Saturday, June 1, 2019

2019 - June - World Building - Governments, Caste Systems

This is Part 6 of a 12-part series dealing with Story Settings ◆ © 2019 All Rights Reserved - Catherine E. McLean /

Good government is one of the most important factors in economic growth 
and social well-being.
—Joe Lonsdale 

In the overall world-view of a story's setting, there is some type of law-and-order system, a governing body or governing individual, that affects the protagonist and other characters in a story. The governance will have a psychological, social, and political influence that will be reflected in the setting and other aspects of a story. 

Yes, we're talking about a "government."

But what exactly is government? It is defined as "social relations involving intrigue to gain authority or power." 

Types of governments and governing bodies include utopian, dystopian, capitalism, dictatorship, communism, fascism, racism, theocracy, totalitarianism, militarism, plutocracy, and more.

Caste systems run the gamut from family units, to warrior classes (like Samurai) to hunter-gatherer tribes to pharaohs and kings, princes and emperors, alien (extraterrestrial) and magical.

In creating a story world, a lot of thought and research may go into the society the story's characters must function in. Yet, no matter how much research a writer does or how much pre-writing is done about a governing body of that story world, the reader won't need but a tenth of it. After all, the reader wants a story, not a historic tome. 

A writer should strive to present the effects, both positive and negative, of a society's laws, norms, phobias, morals, etc. while the story moves along. The trick is to do it without resorting to an information dump. 

The most effective way to get the necessary elements on the page will be through one specific person, and often one of the high-ranking minions of the government end up being the antagonist. For example, a king or the chief of a warring tribe out to gain territory or riches. But it could also be a bureau chief of a government body (like the CIA) or some rich CEO. 

By exercising all the clout and power at their disposal, such antagonists become an enemy to the protagonist. And that, of course, forces the protagonist to either go along or go against the reining presence.

The conflict between the antagonist and the protagonist helps the reader better experience the story on a more personal and emotional level. For example, the IRS stops being initials for a government bureau and a faceless but oh-so-powerful entity when one zealous agent (who has a name, an agenda, and a goal) deliberately targets the protagonist. That causes considerable turmoil for the protagonist, forcing them to take the challenge, persevere, and change the status quo. 

In a war or great battle of militaries, it's not the entire war that unfolds, but one person's role in that war. That's because war is too large a scale, and the story isn't about the war itself (no matter how interesting the aspects of that war are). A wise writer will write about a small segment of that war from a specific Point of View and Viewpoint—usually that of the protagonist. 

Whether it's medieval fight using swords or a modern war fought with drones, it's best to limit the field of action to a specific battle site setting. For example, it's not Platoon Bravo in Sector 4, it's Private Brown, terrified, feeling the impact of the noise of bullets and grenades, the cumbersomeness of his gear, the weight of his weapon, who is slogging up a hill to take out an enemy fortification and seeing his comrades fall. It's the war (and the character's inner battle) up close and personal for the reader.

Again, a story's setting is impacted by a particular ruling government body or a caste or tribal system, which in turn affects or influences the primary story characters' words, thoughts, and deeds. 

As always, add only what is absolutely necessary for verisimilitude to keep the reader engaged.

Next month World Building continues with -  July 2019 - Science or Magic?  Fantasy or Reality?
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Wednesday, May 1, 2019

2019 May - World Building - Religion and Belief Systems

By Starfunker226 - Karya sendiri, CC BY-SA 3.0
This is Part 5 of a 12-part series dealing with Story Settings 
◆ © 2019 All Rights Reserved

If you want to start an argument, mention politics or religion. I hope to avoid unrest here with this brief look at setting and it's religious aspects.

In April's post, I touched on world building's settings that included society. Well, part of any society may well include a belief or religious aspect.

If you delve into the history of religion, you'll discover there is a time line involved of what happened before written language was used to record religious texts and beliefs. Writing on clay and parchment, then printing presses, led to standardizing religious texts and making it far easier than the memorization of prayers and divine rules. 

For instance, the Bible involves the collecting of multiple oral texts handed down over the centuries. Other ancient texts include the Quran and The Dead Sea Scrolls. The Pyramid Texts from ancient Egypt are the oldest known religious texts in the world, dating to between 2400-2300 BCE.

But how does such knowledge play into the setting of a story? In three ways— 

1) Through the society which utilizes some form of religion to set laws and determine right and wrong—and the punishment thereof

2) Through the Major Story Characters who believe in someone or something religious 

3) Through wars (attributed to Divine Right, Holy Crusades, etc.) and be those wars fought one-on-one or by military powers, the result is to gain territory, wealth, expand populations, and so on. Wars have been fought by kings, sects, castes, tribes, and even CEO's of major corporations.

Even if the religion is not of paramount concern to your story or directly detailed or expressed in the story, there may be religious themes running through the story because of allegory (a moral tale) or symbolism. For example the theme of good winning over evil or that crime never pays. 

Your story might have a creation myth, or other myths. Such themes show up often in fantasy fiction, literature, film, and television.

Religions vary in practices and tenets, yet, many religions share the same or similar goals (like peace). As I've mentioned in past posts, you-the-writer may need to know a great deal about your story world—and religion or religious beliefs are only one aspect—but the reader will only need to know why religion motivates or affects the Major Story Characters.

Next Month — June — Governments, caste systems

SPECIAL NOTE: I need your help. I recently learned my Facebook page was not an author's page and have created one — I would sincerely appreciate you taking a minute to stop by and "love" or "like" the page or some of the content so this site can be found by the Internet-bots that glean content from web pages. Many thanks!


Monday, April 1, 2019

April 2019 — World Building - Society Norms

This is Part 4 of a 12-part series dealing with Story Settings 
◆ © 2019 All Rights Reserved

World Building  Society Norms

Whether the setting is a starscape world or a medieval or primitive one, whatever is in the world's setting must suit the world not distort the world and make it seem like something unbelievable.

A story world may be different from reality. That world might ghosts, gods, myths, dinosaur theme parks, the supernatural, wizardry, the metaphysical and surreal, the oneiric (suggesting dreams), or the unlikely. A story world might be a cosmos of a stage for a universe or star system. A story world might be hidden in another dimension or beneath the earth above it. However, the narrating character and all the characters who inhabit the story stage will find nothing surprising or unusual or odd in that world because they were born into it. They will not stop to explain things.

Let me say again — The narrating character lives in their story world on a daily, hourly, minute-by-minute, second-by-second basis and have done so for their entire lifetime. Where they live is "ordinary" to them. So, think about their "everyday" life and make sure nothing counters the facts of that character's existence or the existence of their world.

Never forget that readers are logical people. To get them to suspend their disbelief and go along with your story world and its inhabitants is never easy.

So logically, when world building, everything begins with a setting. A story's setting is the story's environment, its physical environment. That setting is a stage on which the story is enacted. 

Although you as the writer need to know the big picture of the planet or universe or realm or country where your story is set, the reader needs only a fraction of that data because your story will be focused on a particular place on that world or in that universe for a scene.

Nonetheless, you'll likely need a notebook or file folder with all sorts of details of flora and fauna, sketches and maps of the planet's terrain (or that planet's proximity to other heavenly bodies), and data—real facts and extrapolations of facts that will pertain to science, industry, agriculture, and technology. 

Such records help you avoid mistakes. You can reuse the information for other stories set in that same universe. Thus you maintain a logical order of time and history.  

In keeping with the world, there will be layers ranging from the simple to the highly complex. Here are questions to ask and think about for those layers (these are in no particular order):

What is the landscape—the actual, physical terrain?

What type of society developed and how? 

What in the past now affects the present or will impact the future? 

Are there any ethnic groups? 

What religions evolved and now hold sway over society? (More on this in May's post.)

What wars have been fought or what affect did past wars have on society now? 

What are or have been the priorities of society when it comes to the safety of its people? 

Are there laws to enforce obedience? Govern magic? Govern trade? Govern travel? Are there penalties for going against the reining society or government or deviating from a status quo? 

Is there justice for one and all or justice at any cost?

As to a new war, is it to be avoided? Is it peace at any cost?

What level of dissension is tolerated?

Think about the infrastructure of the society. Think about food sources, shelter, and clothing. What do the people eat? What do they wear? What's considered valuable or a luxury item? What happens to the garbage and bodily wastes? What about medicine and health care practices?

What's the mode of transportation being used, being developed? 

What is the economy based on? What type of money or barter is the norm? Who holds the money and why? What dominates the marketplace (Agriculture? Technology? Magic? Guilds? The Military?)

What is the technological advances that have shaped the society or the world? 

What are the politics? Do dictators rule? Is it a democracy? Who sways the masses? Is free speech and news controlled?

In this world, what will affect the characters the most? (Think about Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.)

Remember a world is never static.  Civilizations rise and fall. It's survival of the fittest. Greed and dominance over others drives change — things are always changing.

But remember, people hate change. What is it about the world in which your Protagonist lives that they love and hate? Will your Protagonist defy the value system of his or her society or government? If not, why not? If so, why?

Bear in mind that story worlds which capture reader's hearts are ones where details— specific details— make the world seem alive and very real. Present the specific details through the eyes of ones who live in that world—your Major Story Characters—and readers will be drawn into the story.

Continue to write well, tell a story well, and strive for a strong sense of place when you develop all your world and scene settings so the society is believable.

Next Month:  Part 5  - MayReligion and Belief Systems

SPECIAL NOTE: I have recently learned that my Facebook page was not an author's page (long story) and so I've spent the past couple of weeks setting up my Facebook Author Page—  — I would very much appreciate it if you would stop by and "love" or "like" some of the content so this site can be found by the autobots that glean content from web pages. I sincerely thank you for  your help. 


Friday, March 1, 2019

2019 - March — The Protagonist's POV-Viewpoint of Their World

Part 3 of a 12-part series dealing with Story Settings 
◆ © 2019 All Rights Reserved  

There is a kind of belief among my students that things that are true are interesting. But most things that are true are not interesting. Four pages describing how I got up and brushed my teeth in the morning would kill you. - Alistair MacLeod

As a writer, your job when opening a story is to hook and then immerse your reader into the story world. So, it's important to understand that when a reader reads a story, they should hear the voice of The Story's Narrator.

It doesn't matter if the Narrating Voice is that of the author, an omniscient God On High, the Fly-on-the-Wall, a Storyteller, or one of the primary characters (Protagonist, Antagonist, or Romantic Lead, etc.). What matters is that the voice be highly opinionated and have a distinct diction, vocabulary, and syntax and be different from every other character in the story.

It is especially important when a character narrates that their voice reflects their POV (Point of View) and Viewpoint, which is their unique personality and biases in how they view the situation (even the setting details) thus heightening, reinforcing, or even changing how they feel emotionally about what's going on.

To achieve the best narrative, a writer uses fiction techniques of personification, metaphors, similes, and pathetic fallacy. (Pathetic fallacy is the assigning of human feelings and responses to non-living things or animals, even the weather.)

Of course, while witnessing or perceiving his or her environment, the scene, or the situation, The Story's Narrator will be judgmental, open- or closed-minded, ethical or unethical, biased, perhaps bigoted, and show their personal prejudices.

So, how does this affect setting? Answer: It's in the details.

You see, that POV-Viewpoint Story Narrator should not catalog a room's layout from left to right or right to left, or even stop to give an information dump about the setting. Instead, some sensory perception will attract the immediate attention of the narrator and that item is called the "dominant impression" of a room, landscape, or whatever the setting happens to be.  

Topping the list of attention factors for a dominant impression is light. 

Lighting has to do with what can be seen or what cannot be seen. So, what is the setting's lighting like? Brilliant, blinding sunlight that forces the heroine to shade her eyes? Or is it the darkness or shadows that hides a mouse, a person, an object, a vampire, a stalker, etc.?

Think of lighting as the difference between walking into Notre Dame Cathedral and walking into your local mall. Both are enormous buildings, but the way the light and sounds echo are very different and affect how you and your reader feels emotionally (happy, sad, frustrated, angry, etc.). 

Next on the list of sensory impressions that dominate is smell. What does the narrator immediately smell? Is it sweet, tangy, sour, pleasant, or foul? Why that particular smell over other smells in the setting? 

Take for example the Protagonist entering an old house. The first thing that strikes him is the scent of lemon furniture polish coming from an antique Queen Anne sideboard. The smell draws up warm memories of his grandmother's home and her lemon-scented furniture. He has a good feeling about being in that house and will carry that good feeling into his meeting with the person he came to see.

But say the Protagonist enters his brother-in-law's garage and inhales fumes from the riding lawn mower that's idling. Instead of standing and cataloging what else is in the garage, the Protagonist mutters something about his brother being inept and heads for the machine to turn it off. En route, he must step over a haphazardly coiled, mud-streaked water hose and trip, smack his shin on the lawn tractor's torque bar-hitch, then cuss, and perhaps dance a little jig to sidestep an open, three-tiered, tool box where tools are scattered about on the floor. 

Now you have a character in motion, in action, in an interesting setting, and doing something important. And that character has a goal, which is to get to the machine to turn it off because it's a safety hazard.

Note that only a few items were used to give the impression of a cluttered garage. The scenario by the POV-Viewpoint narrator has been chronological, moment-by-moment, and in a cause-and-effect sequence. This garage setting also has been presented in a far more interesting way than from left to right and right to left.

Better yet, and based on what has been revealed (shown), the reader makes a judgement about the brother-in-law's character— i.e., because he's careless about leaving the lawn-mower running, what else will he be careless about and what danger will such behavior put the Protagonist in?

Next might be sound. What is the exact sound? Is it the creak of floorboards or the crack of frozen wood decking being walked on? Is it the splash of a dog through a puddle of water? Or is it the sound of silence that either reassures or terrifies?

Next is taste. Using similes and metaphors helps the reader "taste" the poison, or blood, or salty-sea air, and can help distinguish between liquors like whisky and a margarita. The idea is to help the reader experience the taste, which brings the props in a setting to life for the reader.

As to touch? It can as light as cobwebs or the sting of a viper. It could also be the blast of an inferno's heat or a blizzard's wind-whipped, pelting snow. So, what does the POV-Viewpoint narrator feel or how do they react?

As you can see, sensory perceptions help define a setting, but the real impact comes from the reaction of The Story's Narrator. That's why it's important to let the narrator notice only dominant setting details that are important to the on-going action and not stop the story's forward movement to dump in details.

Equally important is that any dominant detail used will cause a reaction, a memory, or evoke an opinion from the narrator. That, in turn, affects the reader or guides the reader in drawing the conclusion the writer intended. 

So, to create mood and tone and to breathe more life into the setting and story, show through the POV-Viewpoint narrator. Reveal more, tell less, and blend setting details with the action.


Next Month   April — World Building, Society Norms


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Friday, February 1, 2019

2019 - February - Setting Tropes

This is Part 2 of a 12-part series dealing with Story Settings
Catherine E. McLean ◆ © 2019 All Rights Reserved

Setting is the bedrock of your story. 
If you choose a real-world backdrop, 
be certain you get your facts straight. 
— Lynn Flewelling

Be it contemporary, historical, magical, science fiction, or fantasy, the setting details of a story must suit the world not distort the world. 

Nor should those details be unbelievable to the reader.

When a new writer decides to play God-of-Creation, what they don't realize is what they've created likely has been done before, often many times, even to the point of being a trope.

What is a trope? It's a common or overused theme or device that has become a cliche. 

Not all tropes are bad because in some genres there are standard tropes that readers like and which never seem to bore a reader or go out of style. To use an old cliche, it's better to look before you leap by doing some research, or google a search, to see if your story idea and setting premise falls into a good or not so good story or setting trope.

You could start with some TV and movie tropes at the website below. Then ask yourself— Does my story's setting or premise fall into one of the tropes? If it does, what can I do to revitalize the trope, make it different, interesting, or give it a wow factor?

When it comes to revitalizing a story or setting trope, there are two basic ways to handle it:

1) Change the trope in a new and fresh way. Of course, you first must know what components of your setting will tip readers off to it being a worthwhile trope, something they're familiar with. Then hone in on what does the NOT EXPECT? Knowing the reader's expectations, you can change that expectation and thus keep the reader's attention.

Of course, in the process, you may also find a better direction for a plot point to take. For example, the legend of King Arthur. You would think this legend would have been done to death, but no, there is currently a new twist to the tale with the movie The Kid Who Would Be King. A new setting (modern world) and an old setting (medieval) combination. 

2) Switching Fantasy for Reality or vice versa. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. So, what if your fantastical setting premise were not a figment of the imagination but real? That it actually exists? Can it change or complicate things? Hopefully it complicates things, adds a freshness that wows a jaded reader, editor, or agent.

Although the above methods sound simple enough, they are not easy to execute. 

There are also other aspects of setting tropes. For example when a new writer ignores their story's world or setting or treats the setting as something static, a mere backdrop done with a huge watercolor brush. The reader just gets a foggy-vague look at the setting instead of clear imagery. Which means the reader is not anchored sufficiently in the world.

A good example of ignoring a setting is in dialogue where "heads talk." That is, two characters are in conversation and nothing else is going on—no setting props are in use or being handled, no wind, weather, smells, sounds, etc. that add realism and validity to the narrative. By the way, readers consider Heads Talking as boring stuff (and it is always wise to avoid boring a reader).

Another type of "boring stuff" goes to the other extreme—The Information Dump. This is where the writer dumps in information that they found fascinating when they discovered it during their research of a geographic area, its topography, climate, soil, vegetation, and fauna. So the writer shares their zeal by expounding for paragraphs and paragraphs, describing ad infinitum.

In reality, the reader wants to skip over all that text to get to the good stuff of action and drama. [Refer to last month's post and The Story Iceberg.]

The best way to avoid a genre trope is to read 100 or more books in the genre you want to write in. Not only will you avoid plot tropes but you'll also become a wiser writer by learning how other authors handled world-building, landscapes, and props.

********** March's Topic — The Protagonist POV-Viewpoint of Their World

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