How settings make or break your characters
You want to know how powerful a well established setting is? It’s so powerful that when badly done, it can break the reader’s belief in the actions of your characters. Ultimately a weakly developed setting can destroy the reader’s suspension of disbelief in the whole novel. But when well done, a setting supports the believability of even the most unusual behaviors of your characters.
This article applies mainly to novels with unusual settings, ones that alter the bedrock truths about life here in the 21st century that we all take for granted. That’s what I mean by an unusual setting. This can happen in any genre, although it is most often a factor in fantasy and science fiction.
And fair warning: this article may seem less about character development than my usual fare. This is only because it’s impossible to untangle characters from the settings that are the foundation on which the character’s whole life rests. Almost nothing has as much influence on how your characters behave as the setting. If that seems like a strong statement, read on.
Settings have rules
Since all of this ultimately relates to suspension of disbelief, let’s take a second to talk about the non-character-related ways to break the reader’s belief in an unusual setting. For purposes of this article, let’s take our setting as something very different from our own day-to-day world: A sci-fi Mars colony, 25 years after the colony has been established, but based on the technology we have today. I’m purposely choosing an extreme setting to show how far authors can—and should—take the business of settings.
Settings have rules, which have to make sense in and of themselves with respect to the reader’s general knowledge, intuition, and common sense. For instance, here’s a rule that is true for Mars: “Mars is an astonishingly dry place.” With today’s technology, colonists certainly won’t have been able to change the Martian climate in only 25 years, so consequently you would be unwise to stick this in your novel:
McCann opened his eyes to a gray, rainy day. “Oh, fabulous,” he muttered as he rubbed the sleep out of his eyes.
“Quit griping,” said his billet-mate Shariz. “At least it’ll wash the dust off the hab.”
You can’t get away with this because you made it rain on mars. You violated the rules readers will assume a reasonable Mars colony setting ought to have to follow. If you stick this scene in your novel, the reader’s going to think “This joker doesn’t know the first thing about Mars!” and will lose faith in you to tell a believable story. Although if I’m to believe what I wrote back in January (and I suppose I should), even this is kind of character-related too.
Settings affect characters
If I had to sum up this whole article in three words, that would be it. Settings affect characters. Seems obvious, right? Well, it is, but that doesn’t stop writers from forgetting it all the time. Or rather, I suspect what happens is that the author forgets what his setting is from time to time. I know that sounds impossible—how could you forget your setting?—but it does happen.
Settings may be quite outlandish, but the characters in them are still just people. They’re still driven by the same fundamental emotions, impulses, and desires as those of us who live right here on Earth in the 21st century. My suspicion is that authors get caught up in the familiarity of ordinary people, and lose sight of how their particular ordinary people—the ones in their books—are supposed to be affected by the setting. As a result, they end up with characters who think and act in ways that are perfectly normal and believable here on Earth, today, but which violate the expectations one would have for characters in a different setting.
When you hear people talk about books or movies where “the setting is like a character in its own right,” this is what they’re trying to put into words: that the setting has indeed affected the actual characters in accordance with whatever rules go along with that setting. Characters thus have a relationship with the setting as much as they do with other characters.
How to get it right
When you elect to use an unusual setting, you’re taking on some extra up-front work compared with normal-world novelists. You have to borrow a page out of Einstein’s book and do a “thought experiment” about life in your setting. You need to spend some time to figure out what all the explicit and implicit rules of your setting are, and from them, deduce what makes sense for how your characters would live, what they would eat, how they would govern themselves, et cetera.
A good place to start is by making a list of how your setting differs from our real life setting. “It’s like here, but gravity is weaker, there’s barely any air or water, all you have is what you brought from Earth, and instead of six billion people on the planet there are only 54, and they all live together.” If you feel it’s necessary, you might make a list of what’s the same, too. If any of your items relate to people, make them about people generally, not about the specific characters you may have in mind for your story. It’s not time to think about the story yet, not before you’ve got the setting firmly fixed in your mind.
Once you’ve got a handle on what’s the same and what’s different, you’re ready to do the thought experiment. Let’s take those Mars colonists as an example, and let’s offer the further twist that our colonists have been completely cut off from Earth; perhaps a super-virus spread on Earth after the colony was established, wiping out Earth civilization, meaning there will be no future supply ships or new colonists.
Consider the mundane
On some level food, water, and shelter are boring, but you can’t skip them. In fact, you should start your thought experiment with these essentials because if these are missing, it totally re-focuses people’s attention on the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy. In the case of Mars, air can’t be taken for granted either. Still, people don’t like spending their days obsessing over how they’re going to meet these basic needs, and as a result, people tend to organize their lives so as to make this as easy as possible.
You need to consider, within the parameters of your setting, how people are going to keep the bottom of the hierarchy satisfied. Our Mars colonists are going to have to grow their own food. They’re going to have to be fanatical about recycling water and, well, let’s just call it “organic matter.” They will have brought some shelter with them, whatever kind of prefab habitats came on the colony ship, but that’s about it.
Even stuff like the reality of clothes and garbage within this setting, entirely mundane to be sure, have enormous impact on your characters. The colonists will have brought clothes with them, and certainly some quantity of replacements, but that’s it. They can’t just make more at the drop of a hat, nor can they pop ‘round to The Gap to pick up some new khakis. So, taking care of one’s clothes becomes much more important than it is here on Earth. Mundane, yes, but it sure raises the stakes when somebody spills coffee on somebody else’s shirt.
Mars colonists probably wouldn’t even have the concept of garbage. If all you have is what you brought with you from Earth, even a ripped up, coffee stained, sweat pitted old shirt is still going to be a resource. Somebody, somewhere, is going to find a use for it. In a Mars colony, nothing gets thrown away.
Consider social norms
These physical realities around the necessities of life, clothes, garbage, and so forth all shape social behaviors. Those realities dictate how the society within which your characters live conceives of what is acceptable, normal, and even right or wrong.
Our Mars colonists, by necessity, will be hard core recyclers. If somebody dies, the funeral will end with putting the person’s body into the compost heap to be spread around in the gardens, or maybe pureed to be put into the colony’s hydroponics system. To you and me this may seem disrespectful of the dead, or even ghoulish, but to them it’s simply a necessity. Besides, it’s not like they have anywhere else to put the body.
The lack of ready access to new clothes, on the one hand, might mean people would be super paranoid about caring for their clothes. Certainly in the initial years after a colony’s establishment, when social norms from Earth are still engrained in people’s minds, that would be true. But on the other hand, the colony’s dome city or whatever is bound to be 100% climate controlled, kept at a balmy late spring temperature with perfect humidity all the time. That being the case, it’s not like the colonists really need to wear clothes. And as the years go by and clothes wear out, well, maybe it would just be easier to go around naked all the time.
But, on the other-other hand, other forces might oppose casual nudity: The fact that the colonists have extremely limited food, water, air, and space means that they can’t just go around having babies willy-nilly (no pun intended). Procreation would, again by necessity, have to be severely governed. China has a “one child per family” policy; Mars colonists might have a “one child per funeral” policy—nobody gets to be pregnant unless someone else dies to make room. Severe restraints on procreation could lead to highly regulated interactions between men and women. They might even start enforcing gender segregation within the colony to limit the interactions between men and women, and thus, the chances for unapproved pregnancies.
Or take it further: if the colonists know there won’t be any more settlers from Earth because of the super-virus, then it becomes critically important for these colonists to preserve their genetic diversity. This means that when the opportunity for somebody to get pregnant does come up, there will probably be an official colony geneticist whose job it is to decide who the parents will be.
Perhaps, in a society where these are the realities of life, the notion of love and marriage, of loving partnership, would become entirely divorced from the notion of parenthood: You wouldn’t get married because you wanted to have a family with someone. You wouldn’t even expect necessarily to have a family with that person. But you would expect that, at some point, you or your spouse might get a visit from the geneticist saying “I need you go to inseminate (or be inseminated by) so-and-so.” And whether you liked so-and-so or hated their guts would have no bearing on the situation.
Setting equals society
It goes on and on. The more different your setting is from real life, the more that setting changes the way society itself operates. For instance, what do you do if somebody commits a crime? If you have a murder within the colony (hardly unexpected, with the same people cooped up in close quarters year after year), what do you do? How do you punish the killer when there’s no prison to send them to, and you can’t execute them since you need everyone working for the colony’s survival.
That’s what setting does. It determines a great, great deal of the way societies are forced to act. Maybe your setting isn’t so extreme, but I guarantee you, whatever it is about your setting that makes it different from the setting in which you live your own life, that difference will shape the society in which your characters live.
I should note, this thought-experiment process for identifying the ramifications of an unusual setting in fantasy and sci-fi is not all that different from what many writers in other genres do. In novels set in historical time periods novels or in contemporary but exotic parts of the world, the realities of those settings shaped their societies just like a sci-fi Mars colony setting shapes its society. The only difference is that writers whose settings really do or did exist on Earth can do research to learn how the setting actually did shape a society, while fantasy and sci-fi writers have to think it through themselves.
That’s the bottom line. Whether you do it by research or by imagination, you must somehow arrive at a clear mental picture of a society grounded in the immutable factors of human psychology and behavior, but which is also perfectly attuned to the realities of its physical setting. It is this society in which your characters live, so you better know how it works.
Where writers fall down
What I’ve seen in client manuscripts (and the occasional published novel) is writers who haven’t done the necessary work to put this clear mental picture into their own heads before they figure out their plot and before they start writing down what their characters are doing and how they’re reacting.
This is why careful character development is so critical. You have to know how all of your characters think and act—this is the controlled multiple-personalities of writers—but never forget that how your characters think and act is equally determined by their personalities as by the society they live in. And as we just saw, society is a function of setting.
Get it right, and your characters’ non-Earthlike behaviors are not only completely believable but also support the reality of the setting itself. Get it wrong, and behaviors that would be totally believable here on Earth become suddenly nonsensical and collapse the reader’s suspension of disbelief in the setting too.
It doesn’t work to let your characters act like you or I would, based on the rules of modern Earth culture, while living in a setting that is dramatically unlike our modern world. It just falls flat. As a reader, it’s impossible to maintain my suspension of disbelief about the story as a whole when the characters don’t act in ways that are congruous with the explicit and implicit rules of their settings.
Pit your characters against the setting’s rules
So if you want to write a sci-fi romance set on Mars, go for it! But make sure everyone’s behavior is in keeping with the behaviors that make sense—that are necessary—given the realities of the setting. It may mean that the plot you had in mind doesn’t actually work. It may be that the plot you intended turns out to be grounded in modern Earth behaviors that wouldn’t make sense on Mars. Chances are, this will initially come as a disappointment to you.
But trust me, it’s actually a good thing, because it means you’re discovering what Donald Maass calls inherent conflict in your premise: maybe your star-crossed lovers can’t hook up because the very non-Earthlike rules around love and romance in that colony don’t allow it. If that’s what you discover, don’t fight it. Work with it! Readers will love watching your characters explore the tension between their emotional drive to be together and the colony’s overall greater good of keeping the population in check.
When they’re well done—when the characterization lives up to the explicit and implicit rules of the setting—stories that pit characters against the settings they live in can be fascinating both for the plots they contain as well as for their ability to explore human behavior in inventive new situations.
June 29, 2010 20:15 UTC
The other half of the sympathy equation
In my last post, I discussed why it is important for a novel’s protagonist to not only take actions within the story, but also display believable emotional reactions to the situations you put him in. When you have both, you create a sympathetic character for the reader. Those two elements—action and emotion—create a character readers will inherently want to root for.
In the comments on that post, astute reader Leah Raeder points out that there is more to it than that:
We have to feel like characters can lose something (or have already lost) in order to feel sympathy for them.
She is absolutely right. Her point goes to the question of stakes: what does your character stand to gain or lose in any given scene? Compelling stakes are so powerful in enticing readers to sympathize with a character that they can actually rescue a story in which the protagonist fails the first half of the sympathy equation.
James Bond is a perfect example, which is exactly why the high-stakes poker game scene from Casino Royale jumped to mind as an illustration for this article. James Bond utterly fails the first half of the sympathy equation.
I give him full marks for action: Bond displays decisiveness in spades, and never delays an opportunity to take action. But emotionally, he fails. He doesn’t show us believable emotional responses. His cool-as-a-cucumber demeanor even in the hottest situations, and his devil-may-care attitude towards danger are not particularly realistic.
Yes, there are people in the world like that. That’s not the point. The point is, your readers probably aren’t like that themselves. Your readers are much more likely to be normal people who, you know, feel fear and stuff. They’re going to have trouble relating to someone who doesn’t.
Yet no one can argue that the character of James Bond has enjoyed wild success. Why? Because he’s always playing for very compelling, very high stakes. More than once, the fate of Queen and Country or even the whole world has rested on the outcomes of James Bond’s death-defying heroism.
The stakes in every Bond caper are so high they outweigh the protagonist’s stunted emotional development. Or, as Donald Maass put it very well in his book Writing the Breakout Novel:
If there is one single principle that is central to making any story more powerful, it is simply this: Raise the stakes.
When something important is at risk, we naturally expect characters to take extreme measures to eliminate that risk. Ask yourself, does every scene in your novel—like every scene in Casino Royale—bear directly on that risk or its consequences? If so, and especially if you get the first half of the sympathy equation right too, you might just have another Bond on your hands.
March 22, 2010 18:12 UTC
Drive a stake through your character's heart--but in a good way!
I suspect most writers would agree with what literary super-agent Donald Maass wrote in his book Writing the Breakout Novel:
If there is one single principle that is central to making any story more powerful, it is simply this: Raise the stakes.
And while my name doesn’t quite carry the authoritative weight of Mr. Maass (not yet, anyway!), I hope you would equally agree with one of my recent articles on the value of intertwining plot and character arc.
Today we’ll look at how to do both—raise the stakes and intertwine the plot with the character arc—in one shot:
Give your character an identity crisis: An identity crisis is an immediate ticket to character arc. An identity crisis forces a character to question who he really is, and ultimately to grow, mature, and become wiser. An identity crisis can also destroy your character, so readers can watch him rebuild into a newer, stronger, better version of himself.
The cool part is that there is a practically limitless array of potential identity crises you can draw from to find a close connection to your plot. Linking the resolution of the plot to the character’s resolution of the identity crisis immediately raises the stakes, because it adds the character’s need for self-understanding to whatever the outer stakes of the plot happen to be.
First, let’s take a quick look under the covers to see exactly what an identity crisis is, so we can then figure out how to create one that raises the stakes. An identity crisis stems from undermining something a character feels to be deeply true about himself. It can be anything:
Belief: I am my mother and father’s biological child. Undermining: Surprise! You were adopted.
That particular example has been done a lot (in fact, I’m set to do it again next month during NaNoWriMo) but you get the idea. Find something that is an utter rock-bottom, totally taken for granted part of the character’s set of beliefs, and change it.
When you do that, you force the character to start wondering “Well, if that was a lie, what else should I stop believing in?”
Undermining beliefs about relationships creates drama because relationships are so important in people’s lives. This is why the adoption one is so common, because parental relationships are among the most important in anyone’s life. But you can make it be about anything:
Belief: When I was four I fell down on a glass bottle and it broke and that’s how I got this scar on my side. Undermining: Surprise! When you were four, one of your kidneys was removed and donated to someone else.
Suddenly you have the character wondering how he could fail to remember something like that, why his parents had made up a different story, whether it was morally acceptable for them to do that to him when he was too young to really understand or consent, whether he can ever trust them again, and even whether (since he’s missing an organ) he’s still fully human.
Plot-centric Identity Crises: Now we’re in a good place to figure out how to use our plot—or even more generally, our genre—to pick a good crisis. The trick is to think about the character’s most deeply held beliefs of self, and look for one that naturally lends itself to a dependency on your plot. Everyone believes a great many things about themselves, so this shouldn’t be too hard. Find that natural connection, then destroy the belief that relies on it.
And just to show that a seemingly random core belief can relate to many different kinds of plots, let’s take some ideas from different genres and see how we could tie that missing kidney crisis to it. For all of these, we’ll assume the unknowing child donor has already become an adult.
Romance: Maybe the unwilling donor’s parents sold the kidney because they were in some sort of severe financial hardship. When he discovers that his parents ended up wasting the money on high living—new car, new TV, imported beer in the fridge—ending up right back where they started from a couple of years later, he comes to feel that something has been stolen from him. He finds he cannot feel whole without knowing where his other kidney ended up. He can’t accept that his unwilling sacrifice didn’t buy something more important than beer. So he searches and finds the recipient. Although he becomes attracted to her, he doesn’t tell her she’s got his kidney. Their flirtations grow more serious, and he falls in love with her. Saving her life, he decides, was a worthy trade. When at last she reciprocates his love, he becomes able to forgive his parents; had they not sold his kidney, he never would have met her. Only on their wedding night does he finally tell her about their deeper connection.
Legal Thriller: The kidney donor has become a District Attorney who is building a case against a black-market organ donor ring. At his annual physical, he is examined by a new resident-in-training, who asks about his scar. He tells the broken bottle story, but she doesn’t believe it. She whips out the portable ultrasound machine, takes a look, and tells him “sorry, you’re down a kidney, pal.” This completely upsets the relationship he thought he had with his parents, who are now deceased. Yet, everything he knows about morality and respect for the law, everything that led him to become a D.A., he learned from those same parents. He begins questioning his own commitment to those ideals. Still, when he recovers from the shock of this news, he digs into what happened. In going through his parents’ old papers, he discovers that the same black market organ ring he’s after performed his operation, and that the kidney went to a twin brother he never knew he had. (Bonus identity crisis: Surprise! You weren’t an only child, either.) But, being a chop-shop affair, his brother got sepsis from the operation and died. The papers contain enough clues about the organ ring that he can bring an indictment both for illegal organ sales and negligent homicide. In putting the case together, he comes to understand his parents’ difficult moral-vs.-emotional choice and comes to a more tempered view of the law itself. After handing off the case to a prosecutor, he resigns his job to pursue a seat as a judge.
Literary: Sometimes it can work well for the identity crisis to drive the plot, and again we’ll use the deceased-twin-brother: Suppose the character has always known he was missing a kidney, but thought it was removed when he was young because of renal cancer. As an adult, he has become a well-known cancer activist who is prominent in cancer-survivor support groups. His whole life unravels when he discovers that, again, his kidney was donated to a sick brother, and worse, it was his brother who had cancer, not him. Having subsumed “cancer survivor” so deeply into his own identity, the revelation that he never had it undermines his whole life and career. Should he keep quiet, or tell everyone the truth about himself? What about all the other survivors who have drawn inspiration from his supposed example of recovery and long-term health? Does he have a moral right to deny them that hope, when for many of them hope is a critical part of why they’re clinging to life at all? How can he maintain the same passion for his work when it’s not personal for him anymore? In the end, he resolves his identity crisis—and the outer plot issues—by shifting that part of his self-identity to “sibling of cancer victim” and establishing a new personal connection to what has become his life’s work.
Conclusion: I derived all of these examples by thinking about the character’s most deeply held beliefs of self, then looking at the premise and genre to find the specific belief to upend that best serves the story. However you manage it in your own story, whether the plot determines the crisis or vice versa, raise the stakes by driving a stake through your character’s heart.
October 06, 2009 21:14 UTC
Getting the bones right
I’m going to take another little departure from character development tips today to address a question I hope every writer is asking themselves: When is the right time to involve an editor in the creation of your novel?
This question actually came up at the PNWA conference a couple of weeks ago, during the Q&A session I was in with one of the conference’s other book doctors. An audience member asked if she should wait to find a good editor until her manuscript was finished, or until she had done her own edit pass on it first, or what.
My answer to her was “As soon as possible. Now would be good. Let me give you my card.” Because seriously, the earlier I get to see the story the more I can help.
This never happens, but ideally writers would contact me as soon as they get a solid idea for a premise. They’d e-mail me and say “I’ve got this idea for a book. It’s a paranormal mystery with comedy and romance themes, sort of I Dream of Jeannie meets X-Files. What do you think?”
Ok, so I just made that up. But we’d kick the idea around and I’d help them build their initial premise into something stronger, something with what literary agent Donald Maass calls “gut appeal". I’d help shape that premise into something that has the potential to be a really interesting book, by eliminating elements that might distract from the core concept, ensuring that the premise has appropriate levels of conflict and stakes built right into it, and helping the author find the right focus for the story.
That never happens, but it sure would be nice. I think forlornly about all the books I’ve seen that were trying to be too many things, to fit into too many genres. Books which had a surplus of subplots but didn’t pick any of them to be the main plot. I think about all the time those writers spent banging their heads against problems they could sense, but didn’t know how to fix because the problems were deeply structural in nature. They’d have been easy to fix at the premise stage, but they often imply a major re-write to fix once the first draft is done.
This next thing never happens either: After I helped a writer get their premise squared away, they would go off and build it out into a whole plot, which they would describe in a nice, detailed outline. Ideally, they’d break the whole thing down into chapters and scene-by-scene sequences within each chapter. They’d send me that and then I’d make sure the plot actually works.
This is the time for eliminating sub-plots that don’t add enough to the main story, collapsing redundant minor characters into single, less-minor characters (if not cutting them entirely), finding the story’s themes, ensuring that they’re touched upon at appropriate times, and identifying ideas that don’t quite rise to the level of themes but could if strengthened. This is the time to look at the story’s overall pacing, to make sure it’s fast and slow at appropriate moments, to make sure the story provides drama everywhere, that the stakes are both plausible yet rising, and (for those thriller authors especially) to ensure that the sense of tension mounts with each passing scene.
Get all that done, and you’ll know the bones of the story are right. You’ll know the story’s skeleton has the appropriate number and placement of arms, legs, and heads. Only when you know you haven’t conceived of some sort of seven-armed, legless, three-headed mutant Cerberus of a story—and only then—would the writer sit down to write that first draft.
But, alas, that never happens. Writers get an idea, half-formed as all initial ideas are, and they start straight in on chapter one, scene one. To take Stephen King’s metaphor, their initial kernel of an idea is nothing more than a fragment of bone sticking up through dry, rocky ground. They rarely take the time to discover the actual fossil buried beneath. They start writing before they really understand what it is they’ve found.
Every writer has their own process, and I know I’m bound to spark some ire in writers who love the joy of jumping into that first page to discover the story through the writing process. They’ll argue that planning everything out ahead of time like that eliminates the possibility of having those spontaneous moments of inspiration, when suddenly you realize how great it would be if the main character’s paranormal love interest turned out not to be paranormal after all, but merely possessed by the spirit of the person whose murder is the crux of the story’s central mystery. Or whatever.
I understand that concern. Discovery through writing really is fun, and that’s hard to give up. All I can say is that from my own personal experience this concern is unfounded. I plan the crap out of my novels before I write them, mostly as a paranoid defense against writer’s block: I can’t get blocked if I always know what scene comes next. But I have yet to write a novel that didn’t end up deviating from my plan, sometimes in large ways and sometimes in small, when those flashes of inspiration hit me.
You can, after all, only do so much thinking ahead of time. You can anticipate and avoid the big problems—and I argue that you should. But you can’t anticipate every little nuance of the story. As you write it, you’ll see possibilities in your outline that weren’t evident before. But guess what? Because you already understand your story on a deep, structural level, you’ll know immediately whether that brainstorm is a helpful idea or a dud. You’ll be able to see, right away, how that idea fits in with the structure you’ve outlined. You’ll know where to add that great plot twist, what character’s mouth to send that critical clue out of, or whatever it might happen to be.
Yeah, the jump-in-and-write strategy works for some writers. To paraphrase one of my personal heroes Elizabeth Lyon, it even “occasionally results in a manuscript that is worth improving.” But for most of us, jump-in-and-write is nothing but a recipe for spending a lot of time on a story that’s going to end up with fatal flaws. Yes, it’s good practice for our surface-writing craft, but why not spend some time beforehand working on deep structure first? Before you jump in, figure out how deep the pool is.
It’s easy to fix writing that’s rough on the surface but solid underneath. I can totally help with that. But if you send me a story with deep structural flaws—those seven armed, three headed beasts—no amount of surface editing in the world is going to fix them. I’ll still happily find and show you those structural flaws, so jump in and write if you want to. By all means take advantage of inspiration. Strike while the iron is hot and all that. But jump in with the understanding that ninety-five times out of a hundred, you’re setting yourself up for a mountain of re-writing later just to get the bones right. Mere editing won’t do it.
If you’re cool with that, I won’t stop you. Otherwise, do yourself a big favor and get some skilled eyes onto your premise and outline before you write that first draft.
August 13, 2009 20:09 UTC
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