Setting as a Character

Salman Rushdie

Lesson time 12:36 min

Learn how to approach place with the same depth and description as you would for any of your characters.

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Topics include: Treating Place as Character · Consider the Relationship Between Time and Place · Write From a Place of Deep Feeling · Try Writing Place Without Adjectives · Create a Vision of Place


SALMAN RUSHDIE: The way of avoiding cliché is to really look into yourself and to see what it is about that place that is significant to you and write out of that feeling. And then you will write something good. [MUSIC PLAYING] There are novels which so relish the world they're set in, whether it's Paris or Vienna or New York or wherever it may be, that the portrayal of the place is as done with as much love and care as the portrayal of any of the people in the place. And the way in which people live in that place, the place interacts with them and is like a character. You know, and I really like that because for me, place is very, very important. I think it may be because my own place in the world has changed quite a lot. I grew up in Bombay. I mean, I've lived for roughly equal chunks of my life in Bombay, London, and New York, and three very different realities. It has the advantage that it allows me-- it gives me the freedom to set stories in many places. But it also makes me worry about the ground beneath my feet. You know, and that's to say when a writer is deeply rooted in one place, they can write about that place with complete ownership. This is my place. The migrant writer, there's always a question mark above the place that they're in and belonging, the ability to belong, the willingness of people to accept that they belong, et cetera. So I've felt the need to, literally in a book, to create the ground that the book stands on. And only when I've done that can I begin to have characters moving around in it. So for me, the place comes first, always. It doesn't have to be a city. It doesn't have to be a country. It can be a street. It could be a cafe. It can be the bedroom in which you were a child. It could also be a lost place because places are lost for two reasons, either because you can't go back there because of exile or whatever it might be, or because the place itself has changed so much that it is no longer the place you remembered. And maybe what you want to do in your writing is to recreate it, you know, to allow it to exist on your page in the way that it actually no longer exists in the world. For example, Balzac's novel, "Eugénie Grandet," he sets it up. You know, he describes first the town in which he lives, the neighborhood of the town, what that's like, the house in the neighborhood in which she lives. And by the time you get to hers in a room inside the house, he's already created for you a lot of the context of her life, you know, and that her life then takes place in that context. He's built the world first, and he's told you, we're going to have a story which inhabits this world. Tolkien does the same thing in a different way. You know, in a hole in the ground lived a hobbit. You already know what you're in for. So that's, I would say, the best the best advice I can give is to set it up, right from the outset, the kind of story you're going to tell. [MUSIC PLAYING] When you're de...

About the Instructor

To the delight of readers across the globe, Salman Rushdie’s genre-defying novels have brought surreal and magical realms to life for decades. Now the Booker Prize–winning author teaches you the art and craft of storytelling. Learn how to draw from your own experiences to build vivid worlds, authentic characters, and complex plots. There are extraordinary stories that only you can write—start sharing them.

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Salman Rushdie

Booker Prize winner Salman Rushdie teaches you his techniques for crafting believable characters, vivid worlds, and spellbinding stories.

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