Tag Archives: character development

The Effect Of Setting On Characters

ambulanceMany writers may think the effect of a story setting upon characters is obvious. If the events unfold in a city, a character will likely act in completely different ways than if they unfold in a rural setting.

For example, a woman in her mid-sixties falls and fractures her wrist. What does her husband do? In the city, he most likely calls 9-1-1 if she’s in a great deal of pain, or drives her to a hospital emergency room. But if this happens miles and miles from any medical facility? The husband would likely have to splint the arm himself or try to make contact with the nearest medical person, who might be a midwife, not a doctor.

So yes, we understand that setting affects characters. They act differently in different settings. However, there’s more to setting than the obvious overall affect on a character’s actions. Place and time have particular nuances that can and should influence characters.

For example, the character in a novel, a young man just out of university, is planning to immigrate from France to New York. If this story is contemporary, he may happily take his leave of his family, promising to visit the following year. He may phone them from the airport upon his arrival. He may set up a regular time each week to Skype them. Although he lives in a different country across the Atlantic, he can still maintain close ties with his family.

However, if this same young man is in a story unfolding two hundred years earlier, his decision to leave his home may have a feeling of permanence. He might never see his family again. When he reaches his destination, he may post a letter back home, but it will be weeks before it arrives and weeks more before he can expect an answer. Whatever ties he had with his family will be seriously weaker now.

But there’s more. Writers need to think about what kind of person would leave home knowing he may never return, knowing he is weakening and perhaps breaking ties with his family. The setting dictates a character’s personality and development. A cautious individual or someone particularly satisfied with his situation wouldn’t think of heading off into the unknown.

Even characters with more adventurous spirits or with dissatisfaction in their present circumstances would need a reason to travel so far. What would drive a young Frenchman to take such a bold, dangerous step? Has his father disowned him? Is he escaping a failed love affair? Is he distancing himself from scandal? For example, is our hero driven from his home by a jealous husband for being too forward toward his wife?

Of course, scandal is different today than it would have been two hundred years ago, too. Our contemporary hero would certainly need a different motive for immigrating because it’s hard to imagine that a little flirting, even with a married woman, would reach the level of scandal. Clearly, setting affects a character’s motives.

The contrast between our contemporary and our nineteenth century heroes points to one more effect of setting–a character’s worldview.

PortraitdelouisfrançoisbaronlejeuneWhat would cause a Frenchman in 1813 to leave his homeland rather than fight in the Napoleonic Wars, to come to America which was embroiled in its own war with England? Does he believe in democracy and oppose the tyranny of an emperor who he thinks betrayed his own country’s fight for equality? Or is he fleeing conscription into Napoleon’s army? Undoubtedly attitudes concerning nationalism and toward war and democracy would color a character’s way of looking at the world.

The contemporary character might be more concerned with economic issues created by the recent global recession or with personal opportunities for success. He might be influenced by a fear of terrorism or by attitudes of, or toward, tolerance.

Clearly, settings play an important role in a story, particularly as they affect the characters. Yes, they dictate action, but they also influence character personality and development, motivations, and worldview.

By the way, authors of speculative fiction are not off the hook. True, they create the world in which their characters live, but those worlds must have consistent rules that govern them. Those rules, in turn, whether they involve space travel or magic, act in the same way that the real world time and place rules do.

About world building in speculative fiction, author Orson Scott Card says

The stories you tell, the world you create, will in many ways be dependent on the decisions you make about the rules of magic [or science fiction]. (Excerpt from Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction, p.50)

Whether in contemporary fiction, historical, or speculative, the setting of a story has an effect on characters that goes beyond what they do and reaches why they do it, how they are changed, and how they view where they are.

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Weaving Themes Into Stories

Year_Swallows_Came_Early_coverI’ve written from time to time about incorporating themes into stories, but I realized recently that most of my posts on the subject have been an apologetic–explaining the legitimacy, even the necessity of putting themes into stories intentionally. One of my repeated cries has been the need for authors to weave their theme naturally into the fabric of the story rather than tacking it on as an after thought or neglecting it completely in the belief that what the author holds to be dear is bound to seep through somewhere, somehow.

The natural question that arises, however is, how does a writer go about weaving a theme into the story?

There are several ways that come to mind. One is to use symbols. In the article “Symbolism, Part 5 – Final Thoughts”, I used the debut middle grade novel by Kathryn Fitzmaurice, The Year The Swallows Came Early, as an example of the use of symbols. Throughout candy, particularly chocolate which hides what’s underneath, symbolizes how people appear on the outside, with the candy filling showing the way things are on the inside.

The novel begins with the chapter entitled “Coconut Flakes” and this:

And that our house was like one of those See’s candies with beautiful swirled chocolate on the outside, but sometimes hiding coconut flakes on the inside, all gritty and hard, like undercooked white rice.

It ends with the chapter entitled “Caramel” and this line:

Because even though he’d picked that chocolate by pure chance, it just so happened that when I bit into it, I tasted soft easy-going caramel, and no coconut flakes.

A second way to weave a theme into a story is to show character development. Often times the events of a story have an impact on the protagonist, to the point that she changes in some significant way. The story may not continue on for the reader to see the change played out, but the character should take some action that demonstrates a new outlook or a change in commitment. Whatever has caused the change in the character is the key to the theme.

Poster_-_Gone_With_the_Wind_02One of the saddest stories, I believe, is Gone with the Wind. The main character, Scarlet, lives for years with the delusion that she is in love with a man who married someone else. Through all the pain and suffering of the civil war and the recovery she experienced, doing (and marrying) all she could to stay alive and keep her household together, Scarlet ended up alone because she killed the love of the one person still alive who knew her and had loved her anyway. She woke up to reality too late.

But her character development, her ability to finally see her relationships as they really were, comes through all the more poignantly and leaves an indelible impression on the reader, even as Scarlet repeats her mantra and prepares to return to her family estate, the one love to which she has been faithful.

A third way to build a theme into a story is to pit the worldview of the protagonist with the worldview of the antagonist and show in the end which of those two competing outlooks is the most desirable. In some cases the outlook that wins is clearly the most desirable, but in some stories the one that loses is shown to be the most noble, the most appealing. These stories are infrequent, and yet they exist.

One such was an old movie I saw on TV, I think called Remember the Alamo. In the end, as it happened in real life, all the soldiers defending the Alamo died, but the movie showed their deaths to be noble, even heroic. Consequently, though they lost their lives, their worldview still “won” in that story.

Braveheart is another such movie as is Camelot. In the former, the protagonist is sentenced to death but shouts “Freedom” before his beheading. Those who continue the fight do so in his memory. He lost, but his worldview won. The latter is similar. King Arthur’s round table is broken apart, his desire for a unified England in tatters, but a young boy shows him that the ideal will live on after him. The worldview he fought for, believed in, wins, even though he doesn’t.

Other stories show the triumph of the protagonist over the antagonist which validates his worldview. The Harry Potter series shows this kind of victory. Though for a time all seems lost, in the end, the protagonist makes the last great sacrifice and brings victory. His way of viewing the world wins, validating in the mind of the reader that grasping for power and ruling as a demigod is not the right way to live, while sacrifice and service and friendship and love are stronger in the end.

Symbolism, character development, a winning worldview all serve to embed a theme into a story. You might have other ways. If so, I’d love to hear your ideas.

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How To Develop A Character

Fundamental to any good novel is a good character, but what makes a character “good”? I’ve discussed characters in the past (archived posts on the topic are here). However, I don’t think I’ve thought so much about how a writer creates a character from scratch.

When I first started writing, I had a story in mind, and my characters were almost incidentals. Since then, I’ve learned how flat such a story is. Characters make readers care about the events that are about to happen, even as the events are the testing ground which allows characters to grow.

So which comes first? I believe that’s an immaterial question. A good story must have both a good plot and good characters—the non-flat kind.

To develop these characters, a writer needs to give each something he or she wants and something he or she needs. This latter may not be something the character is aware of consciously. In Jonathan Rogers’s excellent book The Charlatan’s Boy, young orphaned Grady doesn’t go around saying, I need to be loved and accepted, but the reader understands this about him fairly quickly.

The next part of developing a character is to put him on a path to gain what he wants. As the story moves forward, the initial want may change. If the character wants to reach point A, he may discover when he arrives, that now he wants to reach point B. Or, along the way to A he may realize that he only thought he wanted A, but now realizes he really needs B. Consequently, he abandons the quest for A and sets his sights anew for B.

A second important part of character development is to increase the character’s self-awareness. He needs to have strengths and weaknesses, and he should have an increasing understanding of how he needs to use his strengths and how he should work to change his weaknesses.

Third, the character should make progress, both in achieving what he wants and acquiring what he needs. The “want” is generally something outside him, and the need is that internal something that drives him. Yes, getting what he wants and needs can’t come too easily or there really is no story. But to make no progress defeats the character and the reader early on, dyeing the story in hopelessness.

Notice that all these first character development points have little to do with hair style or eye color. Often those are the things writers settle on as the most important when they start putting a character together. Is he tall? Does he like football? Is she a shopper?

Those things are secondary to the wants/needs understanding. If a character like Grady wants to be loved, then how does that affect his choices—his aspirations, but also the way he dresses and what he does with the hours in his day, the type of job he seeks.

Part of understanding these aspects of the character depends on the personality of this individual. Is he a “can do” sort, so he looks at obstacles as challenges, or is he burdened by his wants and needs, fighting to keep his head above water?

Notice that in either instance, the character is fighting. A passive character is not someone readers will connect with easily.

One more important element—a writer needs to think of his character as an individual. What are the quirks that he has that no one else has? Or the gestures, the speech patterns, the thinking style?

Know your character, inside and out. Then put him in any circumstance you wish, and you will know what he will do. Someone as spacey as your character would do something silly when the pressure’s on. Someone shy and retiring would never make such a spectacle of herself. But throughout the story, you test them and grow them and change them so that in the end they do more than even they thought possible. And you know exactly what they thought because you made them just that introspective.

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