Writing Spaces #6: Character As Setting

This column explores the often subconscious connection between the places we are from, the spaces in which we write, and the places we write about.

When we think of setting, we usually first think about landscape. We think about grass, trees, roads, sometimes mountains, sometimes buildings. Urban, rural, industrial. Sometimes we think about animals too, but writers usually categorize people as characters, not setting. 


If we want to be technical, there is the “setting as character” trope, which I am quite fond of, because, if you’ve read my first article in this column, you will know that I believe that characters can not exist or make the choices they make without the setting they are placed in, thus elevating setting to character. 


But, I feel like we rarely talk about the fact that people, characters, are just as much a part of a setting or space as anything else. Families, friends, lovers, even strangers who occupy the same space as you can impact you in ways you might not realize. 


Families are the best example of this. The house you grew up in is special because you lived in it with your parents and siblings. The loose pantry doorknob, the trees that your father pruned on Saturdays, the space in the backyard where you buried the family dog. Do you now own a certain kind of towel, shoe, kitchen appliance because of a similar object your family owned when you were a child? 


When my father died, selling the family house tore away something inside of me. I couldn’t watch my mother sell the furniture he bought when we didn’t have room for it in our new place. I hand-picked bandanas, books, mugs, and shirts of his to keep. Because he was no longer a body, he became every object and place that he had ever touched and walked through. The closet where he hung his ties. The section of street where Campbell turned into Kino, where he always got a flat tire on his bike. Bob Dobb’s, where my father would sit and wait until it was time to pick me up from ballet across the street. Section 13, row 13, seat 13 at McKale Center: we went to every home basketball game together. The entire University of Arizona, where he had studied and worked for more than three decades of his life, where he had helped develop countless buildings and memorials, became a memorial of my father. I hated going to school there. I wanted to be close to my father, but away from my grief. The setting wouldn’t allow for that. 


My oldest friend and I met in tumbling class when we were tots. He calls me his “first friend,” because I was the first person he actually chose to be friends with, not someone his parents had set him up on a playdate with. He was with me when I learned to summersault. He moved away and lived in other places for periods of time due to his father’s work, but he returned to our home in high school. And he would be with me when my father died. 


“I have this core memory of you,” he told me. “I was walking down the hall of our high school with my dad, it was picture day, and I hated it and didn’t want to be there. I wanted to transfer. But then we turned a corner and I saw you and your mom, and you had the biggest smile on your face, and gave me the best hug, and I knew I was going to be okay there.” 


In college, we had a falling out (I call it our Dark Period), and upon reuniting he told me that when we weren’t speaking, it was impossible for him to be in our home town at all. “I avoided it as much as possible because every part of home reminded me of you. Especially places like Himmel Park, where we went all the time. It was all you.”

I knew exactly what he meant. It is deeper than a recovering of memories you shared at that place. When you are in a setting that is built by loved ones, there is an instinctual, physical inclination to find that person standing beside you. And when they are not there, there is something inherently wrong with this. There is an empty space. That place is suddenly no longer the place you once knew and loved. 


The most important people in your life permanently alter a space. Even if they do not physically alter it, their presence, or lack thereof, alters your perception of it, and your perception is your reality. 


I moved to Colorado to be closer to home, but the longer I think about it, the less I know what home is. Without my father, without the home I grew up in and the bedroom walls we painted blue, what is there? There are the bars and grocery stores and restaurants I can still frequent, but even some of those have changed ownership or been torn down for new development. 


Two of my favorite bars in Tucson are permanently painted, or tainted, by my parents, my first friend, and the man I thought I was going to marry. 


It is now a struggle to visit the places I love most because of the people I loved most. And places I was once indifferent to, or unaware of, are now untouchable. I want to throw up when I pass the parking lots where the man and I would meet at night to go on drives to talk about the future we would build together. 


“I want wildflowers in the front yard,” I said. 


“I’d like that,” he said. 


And now half of me wants to grow them all the more, and the other half of me wants to burn every native plant I see. 


I want to touch the face of everyone I’ve ever known and ask them: do I exist without you? Do I exist because of you? You are everywhere and we are inside of each other. 


If people are any part of a landscape, they are most like aspen trees. Hear me out. Aspen trees are special in that they are all connected. Well, not all of them, but a lot of them. They share a root system, so if you look at the mountainside in October and you see a pocket of trees that are all the exact same shade of yellow, those are the aspens, they are connected, they are talking to each other. They are one being. 


The community in your hometown is like this, a book’s setting is like this. It is made up of all of the people and things that are in it, and all of these things play off of one another and affect each other deeply, even without direct course of action, even without a plot. 


When the mother aspen, or the clone, dies, every other aspen is affected, and the entire forest is altered based on the life of one tree, of one person. 


When someone you love hurts, you hurt too. When someone you love dies or leaves you, a part of you leaves with them, that part that they made. You might not be less, but you are different. 


A home is a place, but a person can be a place, so a person is a home too. Which means that when you lose a person, there is suddenly a home that you can never go back to. 


When my mother bought her current home, the first home she purchased by herself, not with my father, she asked me, “I want this to feel like home to you, does it feel like home to you?”


This building? This guest bedroom with a wall that is a different shade of blue? No. But I tell my mother, “home is wherever you are.” And I mean it, it is true. 

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