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Setting & Character

Disclaimer:  This post does not mean that I’m finally softening my long-held stance against stories about man versus nature.

Setting, however, does and should affect character–whether that individual is Judah Ben-Hur, a condemned man chained to a Roman-galley oar until he dies, or the young protagonist living in virtual realities in READY PLAYER ONE.

If your characters seem oblivious to their setting, why did you choose an unremarkable location? Instead, why not make setting an inherent part of the situation and story problem? By this, I don’t mean that you should inject a raging typhoon or catastrophe into every plot scenario, but if you strand your characters in a life raft bobbing on the Pacific Ocean, that watery surround had better have an impact on each of them in individual ways. And if you pick Boring, USA, why are you making your writer job harder than it needs to be?

Is your protagonist comfortable with the setting you’ve plunked her into, or is she a fish out of water? As soon as you make that decision, you will be directed by the option you’ve chosen into selecting or rejecting other design possibilities.

Consider the following:

If your protagonist is an intrinsic part of his setting, knows it, is prepared to cope with it, stays calm and competent in dealing with its dangers or eccentricities, etc., then that means the locale is going to recede in prominence. Your hero will meet trouble from other characters who then serve to generate complications and story problems.

On the other hand, if your protagonist is a fish out of water, then her unfamiliarity with the setting can inject danger, misunderstandings, disaster, or–conversely–comedy into your story. An unknown setting helps you present sense-of-place details to readers as your protagonist discovers them. In doing this, you can avoid awkward information-dumps that usually stall story progress.

For example, the vintage film CROCODILE DUNDEE begins in the Australian outback, where civilization is basic and the setting is full of physical dangers. Dundee, however, is an intrinsic part of the setting. He’s comfortable with poisonous snakes and vicious crocodiles. He knows how to survive in the brush. His surroundings–although hazardous–create no problems for him. The girl, by contrast, is a fish out of water. She’s in physical danger constantly because she doesn’t know the pitfalls to look for or avoid. In the second act of the film, the setting shifts to New York City and flips the circumstances for these two players. Now the girl is comfortable with her big-city backdrop and wise to its ways, but Dundee has become the fish out of water. His initial bewilderment and quirky solutions inject comedy into the story. And, I might add, he adapts very quickly.

Let’s pick a scenario of elderly woman suffering from dementia that wanders away from home.

The setting of such a story immediately dictates character actions and therefore guides the plot events to come.

For example, if this story takes place in the summer in a harsh desert climate miles from the nearest town, then the desert-savvy protagonist will not be able to seek police or county sheriff assistance. The protagonist will be largely on his own. He’ll know to start a search at dawn before temperatures exceed one-hundred degrees, to seek Granny’s tracks in the sand and follow them through the brush, to carry plenty of water and a weapon in case he encounters rattlesnakes or rabid wildlife, and be conscious of the necessity to find Granny before the intense noonday heat gives her sunstroke or she becomes dangerously dehydrated. Unless you’re trying to build suspense, it’s unnecessary to lavish endless details of the search and throw snakes, wild pigs, and fire ants at the protagonist. Instead, summarize the search and let the story action center instead on conflict between the protagonist and a wild-eyed, distraught, and possibly injured Granny who won’t cooperate as he tries to get her home.

If Granny has wandered away in a crime-riddled metropolis, depending on the customary missing-persons procedure, the protagonist will notify authorities to issue a silver alert and then set out on a house-to-house search through the neighborhoods closest to where Granny lives. Maybe–if it’s a gated community–an email alert will be sent to everyone and Granny’s photo will be posted on light poles. Then it’s a matter of getting in the car to check along major arterial roads or bus routes, pausing at strip shopping centers to ask store owners if they’ve seen an elderly woman trudging along, and looking in alleys while always hoping he won’t find Granny lying unconscious from a mugging behind a Dumpster. Maybe–if Granny hasn’t dropped her cell phone–the hero can ask authorities to track her SIM card. Or, the protagonist will be entirely dependent on the police to find her and will instead go to work, checking search progress periodically via his cell phone. Instead of having the protagonist facing down would-be muggers or being car-jacked in a misguided effort to generate plot from a setting the character is knowledgeable about, why not focus the plot on his conflict with authorities who may require him to wait twenty-four hours before they’ll take action?

When it comes to how setting affects character design, another factor can come through the story person’s background. Characters are usually shaped by the places where they grew up. Was a sidekick kept isolated from others, home schooled, and spent his childhood in a hippie commune in a remote rural area without cellular phone service or satellite dishes or internet?

Even if that past has no connection to your plot, such factors as these will affect the sidekick’s personality, behavior, and reactions. He may be very self-reliant, independent, skilled, and resourceful. He may feel uneasy in social situations, avoid parties or crowds of people, and be a difficult co-worker. At the other extreme, he might actively seek city life and parties, binge-watch Netflix, own every electronic gadget on the market, and be a profligate spender to compensate for all the things he thinks he missed while growing up.

Can setting, in turn, be shaped by characters? Not, perhaps, as directly as how setting affects individuals, but reader perception of a locale can be colored by character perspective, personality, and attitude. Consider Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson on a train headed away from London to some remote corner of England. Watson gazes out the window at green meadows, grazing sheep, and tidy cottages with his usual optimistic, upbeat sentimentality. He comments how good it is to see such dear old homesteads. Holmes, huddled in his greatcoat and uninterested in the passing view, replies that more murders are committed in isolated farmhouses than in the most crowded, squalid sectors of the city.

(That’s one way to shut down a happy conversation.)

 

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Bring ‘Em On!

It’s one thing to spend time thinking about your cast of characters–especially your primary roles of protagonist and antagonist. You design them. You add nuance and dimension to their personalities. You give them flaws and virtues. You choose their eye color, whether they have any distinguishing birthmarks, and how tall they are. You give them limps and quirks. You decide one will possess superpowers. You make another a mutant outcast. You cook up backgrounds, nefarious pasts, abused childhoods, prison sentences, or stints serving as a mercenary in Africa. You choose who is redeemable and who will fall into the pit of destruction.

Yes, spending time on character design is tremendous fun. But once you’ve done all that, plus assigned each cast member a dominant impression, it’s another thing to insert that character into your story in a unique and memorable way.

Don’t be stymied. Instead, go a bit theatrical.

Ever attend a play that’s had a successful run for a long period of time? The star–or a popular second lead–enters with extra panache. The audience roars with delight. The play pauses until the audience recovers from its outburst and settles down again. It might be only for a few seconds, but the experienced actor waits–teetering on the finely edged balance of maintaining character while acknowledging the cheers and applause. The actor has learned how to make an entrance with flair, and the audience loves it.

So, also, should your prose character make a dramatic entrance. You want your lead character especially to attract reader attention and interest. But even secondary characters can stand out in a story by the way they are brought in.

Avoid sneaking your characters into the story with next to no tags, without a name, with nothing that will make them ignite reader imagination. What’s the point of such a mousy story person? If you’re trying to be realistic, then you should understand that in prose realism equates to boring. What you want instead of realistic is plausible or credible. Just remember that those qualities do not cancel flamboyant, vibrant, and colorful.

Now there are multiple ways of introducing characters:

Description works okay if it’s brief, focused on dominant impression, and vivid, but it requires breaking viewpoint if used for the protagonist.

Introduction through presentation of habitat works for certain genres such as mysteries, where the sleuth prowls around a suspect’s home or work space with a search warrant. It can supply readers with a different perspective or insight into the character.

Discussion of a character about to enter the story for the first time works occasionally in humor or if it’s dramatically important to create reader curiosity and anticipation regarding the character yet to appear. In humorous stories, often an unreliable character will say disparaging comments in an effort to force a negative opinion about the person being introduced. Then, when the new character does appear, readers can see that the information related in dialogue is false. This is very much a specialized introduction method and not one that can be used often.

Introduction through character action can be memorable, dramatically charged, vivid, and effective. It is where the character comes onto the page like a stage actor:  exaggerated, tags waving, strongly presented, doing some action that is characteristic of his or her personality yet also advances the story.

Such entry action is unique to the individual and creates a lasting first impression compatible with the dominant impression you want to establish in your readership’s minds.

For example:  let’s say we want to introduce a character named Randolph. We have designed him to be timid, unassertive, nervous with his boss, easily intimidated, kind, intelligent, and risk-adverse. We have decided that Randolph–while brilliant at his job–becomes hopelessly inarticulate and ineffectual when face-to-face with his manager.

Here we have a dimensional character possessing some contradictory qualities. We want to introduce him memorably. What should we focus on first? His smarts and efficiency? Or his nervous babbling in meetings?

The answer is that it depends on two factors:  Randolph’s story role and the dominant impression you want to convey.

If, for example, the dominant impression is brilliant but underappreciated, then you need to show Randolph at work in his corporate cubicle, finishing up a successful CAD design that will shine in tomorrow’s presentation and finally convince his boss that Randolph belongs on the team.

However, if the dominant impression is twitchy fool, then you would introduce Randolph in an inept, stammering conversation with his boss that has him dropping his folder of papers, scrambling on the floor to recover them, knocking over the waste can, and failing to describe his design in a convincing manner.

The only way character entry action fails to make a memorable impression is when a writer is too timid in utilizing the technique. Whatever qualities you assign a character, exaggerate them. Be bold. Be large. Don’t mute a character because you’re unsure of yourself. Err on the side of vividness.

 

 

 

 

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The Notorious Info-Dump

Among the many pitfalls for the unwary writer is an urgent “need” to share far too much information and explanation with our readers. After we’ve created settings and characters that require considerable detail and knowledge within our heads, it seems only natural that we should then want to blurt out all this lavish wealth of information and share it with everyone.

However, readers should know only about ten percent of what a writer invents for his or her story. And if that’s the case … and if we aren’t going to cram this stuff into our stories, why should we bother to create it at all?

Well, one reason is that writers should work very, very hard so that their readers never struggle, become confused, or lose suspension of disbelief.

Another reason is that our characters will be more plausible and dimensional if we create elaborate and sometimes lengthy dossiers for them. This effort acquaints us with their psychology, their motivations, their fears, their ambitions, their hidden weaknesses. If we know that a character was bitten by a rabid dog when a child and had to undergo painful rabies treatments, then we can write this adult individual’s extreme, panicky reaction to any canine with far more verve and authority than if we just randomly decide she should be frightened of dogs.

However, do we need to put the story on pause while this character’s entire backstory and horrifying childhood experience is dumped in? No, we do not. Readers are clever in picking up clues and hints dropped through character dialogue, reactions, and behavior. Allow your adult character to encounter a growling German Shepherd and show only her response to it–without additional explanation. Because you know all the background behind her fears, you will write her reaction much differently than if you never plan that event in her past.

Then, trust the character to carry the story for you. She should deliver a doozy of a reaction.

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Casting Characters

Writing references offer all sorts of strategies for devising characters, describing characters, and deepening characters, but it’s easy to get so caught up in creating individual dossiers that we may neglect thinking about the whole cast and whether it works effectively.

Let’s say you have a strong, vivid protagonist and a sly, snide, creepy antagonist. But will they work together? Or rather, I should say, will their personalities clash? Not because you’ve read that they should be in conflict but because their essential natures are like magnets repelling each other.

Or, you may have a strong, vivid heroine who’s to be the lead player in your romance story. You’ve concocted a hero who’s broad-shouldered, handsome, and possesses smoldering eyes. But is the chemistry right between them?

Is this pair going to ignite the pages or fizzle? Do you have Humphrey Bogart paired with Lauren Bacall or Humphrey Bogart paired with Audrey Hepburn? (If, by chance, this example makes no sense to you, compare the film TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT with SABRINA. You’ll see what I mean. SABRINA is a Billy Wilder gem that sparkles in all directions except for no spark between Bogart and Hepburn. It’s a baffling casting of those two actors.)

If you’re creating two characters who are best friends, do they have rapport? Let’s hope so, but if they do, why?

Ask yourself, how did they become friends? When did they meet? What happened then to create a bond between them? Why are they friends now? That isn’t to say you’ll be inserting all those answers into the story. But you need to know such information and keep it in the back of your mind so you can write the interaction of your characters from that foundation.

In the Dashiell Hammett story, THE GLASS KEY, Paul and Ed are lifelong friends who work together until they both fall in love with the same girl. Paul becomes a primary suspect in a murder. Ed wants to help him until he finds out Paul is lying to him. The men quarrel, but Ed’s belief in Paul’s innocence is never shaken. Achieving that kind of closeness–even between two tough guys in a noir novel–requires the creation of background. Hammett knew what it was, even if he didn’t share much of it in the story.

Presently, I’m working on a novel that involves a triangle. It’s hard enough working out the relationship of a couple, making sure they have the right traits to create sparks while being “right” for each other where it matters. A triangle complicates that task even more. I don’t want an obviously uneven group, where Mr. Wrong is so totally, obviously WRONG that only a blind, deaf, and senile bat would be attracted to him. I want Mr. Wrong to have good qualities and I want Mr. Right to be troublesome and unsettling to Miss Protagonist. Yet I must avoid going so far out on the unsettling scale that when she eventually chooses him it screams AUTHOR CONTRIVANCE.

While there are many variants of love triangles, I prefer to divide them into two basic categories: simple and complicated. These are only labels for author convenience. Don’t judge the merits of a story by them because either type can be effective.

SIMPLE: Let’s consider the Tolstoy novel, ANNA KARENINA. It’s been adapted into at least two films–one starring Vivian Leigh and a recent one starring Keira Knightley. Tolstoy is convoluted and enamored of many entwined subplots, but basically the triangle consists of the beautiful Anna, her elderly and distant husband, and the dashing young officer she falls in love with. Anna is torn between love and obligation. If she follows her heart, she will destroy her marriage, her social standing, her financial security. She will be denied access to her only child. She will be ostracized by society.

Simple? Yes, in that it’s clearcut and direct. We understand it immediately. That detracts in no way from its powerful effect. The very simplicity allows the emotional costs facing these characters to be potent indeed.

The modern novelist Danielle Steel can’t be likened to Tolstoy, but she has used the simple triangle numerous times, with a great deal of success.

COMPLICATED: Consider an old romantic comedy film called THE TALK OF THE TOWN, starring Jean Arthur, Cary Grant, and Ronald Colman. Grant’s character has been framed for a crime he didn’t commit and is on the lam, hiding from authorities. Colman’s character is a pillar of the law, under consideration as a Supreme Court judge. Jean Arthur is attracted to both men, and the audience is kept guessing which one she’ll choose right up to the very end. If you watch the film inattentively, you’ll miss the turning point and what factor decides her. Each man is very different from the other, yet they have a great deal in common. Both are equally intelligent, rational thinkers. Both are handsome and appealing. Both men need Miss Arthur’s help.

But perhaps you aren’t writing a triangle. Instead, you’ve got an ensemble cast of characters. Let’s examine the group in the science-fiction film, GALAXY QUEST. The characters play actors who once were on a hit television show and now they survive through residuals and paid appearances at conventions. We have the following basic types:

*The big ego
*The sexy babe
*The jealous neurotic
*The grown-up child
*The stoner
*The clown

All of them, except the clown, have issues with the big ego. Those issues fuel the personal conflict crisscrossing the storyline. Such conflict keeps the story advancing quickly because it either fills points in the main plot that would otherwise sag or it adds complications to the trouble the group is in. Who in the group are allies? Who in the group is the most exasperating to the others? Who nurtures? Who goads? Who whines and complains?

If at least some of the group can serve as foil characters to the others, this can be useful to keep conflict and chemistry going. Foils, as I’m sure you know, are opposites in personality and behavior. Besides the human actors, GALAXY QUEST serves up additional ensemble groups in secondary roles–the alien group and the kids who are devoted fans. The script pulls on these secondary groups as needed to serve as comedic contrasts to the actors.

What you don’t want, in an ensemble cast, is a row of similar types–for example, all shy introverts–who are going to sit still in perfect agreement. BORING!

Other film examples of lively ensemble casts would include STEEL MAGNOLIAS, I REMEMBER MAMA, and TWELVE ANGRY MEN. The latter is focused on twelve jurors locked in a non-air-conditioned room on a hot summer’s day, forced to work together in order to reach a verdict in a murder trial. They’re all quite different and distinctive from each other. Their roles clash terrifically as they attempt to sift through contradictory evidence.

Don’t let these considerations overwhelm you. Create your lead characters–your protagonist and antagonist–first. Build their personalities and check their chemistry of antagonism to be sure it works. Then build their ring of friends or cohorts, one at a time. Minimize the number of characters as much as you can. You’ll find it easier to handle.

Ask yourself, if I were a casting director in a movie, would I hire these characters? Do they have chemistry enough to carry their roles?

If you’re inexperienced at writing, especially long fiction, you may not be able to judge in advance the potential chemistry combinations between your characters. At least, not until you’ve written a big chunk of rough draft. That’s okay. As the characters speak and take action in scenes, they’ll grow more definitive–or some of them will crumble from weak design.

You’ll discover as you go who needs to be reworked. Just keep the sparks flying.

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Hitting the Iceberg

Character design involves an entire plethora of details and construction, including background development. Where many writers run aground is regarding how much background to devise and include.

Hemingway’s famous Iceberg Quote advises using only ten percent of what you know about a character in your story. The other ninety percent should be reserved for your knowledge base alone.

However, it’s easy to crash into that iceberg rule after you’ve worked so hard to round out a character.

How, you may ask, do I know what to use and what to leave out?

The only answer I can provide is, “It depends.”

What kind of story are you writing?

How long is it? A short story or a novel?

How complex a character are you designing?

What story role will this individual play? Protagonist? Antagonist? Sidekick, etc.?

Is background motivation necessary to advance the plot?

John Grisham’s breakout novel, THE FIRM, provides no background on the protagonist Mitch other than a couple of sentences about Mitch’s brother serving prison time. Background isn’t necessary here because the book doesn’t need Mitch’s past. He isn’t motivated by what’s happened to him before the story opens. Instead, the novel focuses on the mystery of what’s really happening in this law firm where Mitch now works.

In contrast, the Dick Francis mystery, ODDS AGAINST, features a protagonist whose past is doled out in bits from start to finish. Sid’s background is important because it feeds his motivation through the ongoing plotline. Francis is careful, however, to avoid info-dumps and never stalls the story advancement to indulge in them.

The two novels demonstrate how wide background material can range.

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Character Background: The Good and the Ugly

What’s good and useful about character background?

It makes you better acquainted with the character you’re designing.  If you know where the character grew up and with what type of family, that automatically gives you a better perspective.  You’ll find it easier to write plausible, consistent character reactions.  For example, you’ll know why Irmentrude freaks out whenever she sees even a photograph of a spider (because her little brother used to put his pet tarantula on her face while she was sleeping), and you can present her adult phobia in your story with compassion and an added dimension.

Mexican blood leg tarantula. Photo from reptilesalive.com

The noir film that made a star of actor Alan Ladd was This Gun for Hire.  He played a stone-hearted, sociopathic assassin who shoots a number of unsavory characters and seems only able to care for stray cats.  But there’s a famous moment in the film when he shares an event from his childhood.  The woman giving him foster care broke his wrist with an iron because he reached for a chocolate bar.  And as he talks about that moment and other examples of mistreatment, his eyes shimmer with tears and we can see in his face that unwanted, abused child.  The audience understands how he’s grown up into a violent, desperate, isolated man thanks to a brutal background.  The film doesn’t condone his adult crimes, but it creates a depth to his character that he wouldn’t otherwise have.

Alan Ladd plays the killer Raven in 1942's THIS GUN FOR HIRE. Photo from Paramount Pictures.

 

 

 

 

 

What’s ugly about character background?

It can become a trap for the unwary writer.  If you aren’t careful, as you write pages and pages of a background dossier you’ll then feel compelled to share all of it with your readers.

Don’t.

Hemingway’s old iceberg theory certainly applies here:  just as only the tip of an iceberg shows above the surface, so should you share maybe 10% (or less) of what you know about your characters with your readers.  Save the rest for your own insight and understanding.

Also, make sure you only devise enough background to help you fully know and understand your characters, especially their motivations.  If you aren’t careful, you can spend too much time on background and never get around to actually creating the story.  Let your plot dictate what their backgrounds will be.  Again, with my Alan Ladd example:  we learn only enough about his past to understand why he grew up to be a killer.  No more than that.

It’s a matter of balance.

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