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I am vengeance! I am the night! I am a fluid and moldable setting that changes to match my protagonist!

For my second post this month I’d like to take a look at one of my favorite settings in all of media, Batman’s hometown of Gotham City. The angle I’d like to focus on is how writers and directors have used Gotham over the years, changing it like clay and sculpting so that the city is a reflection of the hero who protects it.

As Gotham changes, so does Batman. It’s more that just a fun exercise- -I think there is a lot here that we as writers can learn about using our settings to better frame our characters.

CONSISTENCIES OF THE SETTING

Let’s first take a look at four elements that stay consistent about Gotham in most interpretations:

The first two are somewhat trivial – Gotham is almost always shown as a coastal city in someway, and it is always located northern enough to get snow. The first one I suppose is to allow good waterfront scenes (and sell Batboat toys), while the latter allows you to have fun winter holiday issues.

The other two are more significant, and I think both tie to unchangeable elements of the Batman character.

  1. Gotham City is always represented as a very large city, both in population and geography.
  2. Gotham City is ridden with crime

I find these two very interesting, as I think they are interconnected to create a setting where Batman is a necessary element. Gotham is consistently depicted as a New York level city, in terms of population. This is as opposed to say Portland, Maine. We’re not talking about a hundred thousand people, Batman protects a city of millions of people. In a smaller city or a less crime filled one, Batman might have a chance at actually winning his battle. But Gotham City is too big and too filled with crime and corruption. One man could never win his war against crime here, which makes Batman’s quest to do so all the more compelling and tragic.

He fights a war he knows he can never win, and will someday lose.

So with those consistent elements in check, let’s look at how various media has played with the other components of Gotham City, and how those changes in the setting are there to reflect the version of Batman that protects it.

BATMAN – TELEVISION (1966)

The narration for this television show lets you know from the very beginning. Gotham is a “fair city”. Wayne Manor is “stately”. Of all the takes on Gotham, this is by far the nicest. It’s even daylight outside for most of the shots! With its blue skies and clean streets, this Gotham reflects its Batman perfectly. There is no brooding Dark Knight here. This Bruce Wayne is a fairly happy person; being Batman is a mission to him, but not a curse or burden as it is in most other takes.

It is also worth noting that this is the most generic looking of the Gotham versions I will cover. Other than Wayne Manor and Police Headquarters there are no iconic exterior locations, which gives the city a ‘everytown’ feeling. 

BATMAN – FILM (1989)

One of the primary challenges that faced the Batman movie in the 80s was washing away the image the public had of Batman a light and silly character, an image largely built by the television show I just mentioned. Director Tim Burton and his team gave us an extremely dark and fantastical city, which again reflected the much grimmer hero that protected it. While the television show depicted a Gotham that could be any city, Burton’s Gotham City could exist nowhere but in this film. It is seemingly always night there, everything is poorly lit and the architecture is gothic and grim. The setting of the movie is working hard to sell the change in the character before you even see him.

I find this to be the most hopeless and lost feeling of the Gotham Cities I’m reviewing, and its pairing with Keaton’s Batman is ideal.

BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES (1992)

Batman: TAS shares a lot of production aesthetic with Burton’s film. It is a very grim place where it is again nearly always nighttime. One thing about this setting that is different though is the strong art deco design elements that are married to modern technology. Airships fly overhead while people get out of vintage cars only to type on modern computers. It renders the setting with a feeling of being lost in time, which again is a spot on representation of this series’ version of Batman. Bruce Timm and the production team of this series cherry-picked components of the Dark Knight’s history to show a Batman that was not from one era, but from all of them. The setting here helps to sell that message.

BATMAN BEGINS (2005)

One of the initial conceits of Batman Begins was that this was a ‘real’ movie, in that this was supposed to represent a take on Batman as he might exist in a real world, as opposed to a comic book one. To help sell this, director Christopher Nolan and his team bring us a Gotham City that looks like a real city, really for the first time. There are a few fantastical elements, such as the Narrows and a city-wide monorail system, but those are the aberrations. You see real cars driving by real buildings- -cars that look nothing like the ones in the Animated Series and buildings that would never be mistaken for the dark gothic churches of Burton’s film.

The message here is that this Batman is real and not a comic book character, the movie altering the setting to help sell that to the viewer.

SUMMARY

Obviously there’s a lot more I could mine here and I made more than a few generalization, but my basic point stands. Your setting can just be a place your characters walk around in, or it can tell the reader something about your characters. A good setting will subtly reinforce the message you are already trying to send your reader, teaching them something about your protagonists even as they move around inside it.

See you next time… or should I say: same Fictorians-time, same Fictorians-channel?

Perhaps not.

Setting is a journey

As was mentioned in Greg’s introduction post for this month, the setting is one of the major elements every writer must work out during their story building process. I feel this task is even more critical for a fantasy writer like myself, and I’ll be using my first of two posts this month to illustrate that point further. Normally I also like to use the first paragraph of my posts to work in a silly pun about the month’s theme, but I’ll be setting aside that goal this time.

While even the most basic story will usually require a setting, I find that fantasy stories push those requirements much higher than average. There is the secondary world component to consider, if your heroes and villains exist in the Kingdom of a Thousand Mists, that setting will require more work than if they existed in Detroit. More importantly, fantasy often has a strong movement element in the story. The setting choices you make to portray that movement can do a lot more for you as a writer than just world build.

My current project is a fantasy trilogy that is set both in the Himalayas as well as multiple versions of that same setting, the same region represented in alternate worlds. I made decisions about how to represent each of those areas not just based on what I needed for the plot elements of the story, but also for what I wanted to reflect in the characters.

The first ‘Everest’ is the real one, albeit in 1950. At this point the main characters are untried, both of them unconfident and damaged by events in the real world. In climbing Everest, they encounter snow, ice and altitude as you would expect. I chose to emphasize how isolating the cold was though, with huge snow drifts that blocked their vision and towering ice pillars that threatened their path.

For the second version, I was taking one of my characters on a coming-of-age journey where she discovers that life isn’t always the fairy tale of adventure she wants it to be. Again I used the setting to help subtly communicate this progression to the reader. Initially the world she finds is green and lush, with sweeping vistas and sun dappled seas. As the story starts to darken, the world does as well. The seas turn choppy and storm filled, she ends up in a hot dry desert and so forth. When she returns to the picturesque land, she had changed from her journey and the land has too. The beautiful landscapes are still there, but they are tinged with gray now, the grass still green but not as lush.

With all the movement that is common in fantasy, you will find yourself creating a lot of different settings to help build your world and convey all that motion. Don’t forget that those settings are also a great opportunity to set tone and say something about the emotional journey your characters are on rather than just the physical one.

See you next time!

Home As Setting and Theme

When my debut novel, Sleeper Protocol, was released in 2016, many of my childhood friends, family, and even my teachers commented about my use of “home.” Where I call home is a long way from where I live now, but every time I’m there the feeling of peace is as palpable as wrapping a blanket around my shoulders. I was born and raised in upper east Tennessee in an area called the Tri-Cities. My family actually lived very near a small community known as Midway – it was Midway between Johnson City and Tennessee’s Oldest City, Jonesborough. The Appalachian mountains filled the eastern horizon, running in a roughly southwest to northeast line. It’s a beautiful place.

And I never intended for my story to go there.

As the story of a cloned soldier trying to find his identity unwound from my brain to the keyboard, I initially struggled with “What’s the point?” or even Eric Flint’s famous guidance of “Who gives a $^#@?” I needed something to make the character’s emotional struggle hit home and that’s where the inspiration hit. So, I took my character home. In the third act, he descends Cherokee Mountain, crosses the Nolichucky River, and ends up on a small knoll where a farmhouse once stood. All of those are real places and the knoll is where my family’s homestead still stands. My cousins own “The Farm” as we call it, and it’s wonderful to know that it’s still there and open for my family to visit any time we want. That openness and warmth led me to bringing my character to an very different emotional level. I gave him a sense of place, a sense of a home that he’d once had and was very different than the future one, but a place he could identify with fully and embrace his identity. Once I’d opened that door, I proceeded to move him further along the path by having him stand over his own gravesite in the Mountain Home National Cemetery.

The journey to find his “home” was really the key to unlocking his identity. My first ideas to bring him through familiar territory to help with my description and emotional resonance gave way to something else entirely: a theme I’d never intended. Our sense of home is a large part pf our identity. Even our home nation, or state, or municipality is much more than a common bond to our neighbors. We identify ourselves to that place forever. No matter where I go, when I am asked where I’m from I always say that I’m from Tennessee and just happen to live elsewhere.

My point is this – write about your home or wherever you consider your home to be. Pull that emotion and identity into your own writing. Your voice will improve, your characters will seem more grounded and real, and your readers – especially those who claim the same sense of home – will keep asking for more. When you’re not writing about your home? Put that same warmth and emotion into the characters who are there. It makes a difference to the story and to your characters.

Brand Identity

A guest post by Kevin J. Anderson

Kevin J. AndersonWhen I started my career with traditionally published novels, my editors and publicists encouraged me to make sure I mentioned the publisher whenever I talked in interviews and panels. I would promote my novels and proudly announce that it was “from Signet Books” or “from Bantam Books” or HarperCollins, or Warner, or Tor. I would print up my own postcards and bookmarks, sometimes even take out ads in publications. Once, I was roundly criticized for forgetting to put a publisher’s logo on the back of a postcard (that I paid for out of my own pocket).

It’s a basic commercial principle to promote brand loyalty among your consumers. Coke drinkers always drink Coke. Budweiser drinkers always drink Bud. Car owners are loyal to Ford or to GM. But…publishers?

I was an avid reader, a dedicated writer, earnestly trying to get a foothold in the industry. I paid attention to the news, to the editors, to shifts in publishing, but even I would have been hard pressed to define the difference between, say, an Ace science fiction book and a Roc science fiction book (yes, they are now under the same parent company). Or a Tor epic fantasy instead of a DAW epic fantasy.

Sure, there are some exceptions, most notably Baen Books, which has not only carved out a niche and a brand for themselves in the types of fiction they publish—generally reader-driven and fast-paced rather than literary and artsy-fartsy—and they even have a distinctive brand look with their cover art and type design. Baen has also drawn together a very devoted group of their core readers through parties at conventions, online forums, and extremely loyal authors.

But that’s the exception. As an author, I’ve been published by Signet, Tor, Bantam, Ace, HarperCollins, Simon and Schuster, Pocket, Gallery, Kensington, Hodder & Stoughton, Warner, Baen, and more. Some of those books or series went out of print from one publisher to be picked up by another. Did my readers really notice the brand name on the spine, or did they go for the author or the series?

The dramatic changes in the book industry lag behind similar changes in the music industry. When was the last time you actually paid attention to what record label your favorite band or album was on? Who released Led Zeppelin? Pink Floyd? Celine Dion? Taylor Swift? My favorite band Rush was on Mercury Records for their first several albums, but at some point it changed to “Anthem Records.” As an administrative matter with behind-the scenes paperwork and distribution, it made a difference to the band, but as a listener, it made no difference to me.

Same with movie studios. I’m pretty sure everyone knows the original Star Wars movies were from 20th Century Fox because of the seminal fanfare before the rollup text, but—quick!—which studio released the Predator movies? The Transformers movies? The Twilight movies?

One of the little-recognized consequences of the widespread changes in publishing and the surge in indie authors is that it has almost entirely erased the lines of brand identity for publishers. Most indie authors create a “publishing house” and a logo for their own books. In a few years, what used to be a dozen or so major publishing houses and hundreds of smaller ones including university presses, has become hundreds of thousands of imprints, all of which look “real” on the amazon listing.

When you order a book called The Ogre’s Toothache because the title is intriguing, the cover art looks good, the story sounds amusing, and you’ve read something by that author before, do you really notice—and more important, does it affect your buying decision—whether the publisher is listed as Gallery Books or Moonglimmer Books? (Gallery Books is real, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, but I just made up Moonglimmer Books…though I wouldn’t be surprised if such an imprint actually exists somewhere.)

When Rebecca Moesta and I formed WordFire Press, it was merely an exercise to release the eBooks of my own out-of-print backlist, to which I had reacquired the rights. We had called our own company WordFire, Inc. for many years, so WordFire Press was the obvious name. We had no intention of building it into a much larger publishing company. Rebecca herself created our original WFP logo with a graphics program, and then other author friends of mine, seeing the success of our original releases, came to us with titles of their own, and our publishing company unintentionally expanded.

At first, we took all kinds of books from author friends, some out-of-print romances, some unusual nonfiction titles. (In fact, technically, our very first book was a rather esoteric religious treatise by Rebecca’s father, which we published as a gift for him.) We didn’t really have a brand identity, nor did we intend to, but as we grew and we saw which books performed well and which ones didn’t, we started to focus on particular types of fiction, mainly the kind of stuff I liked.

As we revamped our website, we also got a snazzy new logo. We built up our author and title list, and we started to get a little more attention through word of mouth. But the real thing that began to draw recognition as “WordFire Press” rather than “Some Publisher” was our monumental effort of exhibiting at numerous conventions, comic cons, and pop-culture shows around the country. We gave our authors a chance to meet fans face to face, hand-sell and autograph their books, an opportunity to be seen by thousands of potential readers in a day. In 2016 we did 22 shows with a total attendance of 1.5 Million people. (That was insane, and those operations are now run by Rabid Fanboy, so that I can concentrate on the publishing end and, more importantly, my own writing career.) But even under Rabid Fanboy, the “Bard’s Tower” gives ambitious WordFire authors the opportunity to have the “famous author experience.”

But do I think that readers have a strong brand loyalty, that they pick up a book because it has the WordFire Press logo on the spine, rather than because it has a story that fascinates them, an author they’ve enjoyed before? No, I don’t think so.

Now, more than ever, you can’t rely on the brand of a publisher. You have to rely on your own brand as an author or the brand of your series. You have to rely on YOU.

Guest Writer Bio: Kevin J. Anderson is the author of more than one hundred novels, 47 of which have appeared on national or international bestseller lists. He has over 20 million books in print in thirty languages. He has won or been nominated for numerous prestigious awards, including the Nebula Award, Bram Stoker Award, the SFX Reader’s Choice Award, the American Physics Society’s Forum Award, and New York Times Notable Book. By any measure, he is one of the most popular writers currently working in the science fiction genre. Find out more about Kevin at Wordfire.com.