So now that we’ve talking about building a character, let’s chat a little about your setting. There’s really two pieces to this that I’ve seen: the world you’ve built, and how you introduce that world to your readers. These are two of the places that I’ve struggled the most in my writing, so a lot of what I can tell you is what I’ve heard others say to me when I was struggling.
(If you really want some in-depth world-building help, I’ll point you to one of my friend’s blogs at the end of the post. She’s really the champ of this.)
So point number one: creating your world. As you probably saw in my Fiction Friday post last weekend, my world has a tendency to grow on its own, even when I’m trying not to. It’s like as soon as the character gets dropped onto the page, they start running–and the world they’re running through starts to get drawn in as they go. This is a very pantser kind of approach. But for you plotters out there, start by asking the basic questions: what kind of story is this? Are you writing a romance, a thriller, a mystery? Is it modern-day, historical, futuristic, post-apocalyptic? Once you choose that, the questions get smaller. Say you’re writing a romance, and it’s modern-day but not-quite-Earth-as-we-know-it. What makes it different? Are there caste systems? Is it actually alternate!Earth, or is this just a world that resembles ours but isn’t actually? Does the planet need a name, if it’s not Earth? Does it ever come up? And since this is a romance, stuff like the caste questions become even more important. Are your lovers in the same caste? What kind of societal or physical barriers is their world going to put between them? Mountains? An ocean? Or just society telling them that they can’t be together?
Topography is another thing to keep in mind. Take some of the better known settings and think about how they would have been different if the setting had been different. Would the scenes on Hoth in Star Wars have been as powerful as they where if it wasn’t a barren frozen wasteland? Alternately, what about Tattooine? If that hadn’t been a desert, would the story have played out the same? Could it have? What about the movie Avatar? Most of the plot of that movie revolves around the setting and how it affects the people in it.
Setting isn’t exclusively placing, either. This isn’t just where it takes place in terms of the ground and air they breathe, but the social spectrum around them. Again, change the world and see how the story changes. Would BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA have been the same if the characters hadn’t been treated socially the way they were? Would STARGIRL? How about THIS IS WHERE IT ENDS? None of these books remain if the social setting changes. There is a level of ostracization that needs to occur before the book can happen. How will that affect your character? Does it have the same social backdrop as we do, or is something else held in regard/shunned? Who knows. That’s up to you.
The second half of this is presentation. The one example I will routinely bring up–and that’s mainly because it’s also the one my parents bring up the most commonly in their own discussions of writing and literature–is the description of Bree in The Fellowship of the Ring. Tolkien spends nearly three full pages discussing the was Bree looks, and the people therein. I just pulled my copy off the shelf to check. Three pages. No wonder it took me so long to get through the damn book when I first read it. Tolkien’s a fine writer, and he paints a lovely picture, but he’s working on the Sistine Chapel when I asked for a 4×6 picture.
There’s a line to be drawn here. I usually fall on the wrong side of it, and don’t describe enough. The world exists in my head, and I forget to actually say what the character is seeing. It’s not enough to just say that Alistair walks into a church. “Church” doesn’t necessarily describe anything. I’ve seen whole bunches of churches that look nothing alike. The church I’ve attended here in RVA doesn’t look even remotely like the church I grew up in back in New York. So if Alistair’s going to walk into a church, I need to describe the type of church he’s walking in. That doesn’t mean I need to give the entire backstory of the church and write in detail what kind of marble the floor is made of and what type of wood each of the pews are. I don’t need to know, necessarily, when the church was built or how many priests have worked there. If that’s important to the plot, of course. By all means, include it. There’s a great deal about Rosslyn Chapel that gets described in Dan Brown’s THE DA VINCI CODE that might seem trivial, but when any little detail might be important to what Langdon is looking for, we need all those details. (Also, have you ever seen Rosslyn Chapel? It’s nothing BUT detail! Heavens.)
It’s a challenge. There’s a lot in a world, and it’s daunting to create an entirely new one. There’s a reason why a lot of books are just set in normal little old America. We write what we know. (Alternately, of course, if you’re not from America, maybe you write about more interesting places. That’s cool and good too, naturally.) And maybe you do have a whole world to work in, whether it be in space or on a planet or in the ocean or wherever. Maybe you have elves and maybe you don’t. Maybe you have magic and maybe you don’t. Maybe the world ended and maybe it didn’t. This is your sandbox, and you can do with it pretty much whatever you like.
Now, as promised, if you’re looking for some more in-depth world-building exercises, my friend Lyn Thorne-Alder is writing a whole series of them on her website, and you can find the posts here. (Cleverly, she’s dubbed the month “Preptober” and has tagged all her posts accordingly. I need to strive to even a fraction of her organization.)
I’ll see you all on Friday, where you can see me flounder to write any kind setting ever.