Place as Character

Over the weekend my daughter was watching It Could Happen to You, the fluffly romantic comedy starring Nicolas Cage as a hapless cop who gives a lottery ticket worth $2 million to waitress Bridgett Fonda. As I like Cage and this particular Fonda, I watched the last part of it with my daughter. She didn’t care for it – she didn’t like the way Cage’s character abandoned his wife for the affections of the waitress (not that the shrewish, greedy wife didn’t have it coming, in a Hollywood sort of way). I thought it was okay, and I thought the ending, which had New Yorkers spontaneously sending money to Cage and Fonda, worked (in a feel-good Hollywood comedy sort of way).

Later, while commuting to work, that whole end sequence crossed my mind again, and I realized something. The ending of that film was quintessentially New York. Say what you will about the impersonal crowds, New Yorkers are tough survivor types with soft hearts beneath their gruff exteriors (as opposed, say, to New Jersey, where you find granite beneath the gruff exteriors). I realized as I thought about it, that this ending wouldn’t have worked if it had been set in Los Angeles (where you probably find a vacuum beneath the gruff exterior).

Basically, Los Angeles as a city has a different character than New York, which is different from Las Vegas. And if you’re Nicolas Cage, you go to New York to be a goofy cop, to Los Angeles to save a doctor from the city’s impersonal nature, and to Las Vegas to drink yourself to death. Or to save your wife by parachuting while wearing an Elvis costume. Or to crash your plane full of hardened criminals (that boy does like Vegas, doesn’t he?).

All of this prompts the observation that, as writers, we focus on the obvious characters in our tales – the people. But a lot of times, something else is the character, and the quicker we get a handle on that, the more versatile we can become.

Place makes an excellent character. You see this a lot in the films of the Coen Brothers: Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, and Fargo all have plots in which the setting is as important as the characters. Or is the character. While I’d resolved not to mention Annie Proulx after her post-Oscar tantrum, she does it in The Shipping News. It’s also evident in the Arkady Renko novels of Martin Cruz Smith, whether our hero is enmeshed in communist party machinations (Gorky Park), exiled on a fishing vessel (Polar Star), or exploring the ruins of Chernobyl (Wolves Eat Dogs).*

It’s a difficult trick to pull off, I think, without coming across sounding like a travelogue. My daughter is also a voracious reader, and she was complaining of just that the other day in reference to a novel she was reading: “The author kept interrupting the exciting parts to describe the mountains for ten pages.”

That’s the thing. If you want to set Place as a Character, it’s not enough to set your novel there, and it’s not enough to make lengthy descriptions of the human character’s surroundings. Place has to do something in the book. It needs to contribute to the story by shaping events through its own unique characteristics, in ways that only it can bring to the table.

You see this a lot in Horror, but that’s almost so easy it doesn’t count: a house haunted by some one taking on the personality of the haunter. Don’t even mention homicidal cars or green plastic army men. For the same reason, Fantasy is also ripe for this, but if a land is enchanted, what’s the point? With those rules, anything can be a character.

Science Fiction is where Place as Character can really shine. Look at Larry Niven’s Ringworld, for example, or Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama, Herbert’s Dune, or the bottom of the ocean in James Cameron’s The Abyss (one of only two things about that film that I liked).

Thinking this over as I write, I’m seeing now that perhaps it’s not so much that place becomes a character. Instead, I think what happens is that we get a real sense of place by watching how flesh-and-blood characters react to it and allow it to influence them, or how they struggle against its influence.

So I guess I take back most everything I just said about place as character.

On the other hand, if I have to lose lottery winnings to a harpie ex-wife and be faced with ruination, I would still rather tough it out in New York than L.A.

Listening:
When the toast has burned and all the milk has turned
And Captain Crunch is waving farewell
When the big one finds you may this song remind you
That they don’t serve breakfast in hell
**
(via iPod Shuffle)

* I know, I forgot the fall of Communism (Red Square) and post-Soviet Cuba (Havana Bay). But I also believe in the rule of threes.

** How appropriate – a song I got from my daughter.

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