Tag Archives: World Building

Setting as Character: How to Give it Voice

It’s the quiet ones you’ve got to watch out for like when the kids are suddenly quiet and that tells you there’s trouble’s afoot. It’s the same in a story. When setting is too quiet, your story is in trouble. The problem with setting as character is that setting has no real voice, at least it doesn’t participate in dialogue directly – or does it?

Setting, we are told, must do more than be a background for characters to engage in. It should determine HOW they engage, WHY they engage and REVEAL how characters see their world, themselves and others. Setting is the voiceless character who niggles, needles, exaggerates, creates, destroys, challenges, extracts and dampens. How do you write a voiceless character?

For great ideas and the basics on creating setting and world building, you can peruse our archives. But to understand how to make setting as real and alive as your other characters, here are some things to be aware of:

6) Setting is personal. To understand what is important to POV character ask him how he’d react and feel if his world was suddenly changed or destroyed. What would he miss? What would he fight for? When a person loses their home whether it’s because of weather, war, politics or even choice, there is loss and grieving. That makes setting personal. Does setting herald change or present a conflict? Is there a storm? A volcano about to erupt, a nuclear device about to explode? An impending war? Political change? A lost love? A demand to convert?

2) Setting is the voiceless, albeit dynamic, character with whom the POV interacts and relates to varying degrees. This interaction reveals both the world and the character just as any good dialogue reveals something about its participants. How will the man in a suit react if he finds himself: in the midst of a medieval battle against dragons? Hitchhiking with a suitcase in hand? With an extremely belligerent client threatening a much needed sale? Performing on stage?

Let’s take the suit analogy one step further: Setting is more than just the background fabric of your character’s experience, it is the tailored cloth, designed, sewn and fitted just for him. In the pockets of that tailoring, he carries with him the tools he needs to be his larger than life self or not – sometimes it’s the pockets which are stitched shut or the empty ones that are the most revealing.

3) The POV can only see what’s import to him so we must be able to see and understand his world through his eyes. His experiences and his reactions form his dialogue with setting. Is a hot sunny day a reason to hide indoors, play on the beach, curse the office job, time for a cold beer in the pub, a perfect day to move the troops? Is a fog depressing or an opportunity for mischief? Thus the reader learns the most about the character and his setting when the descriptions are filtered through his point of view.

4) Setting reveals what is unique an important for the POV thus allowing his voice to come through. Not every character experiences (physically or emotionally), understands or reacts to the same environment in the same way.

5) It’s more than just geography – it’s the sociology, economy, level of technology, religion, politics, societal and personal values of the POV and those he interacts with. These are areas of potential conflict. Just as importantly, setting tells us what we need to know about the POV. What does the world/setting expect from him? Saint or serf? Hero or villain? It can also include sensory inputs: sight, smell, sound, touch, taste, heat, cold, or the passage of time. Remember the suit? In some societies, clothing symbolizes status and what the POV and others wear is important.

6) Setting is active, has impact and can change throughout the story. Is it friend or foe? Is it a place to hide (friend), a fight on a cliff (foe), dystopia (foe), utopia (friend), does it impede (foe) or help (friend) the POV’s plans? How does it help or hinder a POV from achieving his story goal? If it’s too dull, blow it out of proportion to make it larger than life just like you do to achieve maximum impact with plot or character. A POV can always change the setting, or strive to. Change may be societal, political, within a community, family or locales.

Like other characters, setting can based on an archetype. Archetypes typically offer challenges, gifts and opportunities for POVs. Does the the setting in your story have archetypal traits and if so, what can you do to make it a stronger character?

The Sorcerer: a place of magic which has interesting consequences
The Magician: where we can be made to believe anything but is it real? Is the situation sustainable? What happens when the luck wears off? Is this a place of transformation with the gift of power?
The Green Man: a life force that impels growth, vitality but growth has a dark side of death and decay.
The Mentor: possesses wisdom, is a teacher and sometimes a healer. Can serve as a motivator, conscience and gives the hero a gift once he’s earned it.
The Herald: a challenge for change the herald can be a force, a thing, an event (tornado). The herald disturbs, unbalances.
The Threshold Guardian: tests the hero by providing obstacles; not always defeated but the hero learns from the experience.
The Shape Shifter: friend or foe, will the shape shifter help or hinder/betray? Crafty and charismatic, the shape shifter confuses and tests the hero.

So maybe setting isn’t such a quiet character after all. Voiceless in some ways, but it speaks its own extremely complex language. Archetype, friend or foe, setting is a dynamic environment that is as alive as any other character because it illuminates, challenges, and demands calls the POV to action.

From Crap to Craft

A guest post by S. James Nelson.

It’s very likely that the first bit of fiction that anyone writes is crap. There are three potential responses to this:

1. Give up because doing this fiction thing right is going to be hard

2. Remain oblivious to it, and continue writing crap

3. Improve

Don’t give up

If you’re honestly interested in becoming an excellent writer, I’d recommend not choosing the first response. Don’t get all offended at yourself or others who discover that what you wrote is no good. It’s only natural. It’s just a fact of life that the first time you do something you’re not going at be good at it–because, you know, real life isn’t like a video game: designed to be easy at first.

Don’t be oblivious

I’d also recommend avoiding option two–if you want to get good at writing, at least. Oh, maybe you don’t have to be so brutal as to call what you wrote crap, but you should probably at least realize that whatever it was you gave birth to wasn’t perfect. That’s a starting spot: admitting there’s a problem is the first step in correcting it. And writing an imperfect story is a problem, wouldn’t you say?


So how do you not remain oblivious to the flaws in your writing? It’s nothing new.

Finish something. A story. A book. Something. Anything. Do not revise endlessly, trying to perfect. There is a point where each revision provides less return. As you write more, you’ll learn where this point is. For now, on your first project, assume that after 3 passes it’s as good as it’s going to get. For now. We’ll call it Project 1.
Put Project 1 aside and write Project 2. Immerse yourself in Project 2, to the point that you’ve completely forgotten Project 1 exists (a slight exaggeration). Finish Project 2.
Put Project 2 aside.

Do the pre-writing for Project 3. Depending on the scope, this could take days or weeks or months. I’ll get to the point of having done several revisions on a plot outline, because I’m an outline writer. If you don’t use outlines, hopefully you’ve at least got everything done that you need to do before you start writing. If your first draft is always a piece of junk and you completely re-write draft two, you can treat your first draft as your pre-writing. Just be sure you’re fully immersed in it, and you now spend your mental CPU cycles on Project 3, not Projects 1 or 2.
Once your pre-writing on Project 3 is done, return to Project 1. Read it as if you were your target audience. As you do, take note of things that worked and things that didn’t work. Be brutally honest. This is where you will learn about what works and what didn’t work. You may even notice typos you never saw before. And of course you will–you’re two projects down the road, by now. Naturally you’ve improved. Naturally you’re much smarter and more skilled at this point.

Re-immerse yourself in Project 1, and revise based on the observations you made. Make one pass. Maybe two. Right about now, Project 1 is basically done. It’s probably overkill to set it aside and then return to it a third time.

At this point what’s nice is that the lessons you learned from reviewing Project 1 will stick with you. You’ll be able to apply them in all succeeding projects. And now you’re going to start having at least 3 projects going at once. To keep things simple, there are basically three phases:

Fixing and polishing

You want to get to the point where you have a project in each phase. Never complete two phases for a single project at once. Instead, move the other projects on to different phases. Each time you fix and polish, you must learn something. Maybe something about how to tell stories. Maybe something about how to write good prose. Maybe something about world building. But you must always complete step 3 with the following philosophy: steps 1 and 2 did not make this as good as it can be.

The point is that you distance yourself from a project before really finishing it. Then you can return to it with fresh eyes. This is nothing new, and it’s very difficult to do when you’re a new writer because, you know, you feel urgency to finish. But be patient. Set it aside. You’ve got way more time than you know. Work on some other things, then come back to it with fresh eyes. You’ll be amazed.

Be patient

The good news is that “things can only get better” from where you started. The question is, how do you improve? As far as I’m concerned, there is really only one answer to that question, and it’s probably the same answer that a million others have articulated before.

You must practice. You must practice a lot.

It’s the same as with anything. To get good at something, you must do that thing over and over and over, never accepting that what you’ve done was good enough.

A friend and I are learning to golf. We thought we’d like to be as good as Tiger Woods–until we thought about how many golf balls Tiger Woods has hit in his lifetime. A scanning of the Internet indicates that when he was younger, he hit as many as 1,000 balls a day. Some quick math puts his number of balls hit over 20 years at 7.3 million.

That’s a crapload of balls.

If you’re going to be a pro at golf, you’d better plan on hitting millions of golf balls just to get in the game.

Likewise, if you’re going to be a pro writer, plan on writing millions of words. There is no substitute for practice. Nothing can replace the experience of having stories written, completed, and analyzed. You’re going to be competing with people who have millions of words under their belts. You should expect that it’s going to take you millions of words to be able to compete with them.

A few other notes

Read books about writing. Attend seminars. Not everything you read or hear is going to be true or applicable to you. It’s not all going to be useful. But hopefully some of it will be. Personally, I’ve really benefitted from a handful of books, such as Orson Scott Card’s “Character and Viewpoint,” “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers” by Browne and King, and “Writing the Break-out Novel,” by Donal Maass. There are others I’ve read that I haven’t taken much from, or only a thing or two. But in the end, they were probably all worth it.
Spend your time writing, not talking about writing. It’s probably not a bad idea to find one writing group and use it as a tool to improve your writing. But don’t let the writing group detract from your time spent practicing. For each amount of content you want critiqued, read the same amount from others in the group. This is scary, because if you want a book critiqued, and there are five others in the group, that means you’ve got to read five books. that will drain your time. Manage your participation in the group, and be protective of your time. Oh, and only submit something to the group once.

Lose your fear of killing your babies. Yes, this is trite. But it’s true. I’d heard the maxim a thousand times before I really internalized it. Heck, I may not have completely accomplished this yet–I may never. But it’s huge, and fortunately it gets easier with time. You see, when all you’ve written is 100,000 words, it’s hard to admit that you don’t need 10,000 of those. But when you’ve written 2,000,000, it’s much easier to admit you don’t need 10,000 of those. Regardless, it’s very difficult thing to learn to throw away entire chapters or scenes. But it’s true that you must be willing to do this, or your writing will not improve. You must learn to accept the fact that the time you spent writing this or that thing is a sunk cost. You cannot regain it. But your work can get better if you re-write it or delete it or whatever the case is. You cannot hold on to what you’ve written. Once you’re willing to accept that, your writing will get much better. Don’t worry, the more you revise and write, the easier this will become, to the point that you may eventually throw away entire projects because while the idea seemed good at the time, it actually just wasn’t.
Love what you write. Love every character. Love every plot point. Every world you build. Write the story that, when you read it a few years down the road–just for fun–you absolutely adore even despite its imperfections.

I reckon that’s enough advice from a writer still trying to find his way to success–but hopefully one that has at least taken his writing to the “a step above amateurish” level. You should read one of my books and decide for yourself if I’ve succeeded. 😉

And as with those books I said you should read . . . take from this article only what is useful to you. Throw everything else away.

Guest sjamesnelsonWriter Bio:
S. James Nelson recently won first place in David Farland’s Nightingalewriting contest. If you enjoy action-oriented, deep-thinking fantasy, take a look at his book, The Demigod Proving. If you like strong characters, real-world fantasy, and hiking in national parks, take a look at his book Keep Mama Dead

Exploring Story Concepts Prior to Writing

Slot canyonThis month we’ve discussed great games that inspire, games that highlight effective storytelling, or that identify pitfalls in the creative process. We’ve also discussed some of the dangers of trying to port game scenarios directly into book form (review that excellent post here).

I’m going to visit that topic from a slightly different angle and discuss the effectiveness of finding avenues for creative input. It’s hard to build a great story, and harder still if we try to do it in a vacuum. Utilizing creative input sources can prove effective in developing foundational concepts for your story. The goal is not to try writing a book directly from a game scenario, particularly if it pulls in any material that may be copyrighted elsewhere. However, it is possible to utilize a RPG or other creative input source to explore some of the general concepts you might be kicking around as the foundation of a story.

For example, if you want to flesh out a new magic system, inviting your gaming friends to utilize that magic system in a game scenario can really help. They’ll try to break the rules, and they’ll try to use it in ways you never expected. The experience will force you to think deeper and broader than you might have on your own, and lay down rules and boundaries you had not realized you needed. This is particularly useful if you don’t have someone who makes a good sounding board to brainstorm ideas and plumb the depths of your new concept.

You can also explore other aspects of the world building in a game. What are the nations and races that exist in this world? Do they get along? What motivates them? What do people eat? What kind of money do they use?

diceIn my family we play a customized RPG that utilizes only one 20-sided die for all decisions. It removes a lot of the technical hassle of similar games and relies more on the storytelling skill of the person leading the game. It’s also an excellent creative workout routine. I rarely plan out the details of a game beforehand, so am forced to come up with each element in a just-in-time delivery sort of way. I’ve found it helps break down creative barriers and triggers some exceptionally creative moments.

I’ve used this process as a way to explore multiple story concepts. Many of them prove mediocre or uninspiring, so we drop those and try something different. A few have resulted in ideas with lots of potential. Those I set aside for later exploration, or launch secondary game scenarios to consider further.

Once I’ve got what I need, I throw away the specifics of the game, including the characters, and start building my story from scratch – drawing upon the foundational concepts we explored through the game.

The Boyhood of Raleigh by Sir John Everett Millais, oil on canvas, 1870

But RPG gaming is not the only creative input I use, and it’s not even my most productive. Even better is good old storytelling. In our family we tell a lot of stories, and I’ve used that verbal story time to develop magic systems and explore plot concepts with my kids. It’s proven highly effective. Kids (2 of mine are teen-agers now) provide instant feedback, and they are brutal critics. If an idea isn’t working, I know about it instantly. On the other hand, if a story generates lots of enthusiasm from them, I might be on to something.

The danger there, just as with using RPG games, is to recognize that the novel you write will not be the same as the game (or verbal story). A couple years ago, I spent a lot of time developing a story line with my kids. They actually came up with the original magic system idea, which I then fleshed out and used to launch into a series of stories where we explored many other aspects of the world building. The resulting story proved so engaging that I decided to write a book based on all the material we produced.

At first I tried to follow the story line we’d developed, since we were all so enthusiastic about it. However I quickly ran afoul of the hazards lurking down that road. After those hard-learned lessons, I threw away that unproductive plotline and made a hard break – the story would not be a novelization of our hours of storytelling. Instead, I would craft a novel from the ground up, building upon some of the foundational elements we explored in that storytelling, but the plot and characters were entirely new. The resulting novel is a YA fantasy titled Set In Stone, which is now in the hands of my agent. Hopefully we’ll find a home for it soon.

Take Away: Use any creative avenue available to you to explore creative ideas, but remember the limits of what you can accomplish. Take the foundational elements, strip out the rest, and go build a great novel.

Where else do you turn for creative input to explore story concepts as you begin working on a new novel?

World of Warcraft: The Fiction Addiction

My name is Quincy Allen, and it’s been three days since my last login. Okay, okay, so that’s a lie. I logged in last night, but I won’t apologize for it.

Now that I’ve outed myself as one of those “lamentable” adults who dabble in MMOs, let me tell you why. Like a lot of writers, writing is not my only gig. I’m a tech-writer by day, operate a small but growing book design business by night, and do my writing in the wee hours as time permits. That means that I need to decompress from time to time. Slaying damn near any mob that gets in my way is a perfect way to accomplish it.

What can I say? It’s better than going Postal. Some people play golf. Some watch sports. I’m currently working my way towards the Pinnacle of Storms in order to slay Lei Shen who threatens all of Pandaria. Lei Shen’s power derives from ancient Titan technology, and the Titans were a race of elder gods who deemed the life of Azeroth unfit to breathe.

Over my dead body.

World of Warcraft has been a perfect environment to let off steam for someone who appreciates good storytelling and kilometers-thick back-story. WoW arguably has the most exhaustive canon of any game out there, and it creation goes all the way back to the game’s incept in 1994 in the form of Orcs and Humans. From those meager origins, a worlds-spanning history going back over 10,000 years has been born.

In many respects, that’s what has kept me playing WoW. There’s an almost never-ending sense of discovery as the main storyline unfolds for the players, and there are hundreds if not thousands of side-stories woven throughout the environment to keep someone like me intrigued.

There’s a lesson for all writers in what Blizzard has accomplished with their flagship product. History. If you’re writing contemporary fiction, then your history is written for you, and you can draw from that. If you’re writing alternate history, fantasy, or even future sci-fi, then you should do at least some work in creating your own canon. I can give one example that I use in the novel I just wrapped up.

It’s steampunk fantasy fiction set in the Old West. A half-clockwork gunslinger with magic-imbued mechanical limbs must protect a 15th century vampiress from being sacrificed to raise a demon army. Simple enough, but the obvious question is, where the hell did the magic come from?

That part wasn’t as simple. I wanted to make the presence of magic in the Old West at least plausible in my head, so I had to alter history. Granted, this tidbit of data isn’t explained in the series I’m referring to, but it is revealed in another series I’ve started, which takes place in the same universe. Essentially, I had to assassinate a 13th century Pope in order to have magic exist in the Victorian era.

Having done so opens up a wealth of possibilities in my writing and gives my rather critical notion of plausibility a leg up. Basically, I can believe in my own “invention” and build upon it as I see fit with cultures, characters, and histories that all have that single changed moment in history as their foundation. All roads lead to Rome, as they say.

This is a technique I recommend for all writers. While your story takes place “now,” you should have a strong understanding of “what came before.” Not only will this make your story richer, it will give you virtually limitless destinations that all have the same look and feel, because they all derive from the same point of origin.

If you’re writing the fantastic, then take some time to sketch out the timeline around your story. Know what’s going on in your world and have at least a moderate understanding of its history. Empowered with this knowledge, you’ll find that the depth of your storytelling increases by a factor of, and the creation of both sidelines and spin-offs is that much easier to write.




P.S. If you run on Kil’Jaeden, keep an eye out for a DK named Moondawg.