July 8th, 2011 / 2:30 am

Setting is not character. Stop saying that.


  1. Michael Filippone

      What about plot? Is character plot? I think it was F. Scott Fitzgerald who said, “Character is plot. Plot is character.” Do those two sentences even mean the same thing?

  2. Matthew Simmons

      Exploration of a character can certainly be a way to find plot. Interaction of characters can be plot. But interaction between characters and setting can be plot, too, yes?

  3. gavin

      You hear that, I think, when the setting seems to take on a life of its own, when it seems as important as the characters themselves: Moby-Dick’s ocean, McCarthy’s deserts, Erickson’s LA.  But couldn’t you just say, Wow, that’s one damn cool use of setting, and not get all personifying about it.

  4. Darby Larson
  5. Johnny E

       . . . hmm . . . in west of here, the setting actually is the character around which the other four dozen characters revolve . . .

  6. MFBomb

      I’ve always hated this saying too–it’s sort of like a backhanded way of complimenting “setting” and I wonder if it speaks to the dearth of “place” in so much contemporary fiction? That is, so much fiction today is place-less that whenever a semi-interesting place (outside of the burbs or gentrified Brooklyn) is evoked people immediately subordinate it to character. 

  7. Matthew Simmons

      Characters can interact with and be acted upon by setting. Characters can invest emotionally in a setting, and have a setting, say, disappoint them in that way another character can disappoint them.

      But this happens within the character. The setting remains setting, no matter how much the characters “make” the setting a kind of character.

      What I’m suggesting is that a writer doesn’t (shouldn’t?) fundamentally approach setting the way one approaches character.

      So, maybe:

      Character can think Setting is Character.

      Writer shouldn’t think Setting is Character.


  8. Matthew Simmons

      Always with the touche, this one.

  9. Nicholas Liu

      I’ve waited forever for someone to say this.

  10. Blake Butler

      the hotel in the Shining is a character

      the tunnels & houses in the Marbled Swarm is a character

      i don’t think Robbe-Grillet wrote a single book where the environment wasn’t active, even more active than the supposed people in the book

      how about instead: setting, as a concept, is stupid

  11. Matthew Simmons

      I’m not saying setting can’t be active. I’m just saying that doesn’t make it a character. Haunting the heck out of a house doesn’t, to me, mean approaching it the way one approaches a character. It just means haunting the heck out of it.

      Not sure I think the concept is stupid. I tend to approach writing devices/concepts/whatevers on the spectrum from “useful” to “not useful,” depending on what I’m writing. At Warren Wilson, though, Susan Neville introduced the possibility that climate might be a more useful concept than setting. I tend to find it so.

  12. MFBomb

      I don’t understand why character is privileged in this regard today.  Maybe it suggests something about the overall homogenization of society that we can’t even imagine setting as setting, as something that interacts actively with character, shapes character, and vice versa, yet remains an element amongst other interactive elements in a work of fiction. 

      I guarantee you that Cormac McCarthy would never say that “setting is character.”

  13. MFBomb

      Also, saying that “setting, as a concept, is stupid,” is rather bold, considering the significance of “place” in American Letters.  Though, again, perhaps you are speaking for a time period–today–that seems to eschew “place” in fiction and instead set stories in “places” that are pretty much place-less and could exist anywhere. 

  14. Nicholas Liu

      What does “is a character” even mean

  15. MFBomb

      It almost seems like a rather crude way of privileging man over nature, doesn’t it?

  16. M. Kitchell

      i prefer narratives devoid of characters

  17. deadgod

      Context impinges as though it had personalities, as though it were people. 

      Fragrant, humid air, an abandoned factory, the moon and starry vault in a rural nighttime, chaotic, howling streets, the humming florescent quiet of a 4 a.m. stop-n-rob, a cubicle festooned against mortality–

      fictively, how are these not ‘characters’ as the unnamable I is?

  18. Matthew Simmons

      One experiences “chaotic, howling streets” through the eyes of a character. Even when that character is just the unnamed I recounting how the streets howled and howled and howled.

      Setting becomes/feels like character only ever in the mind of a character. And then it is “perceived as character,” but it is not character. It has a shaky standing as ‘character,’ too.

      So, writer, approach an as though as it is as though and never is. And, writing teacher, stop confusing as though and is in the minds of writers.


  19. MFBomb

      “Context impinges as though it had personalities, as though it were people.”

      Context impinges personification of environment?   

  20. Matthew Simmons

      Examples, please.

  21. Barney

      yeah, cough up.

  22. Wtf

      ‘narratives devoid of character’ — wtf — name, say, your favorite half dozen?

  23. Ken Baumann

      Using The Shining as an example, I want to ask: how isn’t the hotel a character? It has desires, goals, responds to stimulus, moves and changes its physicality (the architecture and location of rooms), has various personalities for different guests… It’s about as agented up as something not-human can get. It’s more of a character than most house pets.

  24. Badabing

      second this

  25. Maxb

      pretty quiet for a change, monsieur kitchell

  26. M. Kitchell

      lol wow guys, as much as it may seem opposite, i’m not literally on my computer at all times, i’ll answer the question above now

  27. M. Kitchell

      The Cage, Martin Vaughn-James
      -the photography of Todd Hido 
      -Gregor Schneider’s “Haus U r”
      -Miroslaw Balka’s “The End”
      Paradise, Philippe Sollers (arguably characters here, but not operating at the same level as a character is expected to)
      Mezza Voce, Anne-Marie Albiach

  28. M. Kitchell

      see above

  29. Darby Larson
  30. Maxb

      cop-outs — (extended) prose poems at best

  31. M. Kitchell

      wrong. The Cage is book-length “graphic fiction” (aka a graphic novel). the Balka & Schneider works mentioned are art environments, Mezza Voce is écriture, and the Sollers is most markedly narrative prose.  

      also, are you insisting that prose poems can’t be narrative?

  32. Maxb


      graphic fiction/novel is still poem, monsieur

      also, the cage is an extended prose poem, if you read it right.  but i won’t argue.

      ‘ecriture’? — ha! jeez

  33. M. Kitchell

      uhm…. ok, cool. “you win” i guess *eye roll*

  34. Matthew Simmons

      Looked through a few of these, and will spend some time looking through more.

      I concede here that, for example, the photography of Todd Hido has a narrative element, but I am going to suggest that the narrative is exists in the implication that at some point characters acted within the settings. And that we are supplying narrative. Participating, with the camera, in unpacking setting to find character. But that doesn’t make the setting character. It makes the setting “imprinted” by the characters. Heck, HAUNTED by the characters! (Huh, Ken? Huh? Hmm…)

      Photographs > Interiors > Occupied Homes > 1447a

      Within the depression in that pillow, a hand. An elbow. Something pressed against it.

      The lighting, the angle, the framing of the shot all lead to the tone of the image. The tone, a product of the photographer. The photographer, the narrator.

      God, those shots are beautiful, though. Thanks for the examples, Mike.

  35. Matthew Simmons
  36. M. Kitchell

      also what i’m more concerned with than a dismissive attitude is the fact that you seem to imply that anything outside of a straightforward mode of fiction can’t be narrative?  

  37. Franklin Goodish

      the hotel in the shining is a freddy, most assuredly not a winnie or wendy.

      have you all ever been to Estes Park, CO, to see the hotel where S. King stayed when he wrote the book?  it’s a character for sure, particularly if you’ve had a few fat tires.

  38. Bradley Sands

      Setting is character when the setting is sentient. But I think we hear the whole “the setting is the character” a lot when the setting is very important to the story and the story lacks a primary protagonist.

  39. M. Kitchell

      I dunno, I kind of feel like operating under the assumption that it’s a “character” element that provides the narrative element to Hido’s photo sort of conflates character into a number of other signifying elements, which sort of recontextualizes “character” as much as I insist on recontextualizing “narrative.”  There is the idea that the power the photographs hold, the power that the art environments I’ve listed hold, take on their narrative element out of our experience with them–that’s really more taking issue with phenomenology, right?  Like what is there outside of ourselves?  

      I think there’s some relevance to the idea of “if a tree falls in the forest, does any one hear it/does it make any sound?”  There’s the narrative of nature that is happening without any specific human-as-character intervention (if we suppose an atheistic reading of the universe, which I obviously am).  Or in the issue of artifice in general, if a writer writes a story devoid of characters, is the author a character?  He’s “presence” in the sense that he created the narrative contexts whether or not he’s filled them with “people.”  

      Meillassoux posits an “outside” of phenomenology, which is more or less what a lot of the speculative realists & co deal with, so I’d like to suggest that a space (whether it can be a text, a photograph, or an installation) can hold narrative whether or not we are privy to it, which suggests that these narratives can exist as narratives without character.

  40. Maxb

      michael, go write something, you spend far too much time on here

  41. M. Kitchell

      Also, does an absent narrator have to be a character?  Like, the lighting, the angle, the framing are all present, but why are we calling those characters?

  42. M. Kitchell

      haha, as much as i mostly “hate” warhol, i’d have to argue.  i guess the better question in here is, how are we defining character?

  43. Darby Larson

      eh. i think its separate. i mean now we are talking about levels of eccentricity in the artist and that should be irrelevant. if you can supplant the author-character into the art then that rules out everything. does the narrative of a tree growing in the forest contain the character of god?

  44. M. Kitchell

      haha, although after re-reading this, aren’t you actually just telling me that setting is character then?

  45. M. Kitchell

      i’m binding a book right now bro, the computer is the epicenter of my universe and i happen to be right in front of us.  being a member of the 21st century i have this wonderful capacity to multitask.

  46. Matthew Simmons

      In that case, I was suggesting that they gather together to form a character. They are not individually characters. Craft elements of the photograph are all deliberately chosen by a single individual, and in the gathering together of those things that we call seeing, we experience a character.

      Which is to say, he’s entirely present, even if we don’t see him.

  47. Maxb

      multitasking is so 1987; were i you, i’d focus

  48. M. Kitchell

      worried i’m gonna poke my fingers with this here needle??  don’t worry, i’ll watch where i spill the blood.  here maxb, i made this for you, it’s about 1987


  49. Bradley Sands

      I don’t really care whether or not a setting is considered a character because it seems like it’s all semantics to me, but settings undergo development as characters undergo development during a story or novel. They can achieve change. If a setting is sentient, it can have goals and either achieve them or fail during its pursuit of its goals.

  50. Matthew Simmons

      Yeah, feels a little like it, but I’m I think sticking to my guns. Those settings are only “narrative” because they are filled with characters.

      And as fascinating as the Meillassoux concept is, I do not believe in a narrative we are not privy to. Narrative needs to be experienced to be narrative.

  51. Matthew Simmons

      So you think a building can have a Bildungsroman?

  52. deadgod


      A “character” is “perceived as character”, “perceived” as having a “mind” of a person; it is not a person.

      A “character” in a story has a “mind” only as though it were a “character” in the way you have and are a character.

      “Character”, when used to describe a literary construct, is an as though.  As a term of literary discussion, “character” is an analogy.

      That is why I said as though.

      Streets howl; the “mind” of a “character” howls; Darl howls.

      How are those “streets” not a “character” in the way “Darl” is?

      Teacher of writing teachers, not confusing as though and is is excellent advice.

  53. Matthew Simmons

      The “sentient building” exception is, I’m loathe to admit, a bit thorny and may take a little time. And possibly proves my statement wrong.

      Where are we without exceptions to every hard and fast rule.

      But then, when King created a sentient building out of The Overlook, wasn’t the thing that made it sentient the collected anger of the spirits that had been wrongly done up there? Didn’t Kubrik fall into the Indian Burial Ground trope? Isn’t that simply a group of characters fucking up a setting?

      Demolished easily enough by saying, “No, it’s just the building that’s mad,” I guess.

      Responding to stimulus, moving and changing, and having agency are all things I’m willing to say a setting can do without jumping over the line into characterhood.

  54. Bradley Sands

      Definitely if it’s sentient. And it can have a more subtle version of it if it’s not. Although in that case, calling it a character would highly questionable. Perhaps there is a story or someone can write one where a building thinks and feels but does not speak or move and its growth from childhood to adulthood are due to passive rather than active factors such as how the people who live inside it treat it  or the impact of environmental factors upon it throughout the years.

  55. deadgod

      Some element(s) of context can be anthropomorphization(s).  All the “characters” in a story are anthropomorphic; they are fictive people.

      Why can an element of “setting” not be a “character” in the way that a human “character” can?

  56. Bradley Sands

      I just remembered your e-book, Caves. Aren’t the caves from it characters?

  57. MFBomb

      Yes, I realize that fictive characters aren’t real people.

      Why can an element of “character” not be a “setting”?

      The OP seems to be responding to a common, superficial aphorism that oversimplifies a complex relationship. We both agree that the relationship is complex; the aphorism often misses the mark. 

  58. Matthew Simmons

      No. The man who falls in love with caves simply mistakes settings for characters.

  59. Bradley Sands

      The caves feel things and they speak. It’s been a while since I’ve read it, but I believe you leave it up to the reader as far as whether or not they actually do these things or if the man is only believing they are doing these things. Although perhaps you make it clear later in the book considering I just skimmed the first few pages. If not, it can be read either way. It’s out of your hands and the readers “own it” while they are reading. And who’s to say you couldn’t have written it with the intention that the caves are actually characters rather than the man mistaking them for characters?

  60. Matthew Simmons

      Yes, I too am aware that characters in stories are not actually real.

      And in that way, yes: Darl is an as though as the street is an as though. But, frankly, at that level of analysis, there is no craft discussion. Everything is character, is setting, is plot. Because there, isn’t everything just analogy?

      But that doesn’t mean we can’t step forward, to the level my comment started on, where there is an is (bearing in mind that said is is an is [as though]) and there is an as though (bearing in mind its an as though [as though]), does it?

      Perhaps we can’t.

  61. deadgod

      That’s fair enough for me; to me, telling someone ‘setting must be a character’ is as, ah, unhelpful – as contrary to experience – as telling someone that ‘setting can’t be a character’.

      I’m pretty conventional in that I like pretending that characters in stories are real people. 

      – but the phenomenologists have a strong and difficult point:  when I see my neighbor taking out the garbage to the curb, do I know that that person is a person in the ways that I am and not an anthropomorphism of my pragmatic imagination?  I don’t reasonably doubt that other people are really people, but nor is the personhood of a “character” in a story necessarily more compelling than the will and agency ‘given’ to an element of the “setting”.

      Are writing classes really that obnoxious about calling “setting” “character”?

  62. Matthew Simmons

      For the record, the caves never feel or speak.

      And I must insist that I, as the author, am at least one of the people allowed to state my intention in writing something I have written.

      A fair point, though. It’s to an extent in the reader’s hands. But the writing was all in mine. And when I write, I approach setting and character in different ways. And, really, I think everyone mostly does, too. When people say, “Setting is character,” I don’t think they’re really saying anything other than, “This setting is really vivid and active.” But I don’t think that means the setting is a character.

  63. Matthew Simmons

      For the record, the caves never feel or speak.

      And I must insist that I, as the author, am at least one of the people allowed to state my intention in writing something I have written.

      A fair point, though. It’s to an extent in the reader’s hands. But the writing was all in mine. And when I write, I approach setting and character in different ways. And, really, I think everyone mostly does, too. When people say, “Setting is character,” I don’t think they’re really saying anything other than, “This setting is really vivid and active.” But I don’t think that means the setting is a character.

  64. deadgod

      Ha ha ha.  – but how is that different from a reader falling in love with Elizabeth Bennett or Mr. Darcy – or, indeed, from falling in love with the human-like animated meat next to you?  Are direct interaction and reading, materially two different things, two modes of the same cognitive thing:  say, the imaginary?

  65. Matthew Simmons

      >Are writing classes really that obnoxious about calling “setting” “character”?<


      The books in the "Writing" section of my bookstore are worse, though.

      Half an hour of shelving and my knickers get in a twist, and I run to HTML Giant.

  66. Bradley Sands

      Yes, but all writers have the right to write about settings that think and feel, and are therefore characters.

  67. Matthew Simmons

      Ha! Not when I’m God/Emperor, they won’t!

      Now putting out the “Gone Out for a Cocktail” sign.

  68. deadgod

      Well, I doubt that tactic proves to be effective at untwisting.  – Looks to be a wringer.

  69. deadgod

      At that level of analysis, “character” would – or could – still have a definition narrower than ‘everything’! 

      Let’s let “character” = ‘the imputation or assumption of personhood’.  A description of a forest, say, that tells you that the forest is ‘malevolent’ is describing a “character”, eh?, where a description that tells you what a forest looks like but scruples to make of the forest an agent or intender or feeler of passion is not describing a “character”.

  70. Bradley Sands

      Do you live in an apartment or a house? I need to know because I need to figure out who the protagonist of my next novel will be.

  71. MFBomb

      “Are writing classes really that obnoxious about calling “setting” “character”?”

      Uh, yeah.  Where do you think this stuff comes from?

      “Show, don’t tell” is another idiotic workshop maxim.

  72. Matthew Simmons

      I live in a yurt. 

      That. Will. Not. SHUT. UP!

  73. Bradley Sands

      Yurt the Yurt. Her parents were not very creative. Her last name is also Yurt.

  74. Matthew Simmons
  75. Iamnotspikelee

      A character is usually related to being
      ‘alive’ in some way, seen as ‘a being’. Inanimate objects can be
      characters because they are projected upon, meaning, we give them
      ‘being’ by infusion. Hence, setting is the world, and the world is alive
      in many various ways and can act-react accordingly to its own laws.
      Setting is the place in which something happens, and place has
      character, and therefore *is* character, feel me? Yeah, I know, kinda

  76. Ken Baumann

      Spirits or no: the building is animate, not echtoplasmic ghosts (well, those too). And I’d say it’s much less interesting if you read The Shining or watch The Shining and think of the ghosts/energy of the place as individual characters and not some total energy that shapeshifts and manifests according to its target. The whole fun of the movie, etc. External/internal/mirrors. 

      What makes a character?