The Inescapable Link Between Character and Setting

Went to a really interesting book signing tonight, by David Gessner, who is on tour with a book called All the Wild that Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and The American West. He spoke really intelligently about the environmental movement as seen through the eyes of two premier novelists who were also, in very different ways, emblematic of the quest to save wildness.

One of the things that most struck me in the conversation was when Gessner started talking about how these two writers represented two very different eras. Stegner was a true man of the fifties’ beat generation, the generation of intellectuals associated with universities and think tanks. They were outside of mainstream society at the time but only in the sense of being above and beyond the mainstream. They wore buttondowns, basically, and demanded respect for their ideas, and tried to change the system … versus Edward Abbey who was emblematic of the sixties and seventies and a believer in anarchy. He was a wild, bearded son of the Earth, who didn’t so much study the wilderness as become a part of it. The two different writers really represented different eras in America, which made me feel really inspired about the book I’m working on now.

Even though it’s a caper–a fun, somewhat silly, bank robbery book–one of the characters is very much a product of her era and environment. First of all, her parents were 1950s-era beatniks, totally different from 1960s-era hippies. They were intellectuals with a university focus, who admired chess players and piano virtuosos and highly accomplished artists, not drop outs. As a result of her intellectual parents plus the free and easy era of the seventies, in which she grew up, she ended up being the world’s most intellectual high school drop out. A little of both eras. She is caught between the two philosophies, believing in both, and forming her sense of self based upon reconciling these disparate philosophies. It’s a great example of how setting is incredibly important in any story–whether its nonfiction or fiction, because the place and time period where a story happens (or the back story happens) is more than just that, it also embodies a philosophy that shapes people’s personalities in a permanent way.

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