A compatriot doing Camp NaNoWriMo asked for advice one day. She was stuck with the new world she’d invented and didn’t know how to develop it in such a way as to make it distinct and different. She had a feel for it, but couldn’t nail down details in order to communicate it.
I suggest she try an old trick I used when coaching kids to write. Take your world, I said, and just think about it for a steady, concentrated period of time. Think about things like:
- What does the air feel like?
- What plants are there?
- Do the ‘humans’ look human?
Okay, now choose 3 arbitrary details.
- Maybe the color of the sun.
- Where does their power come from?
- What’s a favorite food from a holiday they have? (okay, defining the holiday itself makes a 4th one.)
Now, use those. Maybe not in an immediate scene, but extrapolate from them. Keep thinking on it.
- If the sun is green, what does that mean about their color perception?
- How do their seasons work?
- Is their power organic? off-planet? threatened because of declining resources ?
- (You said they don’t use cars often, is that why? Why don’t they use cars often?)
- Does their favorite food mean 6 drumsticks?
- Is it genetically-engineered, or does everyone eat food native to the planet?
- And what holiday requires 6 drumsticks and is it a religious holiday and what effect does it have on the culture?
Phew! You get the idea. Every society has mundane details that reflect its philosophy and culture. Making them arbitrary at the outset is like landing on an existing world. You take what’s there and figure out how it affects life and what it means.
She was interested in trying out this strategy. I told her it works sometimes for some people, but I tend to use this method a lot.
The method is a little arbitrary and challenging, but it gets you thinking in depth about what it means to be a part of the world you are creating, extra-terrestrial or not. You always change out the arbitrary factors later, when you’ve gotten to know your world better.
What I didn’t go into with my friend, was that you also consider what kinds of beings are on this planet. Set up a few characters, and assign them – again, often arbitrary – traits and characteristics, physical and psychological. Then, see what derives from that combination. What happens when:
- Fred, who hates animals, meets – and likes – Sally who is a cat hoarder? What does that do to their burgeoning relationship?
- A short king becomes physically dependent on a knight who could whip him in an instant, but must depend on him for food, and both are enamored of accordion polka music, and one (which one?) wants to dance while the other wants to dine at the banquet?
- A gentle family stemming from a couple in an inter-religious marriage, where one is Christian and the rest of the family is Wiccan moves into an East Texas town that has only one church, a conservative Christian church where everyone attends?
Conflict and plot stem from character. How many times have you felt something in your life either wouldn’t have happened or would be different, if only the people you knew were different?
Writing that is about what rises from who the characters are is organic writing, and it is the best. No matter what your story may encompass, such writing is the most realistic and most solidly believable.
My current most favorite example is Craig Johnson’s Longmire series. While I admit to having seen more TV episodes than books, I know that these characters are what determines the plot, actually the entire stories. Much is based on what a character would or would not do because of who they are. In an epic episode, a judge allows bail in a murder case for Henry Standing Bear, because, as one Native American woman passionately testifies, he is a Standing Bear, and when a bear stands up, it is literally standing up to protect its own. It is standing to fight, and will not run. She guarantees he will not flee if he is out on bail. All of this plays out only because of who the characters are, from Henry Standing Bear personally, to the Native American background, to the willingness of the woman to testify because Henry had looked after her family in troubled times (and in a previous story).
Johnson’s stories (and the series) are substantial, because plots are intricately laid out with seeds planted and events foreshadowed skillfully, and all based entirely on who these people are. It is tight, exciting writing, well worth emulating.
In Finding Shelley’s Shoes, I am doing something similar. I wanted five sisters for personal reasons, twins amongst them for reasons mentioned in other posts. I also wanted something unique, even silly, to set them apart. It came down to names.
I’ve known families of kids where all their names begin with D or J. Some families split names up between two letters. Some families name all their kids after US presidents. I decided that, since the mother was going to be a pivotal issue and character, albeit a deceased one, she could be the cause of some quirky names. Each woman bears the burden of having been named after an early 20th century film star. That one characteristic provides a look at their mother. It is cause for discussion and baiting amongst the sisters. And, each of the women had to, over their lives, create a response to the name they were given. Was it a curse? An annoyance? Something to live up to?
Determining the answers that fleshed out this information helped create the women, and the women help create the plot and the novel. Shelley’s becoming a writer may, in part, have been a response to being plunked into an artistic fantasy world by her mother’s choice of name (she was named Shelley Winters deMille). Her being a writer influences the way she frames life and the activities she is embarked on in the book (she is presenting at a book festival, which means speaking in public, something that might not be wise, given her possible condition). Her older sister has always hated their mother’s name system. That probably influenced how she treated their mother when she was ill, a bone of contention amongst the sisters. In actuality, it affected her entire relationship with their mother and subsequently, with all her sisters.
Finding Shelley’s Shoes is about relationships, and about family, so the characters are obviously the story source. But in any book, the story is rooted in who the people are. Plot is what happens, but it only happens the way it does because of who the people are.
So, the question of the day is: Who are your people?