Monthly Archives: July 2015

Setting Ain’t Nothing Without Character

A while back, I was writing a scene set in New York, and it was no good. I’d put in all these little details I’d actually seen in New York myself, and I’d used the internet to double check everything I remembered, and made heavy use of Google Maps… but it still didn’t seem like New York. I couldn’t figure out why.

Then it hit me. New York City isn’t just a collection of details—even carefully-chosen, evocative details. It’s a feeling. And that feeling is different from person to person. It’s a completely different place for my brother (who lives there and loves it) than it is for me (who only visits and is a bit of a country mouse). The same street might be vibrant and exciting to one person, overwhelming and intimidating to another, or full of daily nuisance and utility to a third.

What I needed to capture wasn’t some quintessential, factual, accurate New York. I needed to evoke how New York felt to that particular character at that particular time.

Here’s another example. I like fantasy, and one setting piece you see all the time in fantasy is the Market Scene. We’re going to the market, or riding through the market in a new city, and now we must stop and tell you all the sounds, sights, and smells of the market. There will be people, food odors, and nasty odors. There will be garbage and various exciting things to buy (though we’re actually not going to stop and buy them right now). There will be yelling and maybe a scuffle somewhere.

Far too often, all these markets blend together into one generic ur-market, no matter how lovingly the author describes the exotic spices in the air. And that’s because they’re trying to describe the market from some neutral, external perspective.

Nobody just goes to a market and looks around passively and drinks in the sights, right? If you’re trying to pass through because you don’t know the city well enough to avoid a high-traffic area on your way to the castle, you’re not going to be sniffing the air and admiring the colorful costumes, you’re going to be cussing about the crowds. If you’re scared and running from the authorities, you’re going to see everything in terms of hazard or safety: witnesses, cover, distractions. If you’re a little kid, you’re going to fixate on this one marionette at a toy-seller’s booth and not think about anything else until someone drags you away kicking and screaming.

I’ve often heard the excellent writing advice that you should select details to describe based on what your character would notice, since how they see the world tells us a lot about them. The converse is also true: you can only truly show us a place when you show it through the eyes of a character, with all the emotions and associations that character invests in it.

On Letting Characters Be Smart

Last night I was reading a good book, quite absorbed as it ramped up toward the climax, when certain telltale signs began to appear.

“Aaaand here’s the part where we fail to share crucial information for no good reason,” I thought. And sure enough, there it was.

Now, this was a great book I really enjoyed, and it wasn’t so glaring a failure of motivation that it spoiled things for me. But it got me thinking about all the classic cases of authors making characters do dumb things to drive the plot along: not sharing important information, making bad decisions, trusting people who are obviously evil, not figuring out things that are glaringly obvious to the reader… all writing sins of which I’m not innocent, mind you, and easy traps to fall into.

Of course, characters can and should do dumb things when it makes sense for them to do so. If characters never made mistakes or bad choices, what would we write about? But their errors need to spring from the character’s particular flaws or the forces that drive them—or at least from a plausible moment of confusion, panic, or weakness. Not solely from the author’s desire to push the plot in a certain direction.

The thing is, most of the time The Dumb isn’t even necessary. In the book I was reading last night, the character really didn’t need to hold back the key information to make the plot work. The problems she was facing were big enough that the people she could have told couldn’t have fixed them, and the plot could have played out pretty much the same. There was no reason not to let her be smart.

Some of my favorite books feature characters who are smarter than me about the plot. THE WESTING GAME is one of the most awesome middle grade books of all time, and part of the reason I loved it as a kid and love it now is that Turtle is razor-sharp smart. Sherlock Holmes also regularly figures out things before the reader does, and it certainly never hurt his appeal.

There’s plenty that can go wrong to thwart even a character who’s being smart. By all means, throw obstacles into their paths to keep them from sharing that crucial secret. Put pressures on them that force them to make choices they know they’ll regret. Let their own drives and beliefs blind them to the truth. But when your character is being oblivious or doing something less than brilliant, ask yourself these two questions:

Is this decision coming from the character, or from my plot outline?

What would happen if they did the smart thing instead?

I’ve been surprised at the interesting directions the latter question can take me. Sometimes I can even land my characters in more trouble than they’d find by plunging ahead on the Path of Dumb I’d originally laid out for them.