and the sun departs, the sound of a call to prayer, the song of cicadas in the morning dew. Give me the plays and the fiction where the setting is alive. Characters find themselves being pulled along in ways they don’t even realize by mother nature or guided by the house they’re in. Give me tiny apartments and big sprawling spans of memories. Give me snowstorms and shaking your boots out when you finally get inside, trying to solve your own existence in a room with a leaking roof, marshes and office break rooms. Setting is so alive, buzzing before a character ever enters the room and sets the plot in motion. As my own writing has shifted more towards the world of sci-fi and occasionally the absurd, the idea of creating settings that can quickly transport the reader to the world we’re now inhabiting with little information matters a great deal. Do my characters know where they are? Do I (let’s be honest…sometimes I don’t)?

For a long time I lamented the fact that I only seemed to have a default setting in my writing: mother nature. But this is what tugs at me in my core: the earth, the ground, the water. Sometimes nature  is lashing out with storms, or sometimes she is peaceful outdoors, or sometimes I am imagining her far into the future in a world where everything has become unbearably hot. 

Setting is one of those beautiful things in writing that lingers somehow both close and far outside ourselves. It is not an idea, or evocative of how we want to make an audience feel, it is something that looms larger than what we can truly understand. It shapes humans who grow up in it. It makes others feel like they’ll never belong. It brings out our worst (have you ever spent a summer in the Southeast without air conditioning?) and our best (have you ever watched your neighbor shovel the driveway of the elderly person next door for an entire winter?) We are so small in the grand existence of things. So much of conflict in storytelling comes from humans trying to create some sort of control over their lives in spite of the setting they’re in. And I guess that’s the great illusion: to think we have some control. So when the setting promptly arrives, whispering to you of the surroundings and the temperature on your skin, just know, it was probably around long before you were.

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