Setting, character and story

This morning I was talking with my husband about the three things I look for in a book: setting, characters and story, in that order.

1. Setting: I'll read nearly anything is the setting is intriguing. Right now I'm reading a non-fiction memoir/journalistic report Lost and Found in Russia, by Susan Richards.

"Returning again and again to the provincial hinterlands of this rapidly evolving country from 1992 to 2008, Susan Richards struck up some extraordinary friendships with people in the middle of this historical drama. Anna, a questing journalist, struggles to express her passionate spirituality within the rules of the new society. Natasha, a restless spirit, has relocated from Siberia in a bid to escape the demands of her upper-class family and her own mysterious demons. Tatiana and Misha, whose business empire has blossomed from the ashes of the Soviet Union, seem, despite their luxury, uneasy in this new world. Richards watches them grow and change, their fortunes rise and fall, their hopes soar and crash." from amazon.com

Siberia. Minusinsk.Gold rush. 1911
I'll read novels, newspaper articles, blogs, magazine spreads or any publications that convey a strong sense of place and time. It doesn't matter where or when; it's the voice of the author that draws me, as he or she endeavors to convey a particular situation of place and time. Setting is #1 for me.

2. Characters: without characters, the setting can't be fully revealed. I enjoy almost any character who comes alive on the page. If the best writing is a conversation with the author, the best characters likewise speak to the reader. I don't mind if the character is profoundly unsympathetic, as long as he or she is three-dimensional, genuine and honest. It is not the the author that creates such a character; when I write, my best characters reveal themselves to me, not vice-versa. These are the characters I look for when I read. Jen, the quiet young woman who holds her farm family together in rural Maine in the 1920's, still lives in my mind, though I first read this book in 1974.

Porter-Parsonsfield Bridge, Maine by Hugh Manatee

3. Story: frankly, story (in the sense of plot and action) comes in a distant third for me. If I notice the story, I get distracted and can barely finish the work. I don't want plot turns, deus ex machina surprise endings, or a series of exciting events that don't give me time to process how the events are seen by the characters. I don't like movies of the genre, either. I prefer the leisure of a Ingmar Bergman Swedish movie, maybe Wild Strawberries with Bibi Andersson, where the camera lingers on the details of a tree or face while nothing much happens. In my own writing, the story line is not driving the narrative; rather, my emphasis is on conveying mood, tone, theme and a bit of imagery to create a world where I lead the reader on a tour. These are the kinds of works I like to read, so they are what I produce.


Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007), Swedish stage and film director. Photo: Taken during the production of Wild Strawberries (Smultronst√§llet) (1957).

There are plenty of other literary elements to discuss. For example, I almost dislike symbolism, finding it too often obvious and intrusive, whereas diction (word choice) is lots of fun and makes me feel I'm playing with the author. Even so, I always come back to the setting and the characters as what I like best, with story leading the rear guard.


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