Thursday, November 7, 2013

Out of This World: Setting as Character

I’m participating in my first NaNoWriMo this year, and so far, all is going well with my YA sci-fi romance. I’ve written a couple deep-space short stories, but this is the first novel I’ve set on another planet, and for me, having the opportunity to create a brand new world is ideal.

Because here’s the thing: I’m a setting guy.

Many writers start their stories with plot. For others, the main character leaps first to mind.

With me, it’s almost always the setting that develops first. I picture a place, then ask myself what kinds of people (or non-people) might inhabit it and what might happen to them there. Everything else follows from that.

In speculative fiction, setting is key. Nothing kills fantasy or sci-fi faster than a jerry-rigged, poorly conceived, unconvincing setting.

By contrast, a well-conceived setting in speculative fiction is like a well-conceived character.

I mean that in two senses. On the one hand, a good setting acts as a character: it drives the other characters’ actions, shapes who they are (and who they become), presents challenges and opportunities for them. On the other, a good setting possesses the features of a well-rounded character: consistency, logic, development, revelation, deepening. Good settings, like good characters, behave in predictable and comprehensible ways, while at the same time possessing the capacity to surprise, to disclose complexities or even contradictions the reader didn’t glimpse at first.

Think about great YA speculative fiction settings, and they all share these characteristics. James Dashner’s maze in The Maze Runner. Suzanne Collins’s arenas in The Hunger Games and Catching Fire. Lauren DeStefano’s poisoned world in Wither. Chris Howard’s treeless wasteland in Rootless. Mindy McGinnis’s nearly waterless landscape in Not a Drop to Drink. I could go on and on, but you get the point.

Many writers develop character charts, fleshing out their characters by jotting down such information as name, age, ethnicity, height, weight, eye color, favorite activity, weakness, darkest secret, and so on. I think one should do the same with setting. Here’s a list of some of the most important things I’d include in such a chart:
  • climate
  • weather (they’re not the same!)
  • geographic features
  • predominant ecosystems
  • physical laws (if they differ from those of Earth)
  • sources of food and water
  • flora and fauna
  • form/status of human settlements, development, and technology
  • history (geologic and/or human-scale)
  • unknown aspects (i.e., unknown to the characters)
That’s just a start.  Feel free to add more.

Bottom line: make where matter as much as who and what.

Now, back to NaNo!

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