Monday, August 22, 2011

Community- An Aspect of Setting or Character?

My guest this week is Donna White Glaser, psychotherapist/office manager/writer, not always in that order. Wearing her writing hat, she's the author of The Enemy We Know.

My series, The Letty Whittaker 12 Step Mysteries, takes place in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin—a beautiful scenic town that was chosen in 1997 by Time magazine as one of America’s top ten small towns. It’s a pretty place. There are authors who would certainly do justice to its charm and unique north-midwestern style. I’d love to be able to bring a setting to life the way William Kent Krueger does for Minnesota’s Iron Range.2

However, an aspect that I do find easy to incorporate into my writing (whether I’m good at it or not is up for grabs) is: community. When I was pondering what to write for this post, it occurred to me that much of my book is based on the communities that Letty is immersed in. All of us—unless we’re living in a remote Montana cabin proofreading our manifesto—are a part of some community, usually several. Family, neighborhoods, work, friendship circles, special interest groups such as writers’ organizations, and, of course, perhaps the most important: blogs!

At first glance, when I began exploring what purpose Letty’s communities have on her and the plot I assumed that community was just an aspect of setting. And indeed it is since setting has to do with orienting the reader to the character’s world. Unless the character is working in a vacuum, her communities are going to come into play when describing her life and the external surroundings.

For instance, Letty is a member of Alcoholics Anonymous—a fairly insular group—and one of the “hooks” in my series is to open the world of AA to the curious. In fact, each book is thematically structured on one or two of AA’s 12 Steps. I wanted readers who haven’t “sat around the tables” to feel what it’s like to walk into a (typically) shabby old building where everybody knows your deepest secrets and it feels as though you’d just come home even though the coffee is atrocious and the person sitting next to you has disgusting B.O.3 I also wanted readers who have been to AA to say, “Yeah, that’s what it’s like.” Needless to say, AA is highly significant to my story. As Roerden points out, “In some fiction, setting plays a role as significant as that of a character.” It was in this context that I then considered community as a technique for developing character.

After all, the communities our characters belong to tell readers a great deal about them. Is your character a reluctant member, forced to participate in a community because it’s a necessary evil? Harry Bosch of Michael Connelly’s thriller series comes to mind. He’d much rather be on his own but the guy’s gotta make a living. Lee Child went even further with Jack Reacher. Or perhaps your character is a hearty enthusiast, someone whose personality makes him or her a “joiner”? Something like Claire O’Donohue’s Someday Quilts series where the quilters group solves murders in between stitches. Where our characters feel at home is highly descriptive and is as much a part of his or her personality as how he dresses or what sports she follows.

Another aspect of character development is the need to bring alive the characters and relationships within the community that our characters interact with. After all, a community is empty of meaning without people.4 As writers, we’ll have to examine how those personalities fit into the whole of the community, and what relationships with them says about the main characters. Communities provide oodles of secondary or tertiary characters that add depth and “flavor” to our story.

But there is a larger consideration than the individual members.

When we’re speaking about communities we aren’t referring merely to individuals—isolated and distinct—but to the unique entity that is born when its members identify with each other and decide to belong to the entity. “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts” to steal from Aristotle. We could argue “greater than,” but let’s not quibble. My point is that the whole is separate from its parts.

What’s amazing to me (and to community psychologists) 5 is that this whole can essentially become a new, distinct character. As such, a community has a personality, if you will, and therefore requires as much thought as any other character. Communities have certain norms, mores, belief systems, etc. that its members either adhere to or rebel against and that either invite or exclude non-members from entering. A community can put pressures on a character, can become an obstacle as in bureaucracies, the source of a threat, or, of course, a vast network of support and affection.

In short, a community can be a big, hairy beast that thwarts—or nurtures—our characters. Ignore it at your peril!6

Thank you, Ellis, for allowing me to explore this idea on your blog! I’d love to hear others’ thoughts on the importance of community in their writings. Thanks again!

1 I made that up.
2 Of course if I could do that it would negate the whole premise of this posting, wouldn’t it?
3 Well, maybe not with that much clarity.
4 Or sheep, if you’re Leonie Swan. Have you read “Three Bags Full”? Love it!
5  Yes, there are such things. Why don’t you trust me?
6  Okay, that was over-the-top but I needed a closing line.

Description: Psychotherapist Letty Whittaker, a professional secret keeper, has a secret of her own. When one of her clients slips free from an abusive boyfriend, Letty becomes the target of his violent rage. Wayne invades Letty's life, slithering his way past the barriers erected between her personal and professional lives, leaving gifts of dead rats, mutilated dolls, and freaky Shakespearian sonnets. Worst of all, Wayne uncovers Letty's deepest shame, infiltrating her AA group and threatening to expose her to the state licensing board.

And then--good news--Wayne is murdered. The bad news? The police suspect Letty. Worse yet, the sonnets and bloody souvenirs keep coming. Someone else has been watching Letty. Someone eager to drop bodies at her feet like a cat offering dead mole trophies to his mistress.

Someone willing to kill again.


Author Bio: Donna White Glaser is the author of THE ENEMY WE KNOW. Like her main character, Donna is a psychotherapist and lives northwestern Wisconsin. As if that weren’t enough, she and her husband own a residential construction company where it’s Donna’s job to deal with any overly emotional, what-do-you-mean-you-can’t-put-roof-trusses-up-in-a-thunderstorm? clients. Strangely enough, she often comes up with ideas for creative murders and hiding bodies during business hours. Currently she is at work on the second Letty Whittaker 12 Step Mystery-THE ONE WE LOVE. Donna would love to hear from you via her website at or on Twitter: @readdonnaglaser.


E. B. Davis said...

Your discussion of community brings to mind cozies. My main character is a bit anti-social due to her past. But you've given me ideas that will help when and if I have the opportunity to present the next books of the series.

Some characters are not yet fully formed and their lack of community is also telling.

Donnell said...

Hi, Donna, interesting blog. Yes, if there's not community in our stories, I think it's safe to say nothing happens. I love that your protagonist is an alcoholic. That in itself puts her into an interesting community. You have quite a bit going on in addition to your writing, but you're making it happen. Best wishes! Thanks, Ellis!

Polly said...

Great post, Donna. People want an anchor in a book: characters they're comfortable with and a place they can relate to, whether it's a town or a meeting group. This works especially well in a series because the reader feels
"at home" and wants to go back there. Good job.

Pauline Alldred said...

Thanks for the post. I put my main character in a work community and was surprised how much politicking and manipulation goes on in the work setting. No wonder work makes us tense.

jenny milchman said...

Love the end notes! I wish you could be a part of a panel I'm moderating in September on the role of communities in a writer's life. This extension to our characters' lives is really spot on. Thanks for the post, Donna & Ellis!

Donna White Glaser said...

I posted an earlier comment but it doesn't seem to have gone through. Hmm. Hope this one does.
And thanks Jenny! I'm glad you enjoyed the look at communities. I had fun writing it and it was one of those posts that taught me more as I worked it out on paper. Many thanks, Ellis, and to all who commented!

Ellis Vidler said...

Donna, I really like the idea of community as a character. Strong settings can have a huge impact on a story--To Kill a Mockingbird and The Kite Runner come to mind as especially good examples.
I enjoyed reading your post. So glad you could come to visit!

Donna White Glaser said...

I figured out why my earlier comment didn't go through. My fault! Polly, I wanted to say that I like the idea of community acting as an anchor. That's certainly true in our real life as well as books. I think one of the appeals of successful series are those that have a good anchor community(s) to help boost the main character.
Awesome comments, everyone! Thank you!

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Donna, excellent post! I completely agree that good mysteries need strong community settings. That's why it's important for the sake of authenticity and believability to place a novel in a setting the author really knows. I've done that myself in my novels.

Jacqueline Seewald

Fran Stewart said...

You're right. Community is central to many good stories. Because I grew up in an Air Force family and moved around so much, I never had a sense of community, so when I began writing my Biscuit McKee mysteries, I set them in a small town. It was, naturally, the home town I always wanted, but never had.

Donna White Glaser said...

That's interesting that you mention the Air Force. My husband was a Navy brat (his term) and, while his mother talks about their lives with a strong sense of community among other Navy families, he and his siblings do not. I like the idea that you created your own home town. Maybe that was the attraction of Lake Woebegone?

Nancy Lauzon said...

Great post. You're right, community can add so much depth to a novel, and give more life to characters. Thanks for the reminder!