Six impossible things

Making Stuff Up: Setting to Plot or Characters

Starting with a setting, rather than with a plot or characters, is a lot more common than many non-writers think. This is because “setting” as used by writers encompasses a whole lot more than simply the physical environment. Yes, you will occasionally hear a writer say “I want to write something set in the desert Southwest” or “…in the Amazon rainforest,” but it’s a lot more common to hear “I want to write something set in Ancient Greece” or “…in Heian Japan” or “…in Medieval Europe.”

Setting includes a lot more than the physical environment. Place, time, culture, politics, language, history – all the different facets of the social environment are as important as things like climate and terrain. One could, in fact, break this topic down into a whole series of sub-topics, like “starting with geography” “starting with historical period” “starting with a culture” etc.

Still, the basic questions for all of these are pretty much the same: Who lives here? What are they like? How do they relate to each other? What kinds of problems would arise out of this place and these circumstances? Who would be most affected by those problems? Who has the greatest stake in keeping things the same? Who wants change? Who are the outsiders and misfits, and what are their problems? And most of all, Which people and problems sound interesting to me?

The order in which you look at these questions, and the type of answers you look at first, depends both on which part of the setting you began with and on what sort of writer you are. You can move from setting to plot first, and then develop characters, or from setting to characters, and then develop plot, or sort of bounce around doing a bit of this and a little of that. There isn’t a rule that says you have to start by looking for one or the other first.

If you choose to begin by looking for possible plot points, start by considering what bit of the setting you made up first. For instance, if you know your physical setting is a river delta, you might want to begin by considering various natural disasters as potential plot problems, whereas if you are enthralled by the complex power struggles of the Warring States period in China, you probably want to look to battles and politics first.

You do this not because tornados and floods didn’t happen in Warring States China, or because power politics doesn’t happen around river deltas, but because you want all the pieces of the story to come together smoothly. If your backbrain is full of images of geese taking flight over a river that’s spreading slowly out into the sea, a political plot may not work well, not even the best and most intricate political plot if it calls for your characters to spend most of their time indoors, hiding behind the arras in the throne room.

This doesn’t mean you have to write about floods and fishermen if you are starting with mental pictures of an ocean or a river setting, just that it’s the logical place to start looking when you’re poking around for people and plots. If you don’t come up with anything, well, there are universals like love, war, death, politics, taxes… those things that can and do happen anywhere and everywhere that there are people.

Or you can poke around the setting a bit more, depending on how much of it you have. If you know you want to write about a river delta, work out more about the social aspects of your setting. Do you want a large, developed trade city with plenty of history, or a newly settled village that’s just starting to grow? How can you invent a culture that reflects and builds on the specific things that drew you to this physical setting? If you’re starting from the social environment, make some decisions about the physical setting and historical time period (or equivalent). China has rivers and mountains and plains and desert; sort out where you want to start from.

Once you have some idea of the social environment – the history, politics, social structure, culture, etc. – it’s usually easier to come up with potential characters. If you’re still having trouble, start by listing all of the jobs that the people in your society will have to cover just so everybody has food, clothes, and shelter. Fishermen, farmers, stableboys, hunters, net menders, carpenters, boat builders, cooks, carters, coopers, brewers, sawyers, sailmakers, weavers, spinners, dyers, shoemakers, soapmakers… Then look at types of people who could be present, like dancers, jugglers, candlemakers, jewelers, various levels of nobility. Look at which possibilities you are drawn toward, and make up characters and plot from there.

Again, keep in mind what aspects of the setting you’re having the most fun making up. If you spend a glorious three weeks inventing a complicated system of patronage and training for artists of all types, you should probably look for a dancer or painter to be your main character, rather than a city guard or a fisherman. (Unless the fisherman wants to be a dancer…that could be fun…) And you won’t want a plot that revolves around assassinating the head of state, unless you’re writing John Wilkes Booth and Abraham Lincoln from the viewpoint of one of the other actors at Ford’s Theater.

Whether you think about setting as the physical environment or the social environment, the thing to remember is that people and places are imperfect. It’s never Eden or Utopia. Therefore, there will always be things that some of the people don’t like about any given place or society, even if it is just “all this perfect weather is boring.” And eventually, one of those dissatisfied people will do something to try to become more satisfied, which will have an impact on everybody else. Find those people, and you will have driver-characters who’ll work up into a plot. Find the environmental cracks in the setting, the things that can go wrong, and you will have a list of possible plot-points from which to generate characters.

Next up is putting it all together, which I’m hoping to do in a couple of parts because it’s a little different when you’re doing story development before you start writing versus during or after.

  1. Presumably this is the required approach if you’re writing for an established shared-world collection, or a media tie-in series: the only thing you may know about the story up front is that it has to fit into that particular setting. There may well be existing background material that answers some of the questions; the gaps and undefined elements in that can be a great starting point.

    When I’m doing this for RPGs – which obviously differs a great deal from prose fiction writing, but I think has much of the scaffolding in common – I try to ask myself “is this a story that could only be told here”. Macbeth in space is still Macbeth, and it’s already been told better than I ever could. Human nature is reasonably universal. But a plot which relies for some of its effects on light-speed delays in communication, or on mind-control of a particular sort, is more tightly tied to that specific world, which goes some way to justify the world’s strangenesses.

  2. When I start with a setting (very rare for me–I usually start with characters) I usually find a plot inbuilt. I think that’s because of what you said: certain settings suggest certain problems, or complications, and it usually builds from there.

  3. Hello *waves* I’m new here. Thank you for all the time, effort, and research you put into your books and this blog. Best wishes on your current project.

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