Sunday, October 7, 2007

Place as a Person

In some writing, the action wouldn’t change if the location changed. In other writing, for example Grapes of Wrath or Cannery Row by Steinbeck, place acts as a character. If a place is a character, it has good and bad traits just like a human character. I am thinking about a grocery story I visit often. Good qualities are the lovely smell of fresh tomatoes, strawberries, and peaches in the produce section, the smell of fresh bread in the bakery area, the many kinds of cheese they offer. To me the bad includes women who push free samples of packaged foods I don’t buy, the fact that most of the store is full of products that don’t interest me, the blockage of the aisles where the things I want are located by projecting product-stands displaying things I don’t want, and the fish section always stinking of long-dead seafood.

Mike Foley (UCR, Writers’ Review) gave me the idea that the same place can be a positive or a negative character, depending on what you describe and how you describe it. If I want to show the store as a welcoming setting to someone returning from California from New York, I can emphasize the lights, the produce’s attractive smells, and the baking bread. If I want to show how it antagonizes an ecological activist, I’d emphasize the excess profit emphasis, the aisles of processed foods, and the stinking fish. It would be the same raw material, either way. I could use different views of it if I was writing about the viewpoints of two human characters who felt differently about the market.

Do you have ideas about how to use a familiar scene as a positive or negative character?