Cuts Like Broken Glass: Using Setting

Ashtray I

You mean you don’t evaluate all your surroundings based on the damage they could cause? Huh. (Photo credit: Domiriel)

Setting too often gets overlooked in discussions about writing. Plot and character get all the attention and the money and the women/men/transsexuals/others. Maybe because it’s hard to get excited about setting in the same way. It’s easier to tell people about this amazing character you’ve created, who is both a hobo* and a superhero, and rescues lost kittens and must drink the souls of the living to survive. The sewage outflow where he lives, on the other hand…

But setting can be powerful, so why give it half measure? Writing’s all about fighting the reader’s apathy, and if you’re not going to use every tool at your disposal, you’re probably going to lose. Think of setting as the glass ashtray in a bad bar fight: not the most obvious choice of weapon, but, goddamn, can it do some damage if you use it right.

And that’s the key: using it right. I’ve read books with exhaustive setting detail—a common sign that the writer was afflicted with World-Builder’s Disease—that actually made me skip past pages to get back to the story. And I’ve read others where everything might as well have been happening in the fucking white void I do all my rough sketches in when I can’t be arsed to draw a background. And, much like those drawings, the book feels lazy. Feels like the author couldn’t be arsed to write a setting.

The trick, in my utterly biased opinion, is to tie setting to emotion and plot. Not that obvious B-movie shit**, where fog mysteriously springs up whenever something bad is about to happen, or it rains when someone is depressed. Again, lazy. But spaces reflect the character’s feelings about both the plot events that have taken place there and the way they fit—or don’t—within those walls. A bright, spacious apartment that invokes feelings of rage because it was where the character’s ex-husband beat her so badly she had to paint the walls to cover the bloodstains so she could get the damage deposit back when she moved. The corner office that feels uncomfortably big, like when the new owner of it used to put on his now-deceased father’s coats as a kid. The rough, dingy backstreet bar, full of bikers and petty criminals and people that you don’t look at too hard, that feels like a haven because it’s one of only two places in the city she doesn’t have to pretend to be someone else.

Use it right, and setting gives you that broken glass edge, the one that cuts deep into your reader and makes them bleed for those characters. And, let’s face it, writers love to make people bleed.

*Does anyone use this word anymore? I just realized I haven’t heard it in some time except in my own head. Usually with The Littlest Hobo song playing in the background. Annnd now that’s in my head for the next week. Well done, brain.
**Not that I don’t love B-movies for their own somewhat dubious charms. But the overuse of the fog machine is not one of them.

On Being The Lord of All Creation

Shasta Dam under construction, California

“God, I hate building foundations. Let’s skip this shit and go straight to picking out paint colours.”(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Let’s talk world building.

Most of what I write is speculative fiction, specifically fantasy and horror, or some mash-up of the two. I dabble a bit in science fiction as well. An important aspect of these genres is the world in which they are set. It’s different than ours in some notable way: magic, aliens, magical aliens, magical alien ghosts that come out of the walls and eat your face. Something.

So world building is necessary, in varying amounts of detail. An urban fantasy can be very close to our world; it just has a twist. Ditto for most horror. Science fiction and other world fantasy, on the other hand, often require more work.

And, man, is it fucking surprising how many authors don’t put in that work. I read more fantasy than sci-fi, and if I read about one more poorly developed pseudo-medieval England, I think I’ll develop a rage tumour.* There’s nothing wrong with those settings when they’re done well. But so often they’re not. They’re just the default setting for fantasy, and, frankly, lazy.

The problem is that too many writers look upon world building—that is, creating a solid foundation and setting in the midst of which your story takes place—as a fucking drag. Too much work, when what they really want to be doing is developing characters and refining the plot. And those things are important. But I invite those complainers to consider this question: what person, real or imagined, is so divorced from their world that it has no affect on them? No one, that’s who. Even a character who has made an effort to cut themselves off from their world must have a pretty goddamn compelling reason for it. Consider what that is, and you might just have yourself a whole new subplot.

See, that’s the key. If you really love your characters, and want to make them as real as possible, then you have to consider how they were shaped by their world. Did they grow up poor or wealthy? What does that mean in the context of this world? Born in the country? What country? Is it mountains, or forests, or desert? What kind of education did they receive out there? What’s the most dominant influence on a person’s status: family, religion, caste, ability, geography, or something else altogether?

And this is just the tip. Questions are like cockroaches: get one, and you know there’s a dozen others hiding somewhere, waiting for the lights to go off. But answering them will give your characters life, and new adventures.

Now, you can go too far. That’s when you get World Builder’s Disease, in which an author spends so much time on the world that they forget to make characters that don’t suck, or plots that aren’t crappy. But that’s a post for another day.

So stop looking on world building as a chore, and treat it like another form of character and plot development. Those people you’re making grew up there. They love it, or hate it, or treat it with a vague indifference for a reason. Their world view was shaped by the intricacies of their societies and their environments.

Just like yours.

(PS: for speculative writers, there’s an interesting resource called 30 Days To A World. It’s a series of exercises that helps you develop a world from the ground up**, no matter how far you are in the plot process. Try it. If nothing else, it’ll give you some new questions to ask.)

*Treatable these days, but the treatment involves a lot of cotton candy and kittens. And bourbon.

**You’re on your own for the ground down. I’ve yet to see a development plan for lava and mineral strata.