Landscape is More than Just Setting
She steps up to the podium unassuming—always—but those of us who have seen Claire speak know what’s coming. This woman, this 5’ 5” woman from the flatlands of Wisconsin, can unleash wisdom and prowess in a flash of words. Chin held high to press her lips to the microphone, she sways side to side behind the podium. She’s come today to speak about landscape. “It’s more than just setting,” she insists. “Landscape includes all the places we inhabit, including the landscape of attitude.”
Look at Robert Olin Butler, whose characters are invested with the river-ness or city-ness of a story’s landscape. Look at Phillip Roth, whose characters are surrounded by concretely physical objects that trigger the modern psyche. Look at Cormac McCarthy, whose writing challenges the reader to inhabit a beautiful place despite its treacherousness. See how, in these examples, the landscape can cue changes in their characters. We hear examples aloud, feel the cadence of their descriptions, and envision deep, specific worlds almost instantly.
Above the stage, a flat screen displays an image of southwestern Idaho, Claire’s home for the last 20 years. She leans in to the podium to make this point: “And finally, landscape can always reflect the viewpoint of a character at any given moment, but the landscape does not enact that viewpoint.” In other words, don’t anthropomorphize the landscape. Conjure the landscape so deeply, so precisely and profoundly, that it begins to force change in your plot and in your characters. Make the landscape a force to be reckoned with, but don’t force the limits of the human experience on it through personified description.
How do writers do this? First, we must deeply examine the landscape of our own lives. Conceive of landscape as connected to experience, emotion, discovery, and immersion. Ask yourself the hard questions: What limits does your personal psychology place on your landscape? What behaviors do your physical surroundings evoke in you? How does this limit your worldview? How does this expand it? This self-examination is crucial if we want to be better writers and diversify our content. It’s crucial if we want to deeply imagine our stories and the lives of our characters.
Why bother with all of this? Why not settle for the textbook definition of “setting” and call it a day? As Claire says, “Because though what we may seek as writers is passionate immersion into art, what we hope to find is passionate immersion into life.”