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!

Sticking to Your World’s Rules: Living and Dying in Space

I’m not going to review Star Wars: The Last Jedi although it represents the usual type of film that I love to see. I haven’t liked most of the newer Star Wars movies and don’t write reviews when I already have preconceived notions about it. I went into the movie with an attitude and the plot more or less proved to be as out of touch with the first trilogy’s original ideas as I thought it would be.Man in space

Instead, I’m going to use this film to stress a point for writers. When you engage in world building, you create all the rules and ideas on which your setting runs. Every author does it whether they are writing space epics or a setting that mirrors our own world.  If you have superheroes in your world, then you need definite sources (aliens, radiation, spider bite… whatever) for those powers, well defined (and potentially limited) powers for your characters, and some idea of how the normal world reacts to them. When you have a spaceship setting, you’ve got to think about what the ship is made of; perishable items such as food, water, and air; if they are recycled or not; how the ship moves and is shaped; and what is the effect of the world outside the space ship. Writers must think about these things even if they never use that information in the story. They must really know and understand their created world and abide by those rules.

Break your rules and the audience will react like sharks smelling blood in the water. They will catch all the plot cheats and scream horrible things about your intelligence. Worse, they will throw the book against the wall in anger, trash-talk the movie, and resolve to never see or read your work again. Nothing angers audiences more than when a plot breaks some established world fact in order to get the beloved character out of a sticky situation. It is a cheap, tacky trick that is the sign of bad writing.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi had this kind of plot cheat. (SPOILERS) The scene where the entire bridge of the rebel ship is blown up, including Princess Leia, resulted in a tremendous screw-up. Leia, not char-broiled from the fireball or blown to microbits like everyone else in the room, is barely alive and floating in space. She somehow survives depressurization and no oxygen. Still unconscious, she twitches one hand and flies like Mary Poppins to the door and is let back into the ship. No one worries about losing air by opening the door to let her in. She is not damaged in any way and eventually comes back to consciousness healthy and whole.

This scene had me shrieking inside and I hated the movie from that point on. Don’t get me wrong. I loved Leia in the original trilogy. She was a strong, brave personality that would not be overshadowed by her male counterparts. She had the Force, but nothing ever indicated that she trained in how to control it or that she was as powerful as any master. Yet none of that background stuff really mattered. What mattered was one simple fact.

The Force was never powerful enough to cheat death. Even dear old, green Master Yoda would have died in space.

Remember the inky blackness is empty and lacks pressure. When the heroes opened the door to let Leia in, air should have been sucked out and pressure should have been lost. Everyone waiting for her should have died instantly. But fans might say, wait Carla, the films show open space ports all the time where the ships fly in and out while soldiers march around parked vessels. Audiences assume an invisible force field covers those deck areas. I agree with that. The original world-building ideas included a force field in those sections known to be open to space. Yet the writers of Star Wars: The Last Jedi created two world-breaking plot cheats here. The weaker one was the implication that whenever a ship part is blown apart, the force field against space instantly is formed to save everyone else. I’d consider that possible even though we’ve not seen that in any previous Star Wars movie.

The bigger cheat is Leia not dying nearly instantly in space. I’ve done some research for my own science fiction book and discovered that death in space is not asphyxiation as most folks assume. If it was, the person could be resuscitated if rescued within roughly two minutes. We saw that in Passengers when Jim Preston ran out of oxygen but was still in a sealed space suit. He wasn’t really exposed to space. The point on unreality in this scene is that having the Autodoc do everything to bring him back to life would probably damage the body more.

Real death due to exposure to space comes from rapid depressurization. According to this Popular Science article and other references, decompression causes water on skin and in the blood to boil and then vaporize within about 10 to 15 seconds. One assumes it is pretty painful but at least quick. In addition, the Force takes concentration whether you are lifting rocks or reading minds. If Leia was unconscious, she could not invoke the force. Boiling blood pretty much kills any kind of focusing ability.

To be fair, most movies don’t handle space death correctly. Guardians of the Galaxy, for instance, showed Peter and Gamora floating in space, ice crusting up all over them for several moments before they are sucked into Yondu’s ship and appear immediately healthy and ice free. The difference here is that this comic-book movie (an important distinction) had already established that Peter could travel through space or in possibly bad environments by simply donning his helmet. That is a part of the creator’s original world building. So when we see them surviving the ice-body scene, it is less of a break from the already established world rules.Moon shot

You may think I’m nitpicking about this one scene in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, but I’m really not. Too many movies and books establish clear and concise rules for their world and then break them when the plot becomes too difficult to work out. If you want rooms open to space, then establish the invention of forcefields early on and not at the penultimate scene in your book. If you have a giant underground lake on the moon, then you should damn well explain where all that water came from, particularly if you’ve made a point about how expensive it is to lift anything weighty out of Earth’s gravity well. These things matter because science fiction people are smart. They don’t like it when writers try to con their way through a situation when good science can lead to a better resolution.

So remember when you are writing your space epic or fantasy story, define your world’s principles and rules, then stick to them rigidly. Resist the temptation to bend them to create a deus ex machina plot twist. It is the cheap and easy way to get your character out of a difficult problem but it reflects poorly on your writing. You’re better than that. Do your research and actually let that shine through in your writing. Your audience will love you more for it.