Target, Walmart, PetSmart, Famous Footwear, Panera Bread, Olive Garden, and on and on and on, this gathering of stores and restaurants that make up the strip malls and shopping centers of our communities. Set me down here or there in our country, and I’ll find myself in familiar environs. What does such homogeneity mean for the fiction writer who must make settings individual and unique? How do we make use of the familiar without making it too familiar? We know the feeling we get when we read a piece of fiction that seems as if it could be happening anywhere—that feeling of it never really happening at all.
One of our first obligations when we write a story or a novel is to persuade the readers that the world of the narrative actually exists. Setting, as Eudora Welty pointed out in her essay, “Place in Fiction,” is a crucial conduit to a reader’s acceptance: “The moment the place in which the novel happens is accepted as true,” she says, “through it will begin to glow, in a kind of recognizable glory, the feeling and thought that inhabited the novel in the author’s head and animated the whole of his work.” Setting, then, isn’t mere window dressing. It’s a necessary gathering of particulars from which emerges characters and their actions. Welty also encourages the writer “to disentangle the significant — in character, incident, setting, mood, everything — from the random and meaningless and irrelevant that in real life surround and beset it.” And there we are, up against the question of how to use setting in our contemporary fiction when so many of our landscapes have repeated themselves into irrelevancy.
So much depends upon the lens through which we’re invited to view the locale where a narrative takes place. Are we utilizing a point of view that’s capable of noting the significant, the unique, and the strange in what to others has become familiar? A setting comes to life via the engagement of a particular point of view. Our point of view characters’ consciousnesses become critical to the depiction of place. We might challenge ourselves to consider a familiar location such as a strip mall, from first one character’s perspective and then from anothers. What would one notice that another wouldn’t? What responses might one have that another wouldn’t?
We should also consider that a point of view character will notice different things and have different responses based upon what they’re carrying with them at any particular time. What are they living through outside the world of the strip mall, for instance, that comes to bear on their interaction with place?
Finally, we should note that just because our communities are filled with these homogeneous sites, doesn’t mean our fiction has to contain the same. We’re fiction writers. We make stuff up. We can invent the unexpected within the familiar: the Olive Garden waitperson who sings arias while serving the customers, the PetSmart employee who’s afraid of dogs, the Famous Footwear manager who limps. You get the idea. The unique always resides within the familiar. Sometimes, especially these days, we just have to be extremely observant to see it—or to invent it if we’re indeed practitioners of the liar’s art.