Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Write Setting that Matters: Revealing Character and Tone through Place

Do you ever get bored writing? Ever feel as if rodents are chewing through your eyeballs with each word you write? Then maybe it's time to spice up your setting.

Believe it or not, setting is a great place to begin a story. By establishing the place of your story, it develops the tone and reveals your characters. Like if you're writing a fantasy about a brave knight who fights an evil dragon - you'll need a castle in there just to prove it's bona-fide fantasy. But what kind of castle? And what does this castle tell us about your story? And - most importantly - how will it help maintain reader interest?

This is where setting is important. First, think about your audience. Myself, I'm an army veteran - when I read stories, I want to know about the guns. (No! Not those guns [muscles]! The other kind! No, they didn't have machine guns in the middle ages!!) And castles are great places for catalogues of weaponry. But what if your readers are mostly teenagers? They'll probably want to know where the teens in the castle hang out. Do they have a schoolhouse? Is the Friar a kindhearted old teacher? Or are the kids mostly employed as wage-slaves at the local Sword Mart? And if your catering to a specific audience - like if your readers are stay-at-home moms who read your romantic castles blog when their kids are at school - then you might want to outfit your castle with some of the things a stay-at-home mom will relate to: laundry service, the kitchen, maybe even a minivan.

Once you know what your audience will care about, think about the complexity of what you're describing. Weapons are a great example because many writers like to fill their stories with weapons. Guns, swords, battleaxes, catapults, helicoptor gunships, plasma cannons, neural defibrilators, transdimensional battle cruisers...you get the idea. The goal, though, is to avoid throwing in a detail just for the sake of the cliche. If your brave knight does carry a sword, talk about which type. Why this sword as opposed to another kind? And what does he think about it? Is he happy with the weapon? Does he polish it often? Or is it one of those things he just lugs around because he's a knight, and that's what knights do?

Now, a single sword might not seem integral to your setting, but remember that everything in your story has context. Who manufactures these swords? Is it the middle-school wage-slaves hard at work at Swords R Us who are making all these weapons? Well, where do they work? Presumably there's a factory inside the castle - probably near the courtyard, where there might be a breeze. Does our heroic knight walk past? Does he see those lines of shiny blades hanging from the rack, each pommel grip simply calling for a hero's steel-fingered grasp? Or does he instead notice the rags draped over the malnourished children? Does he smell the noxious fumes of smelter? Does he taste the foul ash hanging in the air? Maybe he pets the little piglet running around as the factory mascot, and he feels the sweat running down the little pigs back from spending it's whole sad life in the oppressive heat of an industrial crucible.

The real goal is to present reality - or, at least, a realistic possibility. Writing isn't about glorifying the happy workers or showing off the awesome power of weaponry - it's about revealing human experience. One reason so many stories fail is that the writer loses track of the humanity in the quest to share the "story." Yes, it's easy to write about a knight who goes out and slays a dragon - we see this in the movies all the time. But it's much, much harder to write about a sweat-shop worker who steals a sword off the conveyor belt and then pretends to be a famous knight in order to avoid a trip to the dungeon. But it would explain why he fights dragons - after working eighteen hours a day next to an iron smelter, dragon flame isn't nearly so impressive.

As you can see, setting allows us an entry into this story. When our brave knight sees a iron smelter, we see what he sees - and he isn't looking through the eyes of a noble prince born to rule. He's looking out through the eyes of a boy who has singed his fingers while brushing the cinders from his clothes. The setting details allow the character to recall memories of his past, and those memories give us an intimate portrait of this man's life.

Your setting, then, develops not only in terms of audience interest, but in terms of your character's unique perspective. Clearly, we're talking about a knight who knows his way around the industrial hell known as a factory floor. But how does he handle the rest of the castle? I mentioned the stay-at-home mom audience earlier - I'm sure they'd be interested in a tour of the kitchen. What would our knight see as he walks past the rows of woodstoves? Would he taste the dream of sourdough as the baker walks past with her basket of rolls for the feast table? Or does he even know what sourdough tastes like? I mean, growing up in a factory, he's probably only eaten the unleavened crusts of barley toast tossed from the back of a farm wagon. And this makes a difference for him later, when he's crossing the plains in search of this deadly dragon, stomach growling, hungry after three days with no food and little water. Will he give up? Maybe turn back to share another meal with the king and queen?

Doubtful. This isn't a knight we're talking about - it's a pissed-off little boy who stole a sword and ran away. When he goes hunting this evil dragon, he spends his lonely days on the trail thinking about that little girl who was given over to the dragon as part of the King's Bargain. You know, the twelve-year-old girl who shovels sourdough from the ovens. The one who's been trapped in her own sweatshop hell since the day she was born. The one who was handed over as dragon meal simply because working-class kitchen girls are cheaper (and tastier) than armored knights, so the king and queen gave her up for this year's annual contribution to the "we don't want dragons to eat the castle" fund. You know - the castle that's built with tall white walls, guarded with tight rows of heroic knights, and served by legions of loyal servants.

This, then, is what setting does: it reveals in the innards of a place, it lets us see the essence of it. And in doing so, setting provides not only the tone of the story, but also the thoughts and attitudes of your characters.

(Now, you'll probably never read a story about the sword factories of Middle Earth. But that's only because our capitalist overloads prefer stories about knights and dragons to stories about angry workers and their lack of health care...)

English 101 / Intro to Fiction and Poetry

12Writing: Write Your Inspiration!

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