Category Archives: World-building

When Your Setting is a Wild Card

Normally when you establish a setting in a story you only have to do it once. Unless some cataclysmic event happens, it’s not going to change enough to require another description. Huzzah! But what if your setting isn’t a clearly defined place? What if it’s more…well, this.

 

Okay, so your setting might not be the Dark Dimension but it may be like The Demos Oneiroi I created for The Moonflower in that it’s less of a landscape and more of an abstract concept given physical form. The Demos Oneiroi is the dream world of the Ancient Greek gods and since it’s quite literally the stuff of dreams it can be anything and everything all at once. A place like this, one that can change on a whim, can be hard to explain. Describing it with enough detail to get the point across without overwhelming the reader is a very tricky thing to do. It’s like doing a paint by number except all the numbers are imaginary.

The way I handled it is to treat the setting like an unreliable narrator. I established early on that the setting can and does change on a whim and that it’s perfectly normal for the abnormal to happen. If a lush forested park suddenly turns into zombie Jimmy Hoffa’s waterpark from hell, it’s all good. The reader doesn’t have to panic or re-read the previous page to figure out if they missed something. They can roll with it and get in the line for the giant octopus tentacle slide.

I hope I didn’t lose anyone there. I realize saying “do this tricky thing by treating it like another tricky thing” is not the best explanation; especially if you don’t know how to create an unreliable narrator. Don’t worry. I’m not going to leave you perplexed. It’s not quite as scary as it sounds and I promise, you don’t need to make a bargain with an otherworldly being to do this.

Dormammu, I’ve come to establish setting.

Since I keep throwing Doctor Strange references into this let’s use that film as a starting point. (Spoiler alert.)

In this acid trip on film we see multiple worlds, not all of which obey the same laws of physics that ours does. Besides blowing Stephen’s mind, it’s also establishing in the minds of the audience that there are many strange place the story can take us. So when Stephen does go to the Dark Dimension at the end of the film, we’re not shocked by it — especially since we’ve already seen weirder locations.

How do you create that on the page? In order to write an abstract setting you have to approach it in pretty much the same way that they did in the film. Start out by describing the setting as it is in that moment to create a base line. Then either through dialogue or a bit of exposition establish that things in this place aren’t necessarily what they appear to be, and that they won’t stay as they are now for long. It’s important to let the reader know that it’s gonna get a bit weird so they aren’t taken by surprise. A shock like that will knock them out of the story before you get to the really good stuff. After you’ve prepped them for the coming shift that’s when you can make the unexpected appear. How you do that, you may ask? Well that’s up to you. My favorite way is to have an inexperienced character encounter a shift in the landscape while accompanied by a more experienced character. The experienced character displays their knowledge and saves/helps the less experienced through until they’re back at a safe spot. This way I get to let my landscape live up to its potential while advancing the less experienced character’s development. Later in the story I can have them on their own, facing the same dangers — or worse — in that same landscape and it’s more plausible that they’ll survive.

It’s okay if it takes a few revisions to really get it to work well. It is a tricky thing but the freedom it gives you to create and be original makes it a lot of fun. Plus, a setting like this never gets boring. Bonus!

Wouldn’t it be cool if…?

One of the funnest elements of a story can be setting. One of the most dangerous questions we can ask ourselves starts with, “Wouldn’t it be cool if…?”

Here’s my story:

In putting together my Mankind’s Redemption series, I placed my characters in far away star systems and then had

to ask myself, “How did they get there?” Time travel? For colonization, not likely. Generation ships? Most likely. Easy-peasy, right? But then, for every cool element I added to their world, to the aliens’ worlds, to every scenario, I had to ask myself the traditional reporter questions of what, when, why, how, and where. It got complicated, fast. The Mwalgi species dwell on a hot, toxic planet that lacks water and what they have is largely contaminated. Cool, right? Even more amazing, it orbits a red dwarf sun with a sister-dwarf-sun in a binary orbit. So their suns orbit

around a central point, swinging each other around. Cool, but complicated, and it added a lot more research. I learned a lesson. Sometimes these amazing, interesting settings are worth it, and sometimes you might want to consider what you’re getting yourself into. Knowing what I know now, would I do it again? Probably. It is cool, but I might have toned everything down just a little bit so I could spend more time writing and a little less time on plausibility and research. Just an FYI, this series is a Galactic Fantasy so I have some wiggle room in the possible but highly unlikely sector. For hard sci-fi, you have to really know your science and accuracy is key.

When I started my next series, Legends of Power, I set it in Kentucky. I went there, took pictures, did research, and restricted most of my “Wouldn’t it be cool if…?” questions to the magic system. I spent almost as much time researching reality as I had in researching scientific possibility. Hmm, not what I expected. Was it worth it? Absolutely, and if you ever get to Bowling Green, KY, I highly recommend Chaney’s Dairy Barn. Best ice cream I’ve ever had! (And some really cute cows.)

In The Number Prophecy, I set the books in a world with similarities to our own but significant differences in history, geology, religion, and sociology. So much fun! I get to explore so many aspects of humanity. Did I research any less? A little less on the physical setting, but so much more on all of the other aspects of my world and it’s people.

The moral of my story? No matter what you do there must be research. Everything is cool, from the craziest settings in your imagination–I’m thinking of a world where metal flyswatters hit you in the face every time you have an idea–to the most mundane, adorable, town in the midwest. Embrace it, enjoy it, and let the setting live as much as your characters. Give it equal, or possibly, even more attention that your protagonist. An interesting setting is the backdrop of interesting characters, interesting plots, and interesting conflicts. Put in the time to make it breathe and never be afraid to ask “Wouldn’t it be cool if…?” Just make sure you’re prepared with a good answer.

Colette Black Bio:
Author PicColette Black lives in the far outskirts of Phoenix, Arizona with her family, 2 dogs, a mischievous cat and the occasional unwanted scorpion. Author of the Mankind’s Redemption Series, The Number Prophecy series, and the new Legends of Power series, Colette writes New Adult and Young Adult sci-fi and fantasy novels with kick-butt characters, lots of action, and always a touch of romance. Find her at www.coletteblack.net

 

 

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 in Urban Fantasy: Tool, Character, and a Pacing Device

A guest post by R.R. Virdi

It’s a cool night, the sort you’d find in late Autumn. You’re in the dark and gritty underbelly of your city rooting out crime and all without a weapon. What’s left?

The concrete below you. Brick walls. Maybe the unforgiving and cold metal of the railings lining the old apartment buildings. Enter the 2008 film, The Spirit, an adaptation of the Frank Miller comic. We’re brought to Central City on a nighttime patrol along with the fictional character the movie is named after. It’s one heck of a showcase on how setting is more than just a place.

We’re treated to a near-romantic inner monologue about the relationship The Spirit has with his city. It’s his weapon, a tool to sleuth through, fight back with, and it’s really a she, and she’s one great character.

Rewind back to your early schooling. You’re taught that setting is a place. You’re told how to fill out neat little boxes and describe your surroundings a bit too literally. There’s no life. Everything’s a compilation of objects. That’s it.

Or is it?

Setting is malleable—a living thing. One of the greatest places to see that as a working example is the cities littering the world around you. But, if that’s too much, try urban fantasy. From superhero comics, to novels starring magically powered protagonists, cities offer a certain complexity and variable use to the old writer’s tool of setting.

What do I mean?

Well, take New York’s favorite wall crawler, Spiderman. The boroughs of New York are microcosms of the world. Bustling hives of activity that add color and vibrancy to Spiderman’s life. But through those throngs of people are endless and often unseen dangers. There’s an undertone of possible threat each and every time Spidey is navigating the concrete jungle on the ground or in the air.

Urban fantasy relies heavily on its setting to put in place the tone of the series. You city is your character. It’s your maze, a living history, and a multi-tool. You can do nearly anything you want with it.

When you have a city, well, you know have all the sorts of people and institutions you’d expect with it to work with. Everything from billionaire CEOs as characters who’d call it home, to the less fortunate. Now, push either or both of those sorts of people to a life of crime. Congrats, you’ve now birthed someone like Gotham City’s Black Mask, or, Joe Chill.

Cities are melting pots of people and architecture that give you an endless literary sandbox to work in. Imagine the long, open streets of New York’s grid system. Pretty nice place to set a foot chase, even a car one. Great line of sight, tons of bright lights and activity. Now imagine you’ve taken a few wrong turns and are winding down unfamiliar alleyways.

Oops.

Great place for an ambush. Maybe cornering your target. Too bad you weren’t carrying a weapon to defend yourself. I hope you’re good with your hands. And if you are, you just might find yourself in a handy place to be. Hard surfaces can be your friend. Cities have no lack of those.

Navigating them can be a chore or an adventure, and in all of that, a bit dangerous if you want it to be. Within this page, you’ve already seen one city be a weapon, a threat, a multi-tool for different scenes and pacing, whether high pumping chases or heart pounding ambushes, to a home that shapes its people into protagonists or villains.

Urban fantasy relies on that. Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files is the perfect example. Bring on Chicago, an endlessly diverse city with a history of dirty politics and money, tough law enforcement, a forgotten under town, and a great balance of towering concrete monoliths and everyday suburbia as its landscape.

What can’t you do with all of that?

It’s a place that could be home to a hardworking blue collar father raising his kids in the suburbs. And at the same time, the city that birthed an iron-hard gangster who clawed his way to the top of the criminal underworld. One city, two different people coming out of it.

It nurses the beautiful and opulent Gold Coast, where some of the human and paranormal elite make their wealth and power known. The second you show up, you get the hint. It sets quite a tone. It also changes the battlefield. Slugging it out in a skyscraper business center is way different than the open ground of a suburb. But, if you’re Chicago’s resident wizard, you’ll be called on to do both, and more.

You’ll be asked to lurk and skulk through alleys, boxed in both sides with one way out ahead of you, and one behind. But, it’s not that easy keeping an eye over your shoulder in that setting and one on what’s before you. Nice way to get trapped or attacked.

Moving through one city environment allows a creator to control the pace however they want because cities offer it all. Sluggish public transport, leaving you crowded, pressed for time and up for danger, should the writer feel like it.

Enter any number of thriller novels and movies with a close quarters fight on a subway.

Or, let’s cut to hoofing it on foot through massive crowds on the streets. Always great if you need to eat up some of your character’s time. And through it all, it’s an experience. Cities always come with a five-way sensory assault. Ones that can go overboard.

Blitzing and jarringly bright colors, ear-rattling sounds, sometimes smells you wished you couldn’t pick out—ones you can almost taste. Not to mention the air that seems to cling to you like a second skin or a thin film of hot breath and unclean air.

There’s a certain set of voices to each city. Blaring traffic, clamoring people, chittering electronics, and let’s not forget construction.

Yeah, cities are certainly a setting, but they’re a living one. They’re something that you can’t really pin down. They’re something to be experienced and are in reality, entire world’s of their own. They certainly have enough slices of our globe nestled within them.

Setting isn’t just a place, it’s a tool. It can be as strong a character as you want it to be. Heck, cities already have names and reputations, what more do you want? They’re alive. Do something with them. Give them a chance to pop out and shine.

Want to really get into the mind of your reader, make sure you choose one heck of a place for your characters to live and act. If you do, that place may end up living on in the reader’s mind long after they close that book.

Cities, you can end up lost in them, and in more ways than one.

 

 

About the Author:ronnie


R.R. Virdi is the Dragon Award—nominated author of The Grave Report, a paranormal investigator series set in the great state of New York. He has worked in the automotive industry as a mechanic, retail, and in the custom gaming computer world. He’s an avid car nut with a special love for American classics.

The hardest challenge for him up to this point has been fooling most of society into believing he’s a completely sane member of the general public. There are rumors that he wanders the streets of his neighborhood in the dead of night dressed in a Jedi robe and teal fuzzy slippers, no one knows why. Other such rumors mention how he is a professional hair whisperer in his spare time. We don’t know what that is either.

Follow him on his website. http://rrvirdi.com/

Or twitter: @rrvirdi or https://twitter.com/rrvirdi