The Caldron of Place
By Tess Collins
First published Byline Magazine, Dec. 2000
Tess Collins is the author of Law of Revenge, The Law of the Dead, two plays: TOSSING MONTE and BARBARIANS, and has published articles on writing for Byline Magazine and The Writer. Miss Collins is a member of Sisters In Crime and Mystery Writers of America and received a B.A. from the University of Kentucky and a Ph.D. from The Union Institute.
"Double, double toil and trouble;
The witches of MacBeth conjure as they stir the boiling caldron. Soon MacBeth arrives and the witch's charm gives rise to apparitions which foretell the Scottish general's fate. (They also give away the rest of the plot.) The weird sisters show MacBeth a future that's worth considering: do they simply predict it or have they caused it? In this caldron is everything that happens to MacBeth. It is the same caldron in which we want to place our characters-a boiling crucible that they cannot escape.
The ingredients are the situations in which your characters find themselves. These events can be linked to or caused by the place in which they occur. How the circumstances are dealt with in a big city can be substantially different than how characters react in a small town. The caldron can be an urban jungle, a hamlet, a city hall, a hospital, a school, a home. It can also be a profession such as politics, law, medicine, teaching or publishing. Whatever the author's choices, the milieu should be a caldron that essentially imprisons the characters. If any single character can walk away from the environment, then there is no story regardless of the circumstances.
Setting As Character
Some towns and cities are distinctive. Write about the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty and most readers will instantly recognize New York. The Golden Gate Bridge identifies San Francisco, Wrigley Field describes Chicago, Disneyland encapsulates much about Southern California. There are unconscious associations with these landmarks which the writer can use to bolster the setting. Wall Street might be an indicator of commerce or a goal to which the protagonist aspires. The Statue of Liberty can set the tone of "huddled masses yearning to be free" or be used as a metaphor for an individual character. The light of freedom can inspire or the great stone statue could be held up as a lie if the characters do not achieve their goals.
However, London Bridge now resides in the desert resort of Lake Havasu, Arizona. This opens opportunities to establish character traits related to the place. How is it that in the hot, arid desert sits one of England's well-known landmarks that many mature readers remember from nursery rhymes? What does it say about the people who live here? More importantly, is it descriptive of the characters in your story? Are there opportunities to use the disparate associations of an English bridge and the southwest to color your setting, the plot and the complexities of your characters?
Small Town vs. Big City
My unique perspective is that I was raised in a small eastern Kentucky town of about 15,000 for the first part of my life, and have lived the last 20 years in a city-San Francisco. In a small town people are stuck with pre-conceived notions of who they are as defined by the community. This is intensified by their upbringing, the family's history and town's social code. In my current San Francisco apartment building, it was six months before I saw another human being in the hallway. For a while I suspected I might be in a Stephen King novel and that no one else really lived on my floor.
In a small town the social construction of relationships is tighter. The characters can't escape their in-laws, ex-lovers, or ex-spouses There are political connections to consider-what if the Mayor is related to the man who shot the protagonist's dog? The main character considers a lawsuit, but finds out the judge is also a second cousin to the defendant. These home-grown conflicts are ready-made in the small town caldron.
Whether small town or big city what is important to most protagonists is the same: home, family, career, social acceptance in their community, a lifestyle to pursue one's passions. The threats to his or her world must be inescapable according to the rules of that realm. In a small town, adultery could bring about catastrophic consequences because it affects the entire community. The same situation in a big city would hardly draw notice because it is important only to those involved.
A city detective would follow clues stemming from the murder of a person having an affair. Common sense says to look at those entangled in the situation. In a small town the police would have a larger pool of suspects, from the local clergyman who sees the affair as destroying community morals, to the gossip living at the corner who manages to get into everyone's business. This detective has a more consuming task to sort out perceptions and pre-conceived notions of the community when considering suspects.
The big city also raises unique challenges for writers. Urban settings are filled with seas of nobodies where everyone must forge a reputation. In a city you might never run into your enemy, in a small town you can't escape them. In a city a lot can be avoided, so motivations must be kept more intense within the caldron. The author must find the small town in the big city. The story setting becomes a microcosm of a small town-a block on a street, a neighborhood, a workplace, a profession.
A gang has elements of the family, city hall is like a family, a law firm, a hospital or a school can mimic a small town in that all the parties know each other well, work long hours together, and a particular situation can stimulate conflict.
The author must create the caldron so that for dramatic storytelling purposes, the character will not or cannot escape the circumstances. If characters hates their neighbors, they can move-no story there. If the neighbor is suspected in another building occupant's murder, the protagonist can still move away if frightened enough. If the victim is the main character's spouse-now there is a reason to stay. The protagonist might be scared-that's good-it raises suspense, and there's also the possibility of being killed, too. If the police can't prove a case against the neighbor, the protagonist will, no matter how long it takes, and continuing to live in that same building. Note that the same kind of clergyman or gossip from the small town can commit the murder in the large city, but what has happened in this instance is a small-town caldron in an urban setting.
In my native section of the country, eastern Kentucky, we take our stereotyping seriously. The Appalachian Mountains are the landscape and the people who live there are called hillbillies, rednecks, good ole boys and other denigrating names reminiscent of the dangerous characters in the movie Deliverance. Kentuckians don't like this stereotype, not simply because it isn't true but is also a mocking generalization about an entire region of people who are as diverse as any in a city. A writer who lets a character slip into a regional stereotype has tainted the caldron. The amounts to putting in too much salt when what you needed was the eye of newt.
Other examples of regional stereotyping include the rude New Yorker, the kooky Californian, the illegal Mexican immigrant, the stingy Jew and the Southwestern gunslinger. This raises an important question for writers. What do we do when a character of a certain region, nationality or profession must act in a way which could be deemed stereotypical? One strategy I recommend is what I call spinning the stereotype.
To spin the stereotype the writer keeps the basic action and intent of the scene, maintain the plot and narrative color of the environment, but make the integrity of the character just the opposite of what is popularly expected. Let's spin a stereotype in what might be one of the most evil places in history-Germany during World War II.
No one would dispute the horror in this caldron. Almost every piece of fiction set in this place and time period-whether novel, movie or story-depicts the evil German soldier. This is a problem for the writer. We've seen this character too many times before. The evil German soldier is always the same-brutish, without conscience, amoral. Writing this kind of character time after time or making every German soldier have the same traits becomes an awful cliché and ultimately, not interesting to read except for horror-value.
To spin this stereotype, consider making the soldier hate what he is doing, consider giving him polite manners, even as he sends innocent people to their deaths, consider showing him going to church and sincerely confessing his sins every Sunday. This way the writer hasn't changed the intent of the story-showing an evil person doing evil things-but has instead deepened the character and made him all the more chilling because of his courtesy and internal struggle with his own actions. This soldier is not a cliché and will never come off as boring in the story.
So the next time you write a character of a certain region which is a hackneyed image in our popular culture, consider spinning the stereotype. (Note that this method also works for non-regional clichés as well.)
Characterizing the setting always strengthens writing. The place that characters bond to roots them in an organic structure, whether it be a hometown that's fostered generations of a family, or a profession which defines them, such as law, medicine or the theater. Whatever ingredients make up a story's circumstances or a character's personality traits, it is always up to the author to keep the caldron boiling.
[Copyright ©James N. Frey; 1990, 2019]