Using Setting to Reinforce Plot and Character

Pile of rocksA distant explosion jarred Mike out of bed. He stumbled upright in the dark, groping for boots with bare feet as he reached for his weapon.

Where this scene goes next depends on a lot of things, including who Mike is, his profession, and state of mind. It also depends on what type of story we’re telling and which events will move the plot forward.

It also depends upon setting.

If the setting is 1800s wild west, then the explosion was probably from dynamite in a nearby mine, his boots will probably be cowboy style, and his weapon will be a six-shooter, double-barreled shotgun, or lever-action 30-30. If it’s a future space war, the explosion might be an unexpected encounter with the alien pirate space slugs, his boots an armored hovering model, and his weapon a plasma laser.

If the setting is an episode of My Little Pony, well, I’m not entirely sure where I’d go with that one yet.

That setting will also heavily impact the type of plot we can expect to enjoy. As we’ve explored through some really excellent posts this month, developing an effective, engaging setting is a critical component to building a great story.

Setting also plays an important role in reinforcing plot and character, helping to lock the readers into the world, and suggest certain expectations that we as the author can fulfill, exceed, or flip on their heads.

Set in StoneIn my YA fantasy, Set in Stone, the setting grew in sync with the character, the plot, and the magic system, reinforcing all of them and creating a rich tapestry upon which to tell the tales of Connor and his friends.

The magic system came first – based on plain old rocks. So where better to set the story for a rock-based magic system than a quarry? Placing Connor in a small quarry village up in the mountains helped define the type of characters we’d likely see, as well as their level of education and exposure to the world. With that understanding, I more easily identified directions the plot would likely need to flow in order to educate the characters, challenge them, and threaten their world.

Could I have set the story in a grassland, with the nearest rock a hundred miles away? Sure, but that would have dramatically altered the plot and my characters. I didn’t want the story to be about the quest to find magic. I wanted to explore the fun aspects of the magic system, so I needed lots of rocks. Plus in that world, the quarry becomes an important commodity.

So as you build your stories, begin defining your plot, and start bringing your characters to life, make sure you weave the significance of your setting into all of it. That helps bring the world to life, gives reason and continuity for your characters, their histories, and their choices, and helps tie them into the plot and the world you are building.

For pantsers, when you’re free-writing and exploring the fun world you’re creating, it’s important to understand that as cool aspects of your world and setting become clear, they will impact your characters and your plot. Take a moment to scan back over your story and identify ways to leverage those new aspects to setting. Your story will be stronger for it.

 

About the Author: Frank Morin

Author Frank Morin
Rune Warrior coverFrank Morin loves good stories in every form. When not writing or trying to keep up with his active family, he’s often found hiking, camping, Scuba diving, or enjoying other outdoor activities. For updates on upcoming releases of his popular Petralist YA fantasy novels, or his fast-paced Facetakers Urban Fantasy/Historical thrillers, check his website: www.frankmorin.org

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

 

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!

When Setting Defines (or Defies) Genre

There’s a rule of thumb I’ve referenced in multiple posts here at Fictorians regarding how the kind of universe your story exists within helps define its genre. The rule was brought to my attention via Daniel Abraham in a Clarkesworld post on grimdark fantasy that’s well worth a full read. Mr. Abraham in turn attributes the rule of thumb to Walter Jon Williams, and I’ll quote the relevant passage of the Clarkesworld piece (one of their “Another Word” series of posts) below so that no meaning is lost in the paraphrase:

“In fantasy, the world is essentially benign; in science fiction, the world is essentially amoral; in horror, the world is malefic. Put in terms of illness, fantasy evil is an illness from which the world must recover. In science fiction, evil is a social construct put on a universe that simply is the way it is. In horror, evil is the natural deformity of the world from which there is no way to recover.”

— Daniel Abraham, “Literatures of Despair,” Clarkesworld, 2013

Now, as with any rule of thumb, there are grains of truth to this surrounded by sand-hills (salt-mountains? I’m not clear on what kind of “grains” this metaphor refers to, and so my metaphor is collapsing) of wiggle-room. I’ve spoken at length about how genres tend to bleed together and how often works of fiction fail to fall squarely into one genre or the other.

But for the sake of argument, let’s take this rule of thumb at face value. Close examination of the physical (or metaphysical) underpinnings of what makes your fabricated world tick can help you decide what kind of story you should be telling, and even how that story ought to end. For those authors who have an easier time coming up with fantastically detailed worlds than they do defining a particular story to tell within them (you know who you are), here is one way to narrow down the multitudes of options. It can also be a useful set of guideposts to pantser-style writers who find their story getting away from them in ways they don’t like, as opposed to ways they do.

And that’s not all the rule is good for. Like all rules, it’s good for breaking. Say your goal is deconstructing a popular genre. Well then, perhaps your Tolkienesque epic fantasy story can run afoul of a universe where everything is horrible all the time and the heroes can ultimately lose or the horrific truths forming the foundation of your world can be unexpectedly defeated by the actions of the protagonist, fundamentally restructuring everything that came before. Nothing can be as exhilarating (if done well) or as frustrating (if done poorly) as a twisted expectation.

If you do go this route, I recommend a “frog in boiling water” approach, even though that particular metaphor is untrue (it turns out frogs are not that stupid). Begin with the obvious notes of one genre but quickly introduce a discordant note that points to the genre your story will eventually more into. Gradually shift from one to the other as the plot progresses, so that the transformation feels necessary by the very end. This is particularly effective in shifting from fantasy or science fiction into horror, particularly if you can ramp up the dread while staving off the final realization in the reader until the last possible moment.

In the end, it’s best to think of this rule of thumb, like any rule of thumb, as a tool rather than a boundary. Just remember another saying I’ve become fond of: don’t tear anything down before you understand why it was built in the first place.

 

About the Author: Gregory D. Littleheadshot

Rocket scientist by day, fantasy and science fiction author by night, Gregory D. Little began his writing career in high school when he and his friend wrote Star Wars fanfic before it was cool, passing a notebook around between (all right, during) classes. His novels Unwilling Souls and Ungrateful God are available now from ebook retailers and trade paperback through Amazon.com. His short fiction can be found in The Colored Lens, A Game of Horns: A Red Unicorn Anthology, Dragon Writers: An Anthology, and the upcoming Undercurrents. He lives in Virginia with his wife and their yellow lab.

You can reach him at his website (www.gregorydlittle.com), his Twitter handle (@litgreg) or at his Author Page on Facebook.