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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

Tags: character, setting, society, inherent conflict, Donald Maass, suspension of disbelief

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I disbelieve your lack of disbelief!

Last night I was looking over an old report I’d written for a client. The manuscript in question had several issues that needed to be fixed, but the one that really jumped out at me was about disbelief: the reader’s disbelief, and the hero’s lack of it.

The book was a science-fiction epic. In the early chapters, the hero has a “matrix moment” wherein he learns that basically everything he thought about his world wasn’t true. The writer did this in a dialogue-heavy exposition scene where the character’s wise mentor explains what’s really going on, complete with alien monsters, spaceships, the whole bit.

The scene failed utterly to capture my interest. The conversation went something like this:

Hero: “Mentor! What’s going on here?”

Mentor: Blah blah infodump, aliens, spaceships, blah blah, danger, danger, conspiracy plot.

Hero: “Oh, ok.”

Not only did the scene fail to capture my interest, the scene completely destroyed the book. Why? Because the hero just went right along with it. He didn’t freak out. He didn’t suspect that his mentor had gone utterly mad. In fact, he didn’t express the slightest bit of skepticism at all, not even a “come on, you’re joking, right?” Nothing.

In failing to make use of stage 1 of the five stages of emotional response , the writer failed to make the scene real for the protagonist. The guy didn’t respond like a real human being would have. And in failing to make the scene emotionally real for the hero, the writer failed to make it intellectually real for me.

In other words, the writer made it impossible for me to suspend my disbelief. Game over.

Disbelief, denial, skepticism—these are all facets of the same incredibly important emotional response, that sensation of discomfort we encounter when we’re presented with information or experiences that clash with what we believe to be true. The core human response is to reject the new and cling to what we have inside.

This is as basic as breathing, and it happens in the blink of an eye.

When you confront a character with something that clashes with what they believe, you have to show some expression of disbelief. The greater the clash, the stronger the disbelief response should be. What is critical to realize is that in these moments, the character is a proxy for the reader. The reader knows how he or she would feel in that situation. The reader’s mind immediately fills with potential counter-arguments against the new information.

In that moment, the reader is waiting for the hero to express similar feelings and explore similar objections. That is, they’re waiting for the writer to prove to them that this unbelievable new information is really true, by overcoming the hero’s natural disbelief. Suspension of disbelief comes from first showing, and then overcoming, the character’s disbelief.

Obviously that won’t happen if you skip the character’s disbelief. What will happen instead are three really bad things:

It reflects badly on your characters. In the above example, it made the hero look like a moron. It made him look like the most gullible simpleton, the most clueless rube to ever survive the birthing process. I had to wonder how this guy manages to get himself dressed in the morning, or avoids poking himself in the eye when he eats with a fork.

It reflects badly on you. You leave readers with the unavoidable perception that you, the writer, are so out of touch with how human beings work that you have no business trying to portray humans on the page. You lose every shred of faith the reader might have had in your ability to tell a story with people in it. That being the case, consider switching to stories about robots and other characters who won’t be expected to act like humans. Give lemmings a try. I hear they’re quite gullible. If you don’t know how to write disbelief, I’ll bet you could write one hell of a lemming protagonist.

You lose the reader. Having destroyed the reader’s estimation of your hero, and having destroyed the reader’s faith in you, what’s left? Nothing at all. There’s nothing left that can drag the reader through another couple of hundred pages of utterly unbelievable fiction. At that point, I would gladly trade your book for a free one-dollar lottery ticket. Even at 147-million-to-one odds, I’d have more faith in that lottery ticket to deliver me something good than your book.

Writing compelling portrayals of emotional responses is obviously a lot more complicated than just adding some disbelief, but it’s a great first step. After all, you can’t stand over the reader’s shoulder and force them to turn pages. You need their cooperation. You need their suspension of disbelief, which you only get by overcoming your characters’ disbelief.

January 29, 2010 22:49 UTC

Tags: character, emotions, disbelief, denial, skepticism, emotionally credible, suspension of disbelief

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