SEE THROUGH CHARACTERS’ EYES.
Let’s dig deeper into the relationship between character and time/place. Is there a technique more powerful than infusing a character with a strong opinion about his place or time? Yes. Infusing two characters with that.
Novelist Thomas Kelly focuses on working-class heroes and gritty New York settings. In Empire Rising, Kelly builds his panoramic, multiple-point-of-view novel around the construction of the Empire State Building in the 1930s. One principle point of view is
that of Irish-American steelworker Michael Briody. In the novel’s opening scene, Briody is chosen to pound in the first rivet at the building’s groundbreaking ceremony, a piece of political theater for which the waiting workers have little patience. On the site once stood a hotel, the demolition of which gives Briody pause during the self-congratulatory speeches:
Briody is not surprised that none of the swells on stage mention the six men who died demolishing the old hotel. Not surprised in the least. He considers their ugly endings, the crushed and broken bodies spirited away like just more rubble, their names already forgotten. Their stories untold. He shifts his weight from foot to foot, is anxious to start work. His fellow workers watch with dull stares. They have no interest in the staged spectacle. They mutter and joke under their breath until one of the concrete crew makes a loud noise, like a ripe fart, and the superintendent swivels his fat head around and glares at them as if they were recalcitrant schoolboys. They fall silent. They want the work. The next stop is the breadline.
The tension in this paragraph is, to my eye, nicely restrained: impatience mixed with a downtrodden cynicism unique to Depression workers who are one step away from starvation. What is Briody’s opinion of the ceremony? Kelly hardly needs to tell us; he simply lets Briody’s passing regard for the dead workers who preceded him imply how he feels.
A short while later in the story, Kelly introduces another principle point-of-view character, Johnny Farrell, a lawyer and bribe collector for Mayor Jimmy Walker. Johnny is king of his world, but all is not right with it. Johnny’s wife is from a rich and very proper family. She disdains his work and the people with whom he must associate. One Sunday morning they argue as his wife bundles their children off to her Episcopal church. After she departs, Johnny reflects on the differences in their upbringings:
Farrell kissed the children goodbye and watched as Pamela shepherded them into the waiting car, insisting that they ride the four blocks to the Church of the Resurrection rather than walk because she liked to make an impression. He thought for a moment of his own childhood in the Bronx, how his mother used to drag them through the crowded neighborhood streets to St. Jerome’s, all those immigrants seeing the church as a way to keep their past alive, and for a moment standing in his Fifth Avenue apartment so far from the warrens of his youth he could smell the incense and hear the Latin intonations and feel his mother’s rough hand holding his. The woman had lived in fear. And that fear had instilled in him a hunger, an ambition, and a need to never settle for anything, and now this is where that need had brought him—an elegant and spacious home among the city’s elite where his own children were total strangers to him. He grabbed his coat and hat and headed out into the day.
What would you say this passage is about? Scene setting? No. It’s about the different values of Pamela and Johnny Farrell, as well as Johnny’s rueful realization that the fulfillment of his ambitions has a bitter side. Yet notice the period details that the author weaves in: the Church of the Resurrection, the Bronx, immigrants, long-gone Fifth Avenue mansions. I would say that Farrell’s feelings about his family and childhood are intimately connected to New York City.
What does the setting of your current novel mean to the characters in it? How do you portray that meaning and make it active in the story? The techniques of doing so are some of the most powerful tools in the novelist’s kit. Use them and you will not only give your novel a setting that lives, but also construct for your readers an entire world, the world of the story.