Ontology here is not to be taken as the term is used in information science, nor specifically, although closer, to how the term is used in philosophy. I have mixed the essential components inherent to geography as it relates to the sense of place, with that in ontology concerned with the nature of being as it influences knowing, what in philosophy is sometimes called ontological epistemology.
Have I lost you yet? Don’t give up. This is actually about writing.
A critic once wrote about my novels that in the aggregate they epitomize the notion that place (literally geographical) functions like a character in the story. I don’t know what that means, although I sort of like the idea. It may or may not be the case. But while wondering about this idea, it seems actually more accurate to consider the ontological effect that place has on characters, although I’m not sure that isn’t what lies at the core of the original comment.
How is the essential being of a character — exhibited in the way he thinks, speaks, acts, reacts, etc. — determined by the place of the story, its setting? Can you leave everything about a character and plot unchanged, then alter the location, without making the entire story false, inauthentic? Change nothing but the setting: instead of Minnesota, make it Arizona; instead of France, make it Russia; instead of a tropical island, make it the Canadian wilderness. Change nothing else, only the setting.
There are writers coming quickly to mind who epitomize the sort of sense of place, the geography as ontology notion I am considering here: Annie Proulx’s haunting, brooding Newfoundland in The Shipping News, John Kennedy Toole’s whacked out New Orleans in A Confederacy of Dunces, and of course, William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. Lately I have been enjoying reading through Orhan Pamuk’s books; his characters could not exist without the Turkishness at the core of their being, they cannot be placed somewhere else without being destroyed.
But isn’t there another obvious question arising from any consideration of literature and place? Along with the utter determination of the being of the characters in a story, what about the author’s own place? Is there Dickens without London, Twain with the Mississippi, Pamuk without Turkey, Stegner without the American West, Tolstoy without Russia … ? Then what about authors who are themselves place-less, from whom one does not get a clear association between the writer and his place. I believe I am one of those. I was born and grew up in southern Arkansas, but I have only written one book set there, and it has not even been published. On the other hand, all of my novels are set in places where I have lived; I have never used a place that I do not know from the intimacy of daily life.
But that’s another issue.
What I am considering here is, again, geography as ontology: are character and place inextricably intertwined? That is the case I want to make.
Characters exist in a distinct milieu, and that is going to determine the nature of a character’s being within that cultural myth. When the writer’s assignment of place in a story is pure happenstance, the resulting influence is often seen producing alienated, marginalized characters. So even in that way, an inconsequential or haphazard sense of place works to determine the ontological core of the character, often resulting in something like ironic detachment or the feeling of being exiled.
What does this mean for a writer? Only this, place ought to be considered in the process of story-telling with no less importance, taking no less care, than in the development of the principal character or characters. For yes, character and place, geography as ontology, are inextricably intertwined.
The three novels in my “Hatch Trilogy” are set on a fictitious atoll in the far southern Pacific that I called Tuva, and I placed the atoll in an also fictitious chain of islands called Olowalu. Before the writing could proceed beyond the first few pages, I needed to “know” everything possible about Tuva and Olowalu. I drew a detailed map of the atoll and then located it not only within the group of islands, but that chain itself at a specific (and empty) latitude and longitude in the South Pacific. I located the main character’s house, and even made a detailed drawing of the house, inside and out. I made a street map of the island’s only village and located every building on it.
But I really didn’t make up any of that out of whole cloth. Tuva was indeed a real place, a place where I had lived for a number of years earlier in my life: the island of Hawaii. I just shrunk it by about 90%. The village of Tuva was the real Hawaiian village of Kailua, and the map I made, the locations noted, were all from the way Kailua looked around 1968. Hatch’s shack on the beach on Tuva was an old coffee picker’s shack on the upland slopes above Kailua, where I lived for a time; I just moved it to the beach. The tropical bar in Tuva village was, though, was more of a stretch – identical in every way to the bar called Donovan’s Reef, in the John Wayne movie of the same name.
Once those place details became set and inculcated, the characters began their growth toward becoming real, as influenced by the intimacy of detail of where their story was located geographically. Much of coming to understand the character Hatch results from that shack on the beach, the utter isolation of the atoll, his pathological demand for privacy reflected in the out-of-the-wayness of where he lived. Had I used the real Hawaii, the real Kailua, Hatch would have been an entirely different character. This can be seen clearly in a later book, The Common Bond, where the main character, Morgan Cary, is who Hatch would have been if the books of the Hatch Trilogy had been set in the actual Kailua, instead of re-imagined as an isolated atoll in the empty southern Pacific. Both characters, Frank Hatcher and Morgan Cary, were the only way their geography allowed them to be.
I think we all are.