The Interweaving of Plot, Character, and Setting

This weekend I have the pleasure of participating in the A Writer’s Day Camp at Taltree Arboretum & Gardens (sponsored by the Indiana Writers’ Consortium). My topic will be on worldbuilding so I’ve been thinking about that all week. The problem is, it is hard to just talk about only setting, character, dialogue or plot as if they were all separate things. In fact, it feels impossible to discuss one without widely swinging into all the others. After all, each of these factors overlay and intertwine like snakes writhing in a hole. From the view of the reader, pulling just one factor out to see should be nearly impossible without impacting the others. And that is the way great writing should be.

Intertwined snakes

This Celtic symbol could be plot and setting, character and setting or other equally knotted up writing ideas.

A writer can’t really talk about character development without referring to the setting unless the character is dropped into a world completely different from where he or she lives. The reason is simple. Our environment shapes who we are and what we think about. If you doubt this, just compare to a person from a rural or small-town background to an urban citizen. Let’s say a person from a town in the Poconos versus New York city. Yes, they might be from the same state, are both East Coast residents, but they will have subtly different ideas. Throw in a cross-country comparison, like a Northerner versus a Southerner and the differences grow enormously. When I moved from the Coastal Bend region of Texas to Indiana, I was awestruck over the differences in societies and people. For one thing, Texans love their fences while Northwest Indiana folks seem to hate them.

A good example of regionalism affecting character and plot can be found in Sofie Littlefield’s Bad Day for Sorry. The accent and attitude of the main character is so southern that it makes you think of catfish and cornbread. Her Stella Hardesty character reeks of southern setting every time she opens her mouth. Charlaine Harris’ book (and TV show) Midnight, Texas series was chosen specifically because of its isolation and somewhat alien feel of the Texas desert. The sparsely settled setting makes it easy to have bodies disappear. In addition, people living in a tiny town form a protective cluster. They all know and look out for each other. This isolation helps mold the very odd characters found there.

Sometimes to start figuring out a story, all you need to do is ask questions about a character. Where did they come from? Where do they live now? What job do they do and how does that mold their character? Exploring these questions can lead to a story.

For example, I wrote a book about a ghost-talker that was harassed by spirits constantly until she finally made it her mission to put them to rest. Specter of a Chance came from one simple idea, a name. I thought of Magdalene Knowles (“Layne please. Never Maggie!”) Her name seemed so cool so I knew she had to be someone strong with an interesting life. I gave her ghost talking ability and put her in Northwest Indiana. If the spirits bugged her all of the time, people would think she is crazy talking to air. So she couldn’t hold a normal job. What could she do to earn money to support herself? What would be her goals in life and who would be her best friend?

Then I started thinking about worldbuilding. Why NWI? What opportunities would it give her? What were the benefits and problems of living in an area that had cities closely clustered together but each firmly independent? How would the seasons and weather affect her spectral companions? What limits existed for ghosts? Eventually a plot fell out of those musings.

So it is fine to focus on setting or character or plot separately to start with. However, great writers recognize that these factors all blend together and affect each other. They must in order to make up all the beautiful details and twists that make a really fine plot. After all, spy novels aren’t that interesting if they are located in small town South Dakota, and western cowboys don’t really belong in Europe unless you are going for the culture clash. In that case, those ideas could actually make really interesting books.

Happy writing!

World Building Basics

Whenever a writer creates a story, no matter if it is romance, thriller, science-fiction, fantasy, or even historical nonfiction, they engage in world building. For some genres, the world is 80% to 90% already fixed in place. After all, if the author produces a thriller about an out-of-control president trying to become dictator in 2017 America, most of the “world” is already known and accepted by the readers. The writer doesn’t worry about what the outer buildings look like, how the city/state/country operates, or even what currency is used.

However, the author still must build a “world” in terms of the president’s inner sanctum, his personal taste in clothing, his support people, and what objects, rooms, or architectures have deeper meaning in this novel. For instance, does the White House really have a Kennedy Rumpus Room (as in Mars Attacks) or a secret tunnel for sneaking out? I love watching the old show, West Wing, but figure the workrooms of the White House probably don’t really look like the show’s depiction, which were created for easy filming.

indoor fairy house side view

World building on a small craft scale. My fairy garden.

The world-building phenomenon doesn’t stop with the written word. Any avid role-playing gamer, video game developer, or even architect understands the importance of planning the big picture and the many details that go into a given place and time.

Incredulity in the Setting

Of course, the farther the story stretches away from reality and the here-and-now, the more the author must create the setting. Historical texts, science fiction, and fantasy all must include a clear and defined world that not only engages the reader but also makes sense. Sometimes making sense is the hardest part.

Readers and TV/movie viewers all have a disbelief point (called my bullshit line) where they inherently know something in a setting doesn’t work. For instance, using poultry for financial exchanges may work in a fantasy novel, but trading chickens for ship parts looks stupid in science fiction. Plus, carrying baby chicks around in space suits while experiencing zero-g is difficult and silly. The movie, Life, (reviewed in a previous blog) is a great example of crossing the bullshit line.

Common Rules of World Building

The disbelief point comes from breaking concrete rules of all worlds. Bypass those rules and the story becomes stupid/silly/terrible very quickly. Here are a few overarching principles that should never be crossed or ignored.

Science

Science is true and usually unbreakable everywhere and every when. Therefore, living things should die/freeze in space, people can’t fly without assistance, and bullets, gasoline, poisons, and magic should all work in predictable ways. This includes NOT standing near a pool of gasoline and igniting a match unless you want to lose all your body hair. The vapor is more ignitable than the pool.

Common Sense

People must wear clothes that make sense. Going around naked causes sunburns. Wearing diaphanous material in a winter wonderland is dumb even indoors. Heating costs and buildings always leak. People must also eat food and drink water daily, so going for days without any sustenance should create horrible effects.

Magic

Magic must make sense for the situation. It should have an effort cost and not act like a gun with a never-ending supply of bullets (a fault of many television shows). Don’t use it for the answer to everything. Magic should also follow scientific principles. For instance, if you put a cream pie into a “bag of constant falling,” you will decapitate yourself (or someone else) when you open the bag again since the cream pie is going at a tremendous speed. This idea came from a Dungeons and Dragons adventure with physicists (fun folks who like to get creative with their weaponry).

High Tech

Although I agree with the idea that high tech advancements become indistinguishable from magic to a primitive race, high tech must also make sense. One machine doesn’t do it all. Personally, I don’t believe in the machine-turns-to-god idea. High tech should also have a cost for using it and a possibility of breakdown.

Consistency of the Story

Any established rule of the story’s world must not be broken later, at least not without a tremendous cost. If an angry mob storms the palace because of a class system of cruelty and poverty, one man giving a speech isn’t going to stop the bloodshed. Stopping to sleep in ancient ruins should include nasty things like bugs, snakes, or mice in the overgrown areas. They don’t have to attack the characters, but the place isn’t going to be a pristine wonderland either.

Conclusion

This blog only represents the highlights of a deep and complex part of writing great stories. World building is both fascinating and daunting in its depths but critically important in that the writer must understand of the grand ideas and minutiae details of his or her world. In the coming weeks, I’ll post a number of blogs on world-building specifics along with some thoughts based on my own novels. Please feel free to add your input, ideas, or stories of the complexities of your worlds.