How Can Setting Be A Character

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© Carrie Lewis

Karyn Connor

Senior Editor @ GoneWithTheWord

Remember back in school when English teachers taught the man against man, man against nature, etc., themes? My English university professor at the time would actually fall asleep during his own lectures. His head would bob down in the middle of a sentence. That sums up how I felt about it. This was symbolic of how boring all this theme and setting stuff was to me at the time. A book was good or it wasn’t. You could pick it apart, and figure out how it all fit together, but did an author actually sit down and think: Hmm…how can setting come alive and really fuck with the character? Turns out, they do.

What’s more, the book using setting as a character doesn’t have to be a fantasy novel. Setting can come alive as a character even in contemporary novels. Author Joshilyn Jackson uses the kudzu plant as a type of villain in her novel gods in Alabama . What is kudzu? “It’s a plant, like a vine. It’s all over Alabama. It eats anything it touches, just climbs right up and covers it and kills it.” 

In this novel, the main character is a woman named Arlene who has almost as many skeletons in her closet as quirks in her personality. One of those secrets she is desperate to keep is that she killed a man. No one knows. No one, except the kidzu: “No one but me knew he was dead, so no one could mourn him, and in my imagination, the rain dripped through the thick leaves of the kudzu onto his face.”

 She worries about the murder being discovered, about being caught. But the person she fears will reveal her secret for all to see isn’t a person at all. It’s the setting. It’s the kudzu: “But even if no one went looking for the source of the smell, I knew my days of safety were numbered. The heaps covering Jim Beverly would find him just another thing to climb. They would wrap threads of themselves around his limbs, lift him, and post him to their liking. As winter came, the heaps would begin to lose their thick shield of waxy leaves. By November they would have all gone to bones. The heaps hiding him would become nothing more than a net of brown lace, holding up what was left of him for anyone to see.”

Arlene is afraid of the kudzu plant. She knows it is concealing the body of the boy she killed. She also knows that at some point, the plant will turn against her, hold up the evidence of her crime for all to see. Jackson has personified the plant to be both secret-keeper and potentially exposer of Arlene’s past. In its essence, the kudzu is a villain.


#BeBold, by Karyn Connor is available noweBook and Paperback

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