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I'm Kate Risheill. Welcome to my blog on writing.

Genius Loci - Why Writers Should Care About Setting

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I’m a firm believer that setting, the landscapes, buildings, and cities where your story takes place, should be treated as more than mere background. If you are treating your setting like static, flat backdrops, you are missing out. I previously wrote a post on psychogeography, or the connection between a place and how people feel and act. Today, I’d like to talk about the representation of the home in literature. 

There is a long tradition in English literature of representing the home as an extension of the people who live there. If a home is well-styled and well-situated it reflects not only the taste of the owner, but something of their judgement, even their moral character. In the 17th century, we can see this connection in country house panegyrics like "To Penshurst" by Ben Jonson. "To Penshurst" is a complimentary poem, which uses description of the house and grounds to make a statement about the owners of the house. Penshurst is held up as an ideal, with all of the abundance, harmony, and goodness of an Arcadian paradise. The beauty, temperance, and goodness is a reflection of the people who helped to shape and maintain the property.

This idea relates to the Roman idea of the genius loci, or spirit of the place. In Roman mythology, this was a literal protective spirit, however, it has come to mean "The prevailing character or atmosphere of a place" ( Oxford Living Dictionary). In literature, the character of a place often stands in as shorthand for the character of a person. This is especially true of English literature in the 19th century.

One of my favorite examples of the connection between setting and characters is in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Though Elizabeth and Darcy get off on the wrong foot, her opinion of him is already on the mend when she lays eyes on his home, Pemberley: 

"Elizabeth was delighted. She had never seen a place for which nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste. They were all of them warm in their admiration; and at that moment she felt, that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!"

As Elizabeth tours his home, she admires Darcy's taste, but on a deeper level that taste is an indicator of his character. Lady Catherine de Bourgh, haughty and cold, an absolute snob, is reflected accurately in Elizabeth’s impression of Rosings. In Austen, people's homes are a reflection of themselves. Thus, when she finally meets Darcy again, she finds him to be pleasant and warm, much like his home. For those who are interested, there is a great article that expands on this use of setting in Pride and Prejudice, both the book and the 2005 Joe Wright film, which can be found here.

There are examples on the opposite end of the spectrum as well. For example, in Jane Eyre, Rochester's house often acts as a stand-in for Rochester himself. On first examining Thornfield Hall, Jane describes it as being surrounded with "... quiet and lonely hills... seeming to embrace Thornfield with a seclusion I had not expected to find." This perfectly fits Rochester's Byronic hero type. As his secrets come out, Thornfield is engulfed in flames and left in ruin, mirroring Rochester's own maiming in the fire. 

Emphasis on descriptions of architecture and landscape as a means of describing a character's own interior state is definitely a 19th century trend, but I think there are elements that writers of any genre can incorporate into their own writing. You don't necessarily need to make the parallels between characters and their spaces as explicit as the examples above, but take a moment to consider the "spirit of the place" and how that might play off of the characters in your story.

Can you create similarities or contrasts between your characters and the spaces they inhabit that add to our understanding of the characters? In the 19th century there was much more emphasis on the connection between morality and appearances, something which is not as applicable in the 21st century. However, there are interesting and constructive ways to put pressure on that idea. Can a space that is aesthetically pleasing and well-designed also be unsettling? What associations do we make now between appearances and morality? As the examples above have shown, setting can have a real impact on your storytelling and it is worth exploring the possibilities and implications of setting within your own writing.

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