Setting In Fiction – A Real Life Lesson | Marylee MacDonald

by Marylee MacDonald in For Readers, Setting

Setting in fiction is inextricably bound up with character. On a cold winter day I learned this important lesson about the “relatedness” of character and setting from a young Navaho.

setting in fiction with Creighton Begay

Using symbols taught by his grandmother, Creighton Begay carved petroglyphs.

setting in fiction

After being enslaved by the Spanish, the Navaho–or more correctly the Dine–returned to Canyon de Chelly. Today, old families like the Begays live deep in the canyon, close to their roots.

Creighton Begay lived with his uncle in the most inaccessible part of Canyon de Chelly. Each fall he and his uncle brought in supplies by mule. Living in a cabin with no electricity or running water, Creighton felt perfectly at home.

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In the winter he climbed a rocky trail to the top of the canyon and waited in the parking lot, hoping to sell his rock carvings or hitch a ride to the post office. When the weather warmed, he and his uncle tended their apricot orchards.

Canyon de Chelly had shaped this young man’s character. He had gone to high school in Winslow, but being away from the Canyon had made him sad.

I thought how stressful Creighton would find Chicago or New York City. Canyon de Chelly was not a fictional setting, but a real one, and it was the place he felt at home.

Setting In Fiction Needs Is More Than A Painted Backdrop

Setting is your “heart’s place.” Assuredly, your characters must have hearts, too. What do I mean?

Have you ever arrived someplace new and had your body respond with a leap of joy? Gosh, you might think, this is where I belong. Or, I could happily live here the rest of my life. Sometimes, it’s a place of great physical beauty. Other times, we respond to the frenetic pace of city life.

In my writing, setting plays an important role in where a character finds a spiritual home. Character and setting are intertwined. A character’s happiness, and in some cases, her fate, depends of where she finds herself. (For more on the issue of setting, read this post on how to use setting to increase tension.)

I started thinking about this when I moved to Arizona–that we are all, in some way, “displaced” or “misplaced” persons. Much as I find the beauty of Canyon de Chelly restorative, if I lived here all the time, I would feel antsy without a coffee shop, internet service, and library. Where is your characters’ “hearts place?” Where do they belong? Where would they feel extremely ill at ease?


setting for White House Ruins

The setting here is the White House Ruins in Canyon de Chelly. Petroglyphs are found throughout the reservation, as are painted handprints, the last traces of the early inhabitants.

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