Crafting Your Setting - Macro and Micro Intertwine
One of the most rewarding things about writing science-fiction is the way in which you get to create. Not just characters, events and even places, but frequently an entire setting. Allowing the electricity to surge across the web of cortical and sub-cortical networks sprawling throughout the creative parts of our brains is an exhilarating and enriching experience. It gifts us at once tremendous freedom and storytelling inspiration, but it comes at a price. The responsibility lies with us to create something believable and detailed so that the reader does not, after many hours invested in our work, happen upon something misplaced, disjointed or which makes them stop and say, "huh?". Crafting a setting requires, I think, two approaches – macro and micro, and a balance between creation before and creation during the writing process.
MACRO AND MICRO WORKING TOGETHER
I'm not sure it's useful to say that you must think about the whole before the individual, or as I have called it, macro before micro. Sometimes, the individual helps you envisage the whole. Looking at a character might give us some insight into how the wider setting works. It might inspire in us ideas which lead to a greater understanding of our own setting. Alternatively, you might have a solid notion of the wider setting and understanding the individual helps populate that setting with detail and colour. Whichever comes first, they are both inextricably linked and must compliment each other.
The responsibility lies with us to create something believable and detailed so that the reader does not, after many hours invested in our work, happen upon something misplaced, disjointed or which makes them stop and say, "huh?".
When planning the setting for Beyond the Wall, I began with macro. I had an idea for a setting – a time and place, and a milieu which I wanted to explore. Having spent a great deal of time on it, I now have a chronology and history, mapping, planet names, ideology, cultural influences, dramatis personae, technology, crime and law enforcement and so on – but these all came from that starting point. I brainstormed from that vision and asked questions – if X happened, what would it lead to? If Y sought a particular outcome, how would they achieve it and what would they need to sacrifice in order to bring about that outcome? How would others react? What is humanity like in my setting? What is important to them, as compared to the issues the world faces now?
Curiously, that meant I moved quite swiftly to micro. I had characters growing in my head and began to ask questions about those characters and how they fit into the general theme of my setting. That process informed me about what the setting required in order to make it sing. Using that new information, I moved back to macro. Political ideology among the characters I was creating, and how that fit into the wider scheme of my setting. Desires and wants and needs – that staple of any character sketching process – has a macro application as much as it does a micro.
The setting for Beyond the Wall is a dystopia centuries into the future and on other worlds as yet unexplored by man in 2014 – but why is it a dystopia? What makes it a dystopia? What makes living in the setting so unpleasant? Why would any system of government allow a dystopia to exist, given the risks of revolution and the cost in maintaining, usually by force, such a system? How, historically, have equivalent political systems operated? What have been their successes and failures, and how have those manifested (and why)?
What does daily life consist of? How do people exist from day to day? Technology, currency, utilities, crime and punishment, transport, a working life – all are issues to be resolved before a setting has muscles over the skeleton. It might be referred to INFRASTRUCTURE. Then you need the skin – the fine details which make things ultra-real. The way the character's interact with the setting, the changes the setting experiences as the events the characters are players in unfold – all add texture and colour to your creation. Micro and Macro intertwine.
History teaches us about humanity and the way it evolves and history can be a tremendous source of inspiration. For many story reasons, Beyond the Wall mirrors certain elements of the Roman Empire. I have drawn much inspiration from that period, but so have the characters in Beyond the Wall itself. For reasons which the books will explain, a great deal of my setting draws on historical fact. Twisting it, shaping it differently and interpreting is all part of the challenge of creating an epic setting.
TECHNOLOGY, TRANSPORT AND COMMUNICATION
I have put these together because, when taken together, they are the single greatest influences on how humanity has developed. What technology we have access to, how we travel and how we communicate (often dictated by technology), shapes who we are and what we can achieve (and how quickly). Above is an amazing and beautiful image from which literally dozens of stories could spring – it illustrates how some thought to technology and transportation can make your setting glow.
In Beyond the Wall, the setting is three hundred years from 2014, yet the level of technology is, in some places, akin to 19th and 20th Century, possibly even older. Why? Well, humanity escaped from Earth before climate change ravaged the landscape and ended human civilisation as we know it. Some may still be alive down there, but the setting I am creating is many, many light years away and three hundred years on. Manufacturing is that much harder because not all of the resources humanity once had access to have been retained or are available. Wars destroy lives and resources – when both are scarce, the damage a war can do is that much more serious. And the government, the Consulate Magistratus, does not allow everyone access to the level of technology they themselves have – for ideological reasons. Communications are governed by a totally different set of rules – across space and time – and controlled themselves too. So, just because the setting is in the future does not mean that technology must be advanced too. But if it isn't, you need to be able to explain why and in a way which sits neatly with your prose. No info-dumping.
What does daily life consist of? How do people exist from day to day? Technology, currency, utilities, crime and punishment, transport, a working life – all are issues to be resolved before a setting has muscles over the skeleton. It might be referred to INFRASTRUCTURE.
This is such a crucial area, it seems to me, that it deserves a section of its own. We all know what the landscape of the earth looks like, particularly now with digital cameras in almost every phone and video being so easily uploaded to the internet. If I describe snow-capped mountains, we all get that immediately because our personal experience through either images, video or real-life perceptions of our own allow us to. In Beyond the Wall, Hanjang, Jieshou and the Core are places which each have an atmosphere of their own – a symbolic milieu which allows me to foreshadow the events taking place in each, as well as providing setting for the stories unfolding there. They are creations of my own and no place identical to them actually exists. The joy of reading a work of fiction is that we get to imagine and I would not want to take that away from anyone by 'over-creating', but there are certain anchors which are essential for the reader to be transported to the place you have created. It must feel "real". It must have physical laws which operate within its boundaries so we have consistency – unless a lack of consistency is part of the effect, but even then it is 'consistent' in the sense it has no consistency. There should be, in your mind at least, explanations for strange events which are believable. Hanjang has wolves – yet we're three hundred years on from 2014 and in a completely different galaxy. So where did they come from? The risk is always that the reader might think you've made a mistake if you offer no explanation, but you cannot litter your prose with info-dumping. If the rest of your setting makes sense, they will assume there is some reason they will be told about. With the wolves on Hanjang – they are a central strand of the theme for the entire series and it will become perfectly clear why they are there later on. Will the reader wait? Only if I have make them trust me with everything else I do to my setting.
Hanjang has wolves – yet we're three hundred years on from 2014 and in a completely different galaxy. So where did they come from?
Personally, I don't think you necessarily need a map, but the concept of sketching out where everything is makes sense. The last thing you want to do is place a town thirty kilometres from a forest then have your lead walk it in half an hour later in the story. There is a point at which you should stop too – remember, the primary goal is writing, not crafting a setting. The setting underpins your story, it does not become your story. Although a great setting might become as crucial and intriguing as the lead characters.
Settlements are as much a part of landscape as physical and geological features are. Cities tends to grow near natural resources and trade routes develop between cities. Villages and towns develop on those trade routes in order to allow travellers a place to rest and refuel. How does trade take place – currency or bartering? Communities have rules – some are governed by a wider set of norms set down by a higher authority, others runs themselves. If a township somewhere is experiencing some sort of unrest or is in the grip of a dictatorial regime, what is the wider government doing about it? Are the townsfolk revolting, running away, doing something about it? Who enforces the norms which govern a community? How are those officers chosen?
Landscape will also impact on technology, communication and resources. What are the houses built of – stone or wood? Well, you'll need a forest and mountains/quarry nearby then. How are homes heated – is there electricity or do your people use fire, instead? What do they eat? Again, you may not need to craft every detail, but ensure the setting is consistent. If there are no animals, you'll have people on a vegetarian diet. It may only result in a few lines of story, but the setting will be underpinning the way in which your characters have evolved over time – shaping their attitudes and perceptions, so you need to know what's important to them and why.
Consider weather too – it is a crucial feature of how we exist and so much time is spent trying to predict it, plan for it and deal with it that no setting should be without some consideration of weather and how it affects the people and events within it.
POLITICS, IDEOLOGY, RELIGION AND ART
Often ignored when settings are crafted, the finer details of politics/ideology, religion and art will play a huge role in giving your setting texture and making it feel real. In 1984, Orwell made them the central parts of his setting with the physical aspects resonating alongside – as much about symbolism and foreshadowing as providing texture to the setting itself. You need to ask why belief systems arise in the first place? What causes us to have faith in something unknowable and often inexplicable? Again, history will help you understand how belief systems have come and gone in our past (and will again in our future). Organisations, both political and religious, might well have roots in our own – and they will be more believable as a result. Remember too – not everyone within a belief system, political group or organisation of every sort will share the same opinions on everything. Here, the micro and macro marriage is again evident: you could tell the story of a religious group in a wider sense, or you can show it through the actions and events in relation to one of its order. Both have their place, but remember conflict is important too. Human beings (and presumably aliens too) disagree even when their views on one thing are similar.
In Beyond the Wall, religion is outlawed. Art is controlled. Politics exists, at first glance, on only one plane – the governance of the Consulate Magistratus – but on another, there are undercurrents of political games throughout the powerful families in the Core. Underground art exists and, even in the Core, there are those who rail against the regime.
USE YOUR SENSES
What does your setting look like? What does it smell like – remember the smell after it rains, or of flowers in spring? What noises interrupt your character's daily lives – engines, machinery, people talking, animals baying? Taste and touch too – is it hot or cold, and do characters need to react to each in order to survive? Much of this is micro, but there is a macro element too. Characters will have thoughts and opinions, based on their level of knowledge, or both the direct influences on their lives, but also wider influences such as the world which exists beyond their direct circle of experience.
For Beyond the Wall, I have chosen to employ an artist to allow some of the features of the setting I am describing to be visually represented to the reader. It's becoming more and more popular in science-fiction it would seem, especially among Indies, to do this – Hugh Howey did it with Sand, and Michael Bunker has done it with Pennsylvania. I think it adds to the setting and the experience of the books.
Setting is as important as character, and like character you will get to know it more and more as you write and it will develop as you go. Don't tie yourself to a rigid template and allow yourself room to breathe. However, you will need to set out a very great deal before you begin writing otherwise you'll be playing catchup for the rest of your book.