On Writing

Setting as a Character

Setting as a Character

“In the best stories, however, setting is an inherent element in bringing to life not just the scenery but also the characters themselves.”

K.M. Weiland, Outlining Your Novel

Some writers say the setting is it’s own character. I agree. When I started searching Google Maps for a place to set The Sea & All Its Stars, I knew I wanted it to be two things: 1) in the Mediterranean and 2) to be a real place.

I knew I didn’t want an island that was well-known. But I wanted a place with roots, a place where I could pull from the actual geography. That eliminated places like Crete, Corfu, Skopelos and Skiathos (where Mamma Mia was filmed), Mykonos, and Santorini. I considered Lefkada, as well as Naxos and Paros (all those blue caves!) because of their connection to the Greek god Poseidon and his nereid wife, Amphitrite.

As I continued writing and inputting “ISLAND NAME” and other geographical references in all caps, I got to the point where I couldn’t keep having a nameless place. I was at the place in my story where I needed to refer to mountains, landmarks, directions, climate, etc.

I set off on an internet search, starting with the underwater palace of Nereus, the Old Man of the Sea and father of the nereids. That led me to an obscure reference to Nereus’ palace being at the bottom of the sea somewhere between Chios and Ikaria. (I have since lost the original link that led me there, which just goes to show you keep your story bible!) Which led to checking out the islands around those, ultimately leading to Samos. 

As I’ve said before, the more and more I read about Samos and its history, the more it fit in and added to and shaped the plot of The Sea & All Its Stars.

Meet Samos

Samos is the ninth largest island in the Greek Aegean. It lies in the eastern Aegean and, at its closest point, is two miles from Turkey. It is mountainous and rocky in places, but also has valleys, plains, caves, and waterfalls. Over the centuries, Samos has been known for its muscat wine, honey, and shipbuilding, as well as its deep roots in Ancient Greece. Pythagoras (mathematician), Aesop (fables), Epicurus (philosopher), and Aristarchus (astronomer) are all from Samos. During the Byzantine Empire, the theme of Samos was centered here (ie, part of the Byzantine naval fleet). 

Samos holds great architectural wonders of the ancient world, including Tunnel of Eupalinos, an aqueduct built in the 6th century BC. It’s an amazing feat considering the tunnel was dug simultaneously from both ends, meeting in the middle, and lasted as a running aqueduct for over a thousand years.

Samos is hailed as the birthplace of Hera, goddess of the gods. The Temple of Hera or Heraion is on the southern side of the island. The earliest parts of the temple can be dated back to the 8th century BC. It’s crazy to think what the Heraion would’ve looked like in its heyday with the iconic columns, kouros, and all the different altars and buildings.

Location, Location, Location

Here’s a quick tour of a few of the places The Sea & All Its Stars is set or inspired by.

The Cove

This was the first picture I saw of Samos that wooed me to the island. Mikro Seitani was gorgeous and the perfect place for a mortal and a nereid to meet. When I saw it in person last summer, it did not disappoint.

The Village

I’m still not one hundred percent sure which real village to use, so it might come out as a mash-up of villages. But I imagine the village scenes, along with the marina, in Pythagoreio (formerly known as Tigani) mostly because of it’s relation to a few other landmarks. 

The Convent

I can’t say why we’re here, but it makes an appearance in Act 2. Plus there’s this really cool cave that the Samian Sibyl, a priestess and prophetess, lived in. Totally creepy, right? But perfect for a setting.

The Rock Chapel

Sadly, I didn’t get to go here during my 3.5 days in Samos, but hopefully next time. Isn’t it mystical and magical? This chapel is the Panagia Makrini built around 8th-9th century AD. It’s likely that ascetics connected to a monastery lived here.

Cottage Cove

We arrive here late in Act 2 & Act 3. If you keep following the trail from the cove where Thaleia and Leander meet (which is Mikro Seitani), in a mile or two you’ll arrive at Megalo Seitani. Here is a wider cove beach with a little house and dock nestled in the far corner. 

3 Things to Consider in Your Setting:

  1. What’s the history of your setting?
  2. Can the setting foreshadow the plot?
  3. Does the setting convey emotion?

The History of Your Setting

Even if it’s a fictional world of your creating. Your setting has it’s own history. How does the culture, the customs, the political figures play into your story? If your story takes place in the real world–current or historical–how does the history of the place shape your story? It has too. If you were to tell a story of Berlin in the the 1930s and not mention anything of the political climate it would feel false. Even if you created an alternate reality Berlin, the reader would still bring their knowledge of history to their reading shaping their experience as readers.

If you were to tell a story about a rag tag group of friends who come together to fight some great evil in middle America, but ignore their diverse racial, social, and gender experiences, your story will fall short. Why? Because the reader knows if you have a black boy, a native girl, a foster kid, and they will all have different backstories and inevitably have conflict because of it. Utopia is an illusion.

Foreshadowing in the Setting

Setting can act as a character when it looms with the probability of something to come. The narrow streets of a city, a forbidden room, New York City in August 2001, an impenetrable castle on a hill, the ruins of an ancient temple–all of these have the potential to shape the plot of the story.

In the tale of Bluebeard, the bride is given a keys to Bluebeard’s house and permission to go anywhere, except one room. We know the room is important because it’s forbidden. It looms large enough in the bride’s mind until she finally opens the forbidden room. Inside the room she finds the remains of Bluebeard’s previous brides, the blood still dripping on the floor. The forbidden room becomes a major plot point in the story, but also reveals more of the character of Bluebeard.

Emotion in the Setting

A place has the potential to bring back fond memories or terrible traumas, a stoic exterior can bring a sense of foreboding, while a small town Main Street can be a welcome to your characters and plot.

Consider Misselthwaite  Manor in The Secret Garden, when Mary Lennox first arrives it’s a dark, dreary, lonely place reminding her how she felt abandoned by her parents and how she is an unwelcome responsibility to the household. It’s only as Mary changes through her experiences in the garden (another setting with its own personality and atmosphere) that Misselthwaite Manor changes.

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