Reading over some of my favourite childhood stories I realised that a lot of them have dated themselves terribly. I also note this when watching Buffy or other television shows that I loved in highschool. Just every now and then a line comes out and you just wince – wow! That’s dated.
I didn’t need to worry about this so much when writing Death’s Daughter because I set it in an entirely fantasy world that doesn’t directly link to any of Earth’s time periods. There were no references to current events or trends or anything else that would make it feel old within a few years and that was one less thing for me to worry about. Not so much with my current WIP.
Once again I’ve set it entirely in a fantasy world but this time there is a cross over element and one of my characters does come from modern Earth. How modern? Well, he is insisting on carrying his phone everywhere even though he hasn’t a chance at getting reception because the thought of leaving his phone behind is all but paralysing. What is this going to do for the story in terms of it getting dated?
Given the story and the fact that none of the other characters have current Earth knowledge I’m not throwing one-liners in referencing current events although he does occasionally reference television shows and notable characters. I’m resisting the urge to label his phone as any particular type because that would certainly date the story fairly quickly. His clothes are pretty basic and would fit most of the last twenty – thirty years and hopefully fashion isn’t going to completely change in the next ten.
What I’ve realised is that having any connection to the real world is adding a whole other set of problems to writing that I didn’t have to deal with previously and I’m walking a fine line between leaving it fairly non-specific as to when he was living on Earth in order to prevent the story being dated and just not giving the reader enough details to hold on to the story.
So I am seeking advice from those of you who have considered this previously. Do you worry about your stories getting dated and how do you deal with this?
I usually have a lot of fun dressing my various characters. Mostly because I have such a strong mental image of the character and few of them ever dress for what they end up doing – plus I set them in fantasy worlds and so I don’t really worry about whether people dressed like that in any particular era or not.
That said, the protagonist in my latest WIP is giving me all kinds of trouble. I have a strong mental image of her but the clothes keep changing and they are always very practical, clothes. Lots of leather and denim and most of it torn and patched, which given the hostile nature of the world I’m building makes perfect sense. But it isn’t all that fun to write about. Still, every time I try to dress her differently I just think, there is no way she’s going to wear that skirt and she certainly isn’t going to wear bright colours and try to attract a lot of attention.
I did destroy her denim jacket though. Which lead to the very touching boy lending her his brown vinyl jacket scene which wasn’t really an improvement on her look but was an interesting interaction between the two characters.
Dressing your characters? Fashion statement or practical? Or both? Love to hear your views.
I recently considered the plight of some of my characters and the fact that I put them through so many things I’ve never experienced. This is a small dilemma because I am often left wondering whether the character is actually responding realistically to the situation. I am not the character and I am not going through what they are. All I can do is imagine if I was that person, how would I feel.
That, and read other accounts of similar experiences and research how people have responded to certain events and read psychological discussions etc, etc. Does that enable me to actually understand how my character will feel? Maybe, maybe not. I hope it does enough that I don’t horribly offend any one with a lack of sensitivity.
Considering this, I momentarily wondered if maybe I should actually try to experience some of what my characters go through. Obviously I wouldn’t want to experience most of what I put them through (I would hate to be one of my characters in most of their situations) but it wouldn’t hurt to move a bit closer to understanding them.
The example is one I was playing around with earlier today.
I have a character who is hiding in a tree over night and is trying to sleep. Sleeping in a tree doesn’t strike me as being a fantastically comfortable experience and to be perfectly honest I’m not certain you could brace yourself appropriately and actually sleep.
I started looking at various trees and considering the possibilities.
Finally, I found a fantastic tree that had nice wide, reasonably flat branches, close together and with enough cross branches that you could conceivably brace yourself in the midst of them all and not plummet to your death.
I looked up at them. I wondered what it would feel like to be up there.
Then common sense kicked in.
I am not about to scale a really smooth trunk of a tree to reach branches that may or may not be sturdy enough to support my weight and then attempt to fully relax and hope that somehow I don’t fall sideways and crash to the ground, almost certainly breaking bones. How do you explain that to the ambulance attendant? By the way, I was just checking if a fictional character could sleep in a tree?
I think I’ll just imagine what it would be like and continue to try to put myself in the place of the character and hope I don’t go too far beyond the realm of possibility. Though given it is a made up tree in the story, I think I’ll go out of my way to design it so that it seems slightly more plausible that she didn’t roll out in the middle of the night and crash to her death.
How about you? Do you ever wonder what it would be like to be your character?
Right now it would be a very useful skill. See, I had that brilliant idea of a character and the story is literally falling into place around her, only I had this dream the other night that was filling in a lot of holes in my story plot but it took place in this fantastic setting.
It was this enormous rock dome with this central pillar type thing, which was actually like a multi-level sky scraper and there were other pillars that also had various buildings inside and they were connected by these smooth rock walkways (that of course had no rails or any means of preventing people from tumbling to their death). The entire thing was very clear in my dream and became pivotal in this scene I was envisioning and I can see it really clearly when I close my eyes but can’t really think of how to explain it.
This brings me back to the idea where I wish I could draw. Then I could map it out on paper and see how it looks when not inside my head and that would help me figure out how to describe it so someone other than me could make sense of it.
I did actually try to sketch it. It kind of looks like a wilted mushroom and it wasn’t particularly inspiring.
In the next few days I’m going to sit down and just close my eyes in front of the computer and walk through the scene. I’ll see it in my head and let my fingers run over the keyboard and see what I come up with. Probably some weird word vomit but you never know. I might just figure out the words to describe it and then I’ll be back into tweaking my plan so that this story actually goes somewhere.
Have you ever seen something in a dream, known it was going to be perfect, and been unable to explain it in words?
A while back I was writing a short story just to get myself back into writing and I had one of my characters hung (poor guy). However the hanging was held at sunset and that didn’t sit really well with me.
Maybe I’ve just watched too many movies or embraced too many clichés but it seems like hangings should take place at dawn. That didn’t really work because the point was for the guy to die at sunset with the end of the day, end of his life, kind of feel because the next dawn then brought about a new sense of awakening.
So I scrapped the idea of sunrise or sunset and hung the guy at noon but then I started wondering what sort of person would stand out in the sun in the middle of the day just to watch someone die?
As you can imagine I managed to um and ah and change the story so many times I ended up putting the entire mess to the side in a file of other abandoned stories that I’ve managed to talk myself out of writing.
However, I started thinking about different time of day and events I associate with them.
Sunrise: People wake up, roosters crow, things wash up on beaches.
Noon – People fight, people sleep, villains appear.
Sunset – People die, people have romantic dinners on the beach, bugs attack, evil begins moving.
What do you associate with the different times of day and do you ever go against that when writing?
Yes – the title of the post is a quote from Aliens about the terraforming process used to create a new world to live on.
I mentioned last week that I would be talking about world building in a bit of detail so here goes.
One of the prerequisites when writing high fantasy is that there is a totally different world and usually that world is completely separate from the ‘real’ world (though because we live in the real world and are writing for a real world audience it kind of helps to give enough similarities that people can understand what they are reading).
There are many different approached to world building and everyone does it their own way. Some people start with a clear vision of what the world looks like and draw it and then break it down into its individual pieces, other people start with a theme (such as medieval) and build the world out from there. One person I spoke to once mentioned that the world in their story came from a dress she really wanted to wear and she built a world around her ideal fashion. The point is, you start wherever you are comfortable starting. If you are like me, you tend to start with a character and then build the world around where that character may have come from.
A couple of points about worlds. There needs to be logic to them. If nothing else there should be geographic logic. Yes, you can sometimes get away with magical landscapes and where things float in midair and the like but you need to consistently apply whatever rules and logic you’ve decided on and you need to make sure you somehow make it acceptable to the reader. Otherwise they aren’t going to believe your world and if you are writing high fantasy your reader has to believe in the world you’ve created – at least for the duration of their reading. Also, draw a map, even if it is only a rough sketch on a napkin while drinking coffee. You don’t want to be heading east to the river one minute and then end up in the desert. It doesn’t matter whether that map ends up in the book or not but you need it so that you can check for continuity errors in your story.
Other than the geography there are three things I like to think about when planning worlds. Politics, religion and economics. Whenever you study a society, whether it be a modern day society or an ancient civilisation, these three things are always prominent in your learning. What political structure existed? What religion or religions were practiced? How prolific were they? How influential were they? Did they trade? Were they self sufficient? Was there currency or did they barter? How do all of these things affect day to day living?
My theory is that once I have the geography roughly mapped out, the political structure decided, religious beliefs created and a working economic system (or multiple ones if I am dealing with more than one part of the world), I have a more or less workable and believable foundation for a world once I fill in the finer details. Those finer details would be things like fashion, food, architecture, occupations, modes of transportation, weaponry, etc, etc, etc. You know, minor details that can cripple the entire story on the spot.
So – what do you think about when building your world? When reading what can make or break a world? I would love to know how other people approach this.
I don’t often focus on setting but I recently read a post from J.C. Hart on Creating Depth in Fiction where she discusses the idea of world building and its importance to the story. As a fantasy writer I know that setting is really important to the stories success and world building takes an enormous amount of time and energy and given I don’t write epic tales and describe every blade of grass in the field most of my planning for my worlds never actually appears in the story. That doesn’t make the planning any less important or necessary.
Stories have three main parts – plot, setting and characters. All three are completely vital and while some authors argue for plot driven stories and others go for character driven stories, I have only ever read one article about setting driven stories and I do not remember the how or the why it worked. That doesn’t mean that setting is not equally important and that you can get away with doing minimal work on it.
In fantasy particularly, setting can nearly be seen as its own character. It is something totally new and different that the reader has never encountered and you need to introduce your reader to it and then get them to feel some kind of connection to it. They also have to believe in it which means that it has to be consistent within the rules you establish for it, much like your characters. People will accept floating islands in the sky as long as you give them a reason to believe it and then don’t directly contradict yourself later in the story. The question is, do you really need the floating islands?
If you were to ask people what their favourite fantasy world was a large number would say Middle Earth. Why? Because a large number of people have read Lord of the Rings, which always helps, and because Tolkien laboriously breaks down each and every setting and describes in vivid detail. That actually explains my dislike for the books, too many details that simply slow down the pace of the story. But it does create a really believable and realistic world. Even before the movies you could close your eyes and imagine the world and see it clearly and you knew that it would work.
Personally I would list David Eddings’ Eosia from the Elenium trilogy as my favourite fantasy world. Admittedly, the resemblance between these ‘western’ kingdoms and Europe in both dress and demeanor is at times overdone but the world makes logical sense and there are enough variations to keep it interesting.
Interestingly enough both Tolkien and Eddings focus on the quest and so end up wandering all over their respective worlds and so it is really necessary for them to make sure all the little towns and kingdoms line up and match together in order to create one believable world.
Final thoughts on setting:
- Places have history but that history does not need to be dumped on the reader in one go (particularly in a prologue that goes for multiple pages)
- The setting will influence the characters in dress and food and demeanor and it is necessary that the two work together logically
- The setting needs to be brought to life for the reader but does not need to be explained at the expense of the story.
Share your thoughts on setting – if you read fantasy, let me know what your favourite fantasy world is.