How many of you remember Northern Exposure? That show could only have worked in a small town set in the middle of nowhere. Specifically in Cicely, in the frontier-like atmosphere of Alaska. The place limited the actions of the characters, exaggerated their quirks, and forced them all to accommodate to each other in order to survive. In other words, place acted the way a character would.
Or am I dating myself? Okay, how about Downton Abbey? Great show. What’s the first thing you think of when you picture it in your mind? Is it the lord of the manor, the servants, the lovely costumes? I’ll bet the first image is that great square pile of a house in its impeccable grounds. The entire show is driven by the needs of the house, and the family is bent, constrained, and molded by the idea of maintaining the estate. Remember that chilling line when the eldest daughter gives birth to a son who will inherit it—“Downton is safe.” Again, the place acts the way a character would, bending characters to its will.
Where people are affects the way people act. For instance, here in New Hampshire we don’t worry a whole lot about earthquakes. The earth is pretty secure under our feet. Folks in Haiti don’t have that luxury. How does that affect the way they feel about their lives? Does it encourage a sense of fatalism? On the other hand, Haitians don’t know a thing about driving in a snowstorm. Most New Englanders have learned either to cope with it or to stay home. Does that give them courage or make them feel like cowards? Desert peoples don’t carry umbrellas; seaside peoples learn to watch the tides. Small towns are different from big cities; those who live in the mountains see the world differently than those who live on the plains; heavily industrialized places demand different attitudes than agricultural ones.
To be true to life, fiction must always take into account the way a place acts on its characters. Place is more than an accent. What impact do local weather, geography, ecology, population mix, job opportunities, and history have on the people who live there? Place can have as great an influence as upbringing does on a person’s outlook. If you don’t believe me, think about where you grew up. Now try transplanting yourself into a different place. Say you grew up in NYC; what would you be like if you were raised in the upper Midwest?
I don’t have to imagine it. I was 13 when my family moved from a working class, largely Catholic neighborhood of small houses, where a garage was a status symbol, to an upper-middle class, largely Jewish area of spacious homes each accompanied by a two-car garage. The differences in outlook between me and my younger sibs (the youngest of whom was not even born when we moved) are enormous. Religion, politics, the areas where we feel most confident--suffice it to say place has made us so different we talk about the New Jersey family and the Pennsylvania family. And those homes were only fifty miles apart.
When you take place into account in your work, you add another layer of depth that enriches the reader’s experience. It’s a powerful tool in your writer’s toolkit, so don’t be afraid to use it.