Essential Literary Elements for Better Storytelling: Setting Context
These are key setting context details that affect our writing and how the readers will then picture the setting (because imagery is essential), make sense of the conflict (because obstacles to one person may not be the same for another), and empathize with the characters (because we want the characters to be relatable).
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Yeah, there’s a whole world outside our own.
It’s true! And, depending on when and where you are, the people there and then are just as convinced as you that their way is right, and you are wrong. I teach literature and writing, and I grappled with getting teens to understand character behaviors all the time. I remember all the girls being frustrated by Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew because Bianca is a “push over” and they are “so mean” to Kate (an aggressive young woman who no one wants to marry). Yes, in our age of women’s rights, it is absolutely unacceptable how her husband treats her. And, her eventual bowing to his whim is an insult to women everywhere. But, we have to remember something: in the 1500 and 1600s, this is how a woman is to behave.
I would start every book with a research project that the kids did in two parts. Through the project, they would learn and teach the class about the context of the story so that everyone could have a vague idea of the characters’ struggles. Theirs are real, too!
I apologize beforehand for how teacher I’m about to get! But, I can’t help but draw from my classroom experiences to clarify the ideas! It’s a blessing and a curse, really…
The key elements of setting context are what I’m going to hit this time around, and with them, you can build more believable characters and conflicts*.
*This is in addition to the how you can justify unbelievable actions in believable ways that I address here.
1. Historical Setting Context
The documented major and minor happenings that tell the story of that time frame.
During the 1930s, the time frame of To Kill a Mockingbird, the Great Depression had occurred. During the 1960s, when Harper Lee wrote the book, we had the Civil Rights Movement.
Knowing that historical aspect to the story can really help us to understand how the characters behave, and what the overall purpose of the story is. Not to mention, it helps us to grasp what is a legitimate obstacle for our characters, and why some options–that are viable for us as readers–are not a thing for the characters.
While it’s frustrating for the audience to witness, how the town treats Tom Robinson is a typical occurrence in the 1930s. You also notice things like the kids being imaginative and nosey in their neighborhood. This isn’t just because that’s what kids do (even though that is developmentally appropriate for their age). It’s mainly because they can’t afford to do anything else. There are carnivals, fairs, movies, sports, and other things during that time. However, with very few people having jobs after the market crash (the Finches being one of the lucky few), as Scout says in chapter 1: “There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with, nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County.”
Related Article — “How to describe setting: 6 ways to bring setting to life” from Now Novel
In the same way, because Harper Lee is writing during the CRM, she wants to focus on how unwilling people of old ways could be willingly ignorant to differences. The people of Maycomb knew there were more to Tom and Boo, but they didn’t want to understand it, because to do so is to admit that they are “different”, too. And that is not allowed. They are the standard, they are the norm, and anything else is wrong. But, Harper was writing when it was finally being acknowledged that this narrow world view is potentially wrong. She demonstrates how it may be justified, but also how it may not, and leaves it up to the reader to reconcile with their notions of misunderstanding and misconception.
2. Geographical Setting Context
Key physical elements of the region and area–including size, soil, weather, urban development, etc.–during that time frame. Keep in mind that you aren’t looking at the geography right now, but during the time you are setting the story, which may be drastically different!
To Kill a Mockingbird is set in fictional Maycomb County, Alabama. However, Harper Lee actually based it on Monroeville, Alabama; much of the layout and buildings she described were actually from her childhood. Being able to have a point of reference makes her descriptions way more vivid and real for us. Plus, we can look up pictures to see!
Even though it seems insignificant, where a story is happening is actually quite important. We have preconceived notions of places now that we have access to learn so much about other places. So, when we get a location of something, not only does it allow us to create a better mental image (or look one up) when placing our characters in the backdrop, it helps the author write more accurately. It also helps us to understand cultural and social aspects of the story based on the location. Are your characters surfers? I’m assuming this is in California or Florida. Are your characters super smart and know martial arts? (As bad as it sounds) Are they in an Asian country? We project our understanding of those places onto the story to help us make sense of it all.
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The land in New York is different than the land in Alabama. When Harper Lee describes the farms, dumps, small towns, etc., we know it has to be an isolated place. Plus, we make the connection with the old American South with all the racism in it. By knowing where it’s at, we cast our understandings and preconceptions on the story, helping us make connections and understand why such Southern hospitality from Aunt Alexandra and hate from Mrs. Dubose so plausible.
3. Cultural Setting Context
The key systems of belief that dominated lifestyles during that time. Whether you agree with their beliefs at the time, you have to keep true to it. They wouldn’t agree with yours either.
In Shakespeare’s time, pretty much everyone was either Catholic or Anglican. They also believed in a strict Chain of Being that put the world in a particular hierarchy. If anything in that hierarchy was broken, God would be angry and chaos would ensue. You have to get that to understand why they make some of the references they do in the play.
Culture is what drives us as humans. The world around us forms who we are and evolves as we learn more. In order to understand how the characters behave, and their potential internal conflicts, you have to understand the ideologies with which they are raised to leave them with such obstacles. Again, just because our culture is cool with it doesn’t mean that all the others are.
Katherine does a soliloquy at the end of Taming of the Shrew. Famous for its beauty and controversy, she describes how the man handles everything for the woman, and the least she can do is look pretty and obey him because of it. Even though this acknowledges that the woman is below the man in this time, it also reinforces the responsibility of the man.
Christianity starts with Adam being God beautiful creation with woman coming from Adam to be a companion. Adam was responsible for keeping tabs, ruling the animals and land, and communicating with God. Eve just had to love him. So, it’s natural that following Christians would basically believe the same.
Related Article — “Writing 101: Setting & Worldbuilding” from Ink and Quills
As Kate points out: the man works all day to pay the bills; the man manages the household staff; the man goes to war to protect his family and country; the man pays and worries about the bills; the man chooses a husband he believes can give the best to his daughter; the man defends the household when crime is at the door. The man handles everything that–we have to admit–stresses the hell out of us. And, all she has to do is comfort him at the day’s end.
This is a full-on belief system during the time that dictated family dynamics and expectations. Governed by the Church and enforced by the monarchy, this was required, or the people shunned.
And, I’m not going to lie: sitting prettily when his friends come over in exchange for doing all my hobbies–with no limit and restrictions on what I want–while my husband deals with all the stress sounds like a pretty damn good deal to me!
Don’t just assume how life may have been. Not all ancient cultures suppressed women, and not all dark people were slaves all the time. You have to look for your stuff, or else it’ll be quite complicated to make sense of your character’s journey.
4. Social Setting Context
The behaviors, interactions, and expectations normal during that time. I know, girls have to be girls and boys do whatever they want. It’s not fair; it’s not right! Yeah, well, it’s their reality. Understand and tolerate it.
In the Elizabethan era (when Shakespeare was writing), men were expected to pay hefty amounts for their wives and control their women. Women were expected to be obedient and worth the money the men paid to marry them. This was a normal standard, and any deviation from it was unacceptable, and actually considered medically unhealthy or just plain evil (like demonic possession).
As much as we all want our male characters to be a sensitive man, and our female characters to be independent, that’s not how it worked most of the time. If you even want to put you story in the contemporary times, there’s a certain way that the women, children, classes, job titles, and such dictated the character’s behavior. These expectations are what help us to connect with the character and understand their drive through the conflicts. Even if you hate the character for promoting the behaviors you dislike, it is those characters who help to foil the protagonist and better understand those, again, internal conflicts.
In Taming of the Shrew, Katherine is not meeting her womanly expectations. In the beginning of the story, we root for her all the way to keep on doing her own thing. On the other hand, Bianca is exactly what the men want, and it is because of her that we even have the coexisting plot of Kate’s required marriage.
Related Article — “3 Mistakes You Make When Writing Setting + How to Fix Them” by Rachel Giesel
By the end of the story, however, Kate starts to cater to her husband, and end with a complete willingness to actually hold his boot in her hand as she bows down on her knees. Of course, the ladies are outraged, the guys are amused, and academics insist that Shakespeare must have been a feminist–shame on him.
Well, why would he make her bow down if he gave her the strength? Well, because that’s what she had to be. Notice, Kate fought this constant internal and external conflict, but none of it was because she wanted to be independent. It was because she wanted to be loved. She found that love with the conformity, and really, a better love than any other had known. Those social dynamics are what developed the characters and pushed our plot along with their struggle to meet or defeat those expectations. So, adolescence, really.
So, basically, to write a story, I have to do a research paper?
No, not to write a story, per se. But, to create a realistic story with more opportunities for imagery and allusion (like the classics), yes, you do. It all just depends on who your target audience is when you’re writing. If Dan Brown didn’t do research, would his stories make sense? If you described the pyramids in Greece, would we really believe anything you write about? Naw, the answer is naw.
Same with reading. Again, if the story mentions a place or event, totally look it up. It makes the scene and characters make so much more sense because then you can see it through your eyes. Character empathy is the difference between a best-seller, and a keep-that-to-yourself read.
I describe more about how to develop character empathy in my Pixarian series, as well. Not to mention, you can find out more about the key elements of characterization and conflict below.
So, what do you think is key when considering setting context? Do you think it really makes a difference? Is there anything else you think we need to consider when developing a real world in which our characters will grow and live?
Let me know below. And, of course, share the love with social media.