Stick Figures In White Rooms.
Such a charming image, no? I recently picked up a book that had been one of my favorites when I was a kid in the very long ago. Reread it for ideas, inspiration, and some general research, but one thing struck me as amazingly interesting.
At no point, could I tell you what any of the main characters look like. Height, weight, build, hair color, mannerisms. Nothing at all. The author had simply blasted past all that.
The scenery was the same way. Compelling dialogue, but at no point could I tell you what the walls were made of, or what color, or how the character felt, traversing them.
What we had were stick figures in white rooms, having conversations, fights, etc.
The thing this story lacked is called “Setting.” The seven point plot structure attributed to Dent is that you start with a character, in a setting, who has a problem.
Character is easy enough. So is problem.
What is setting?
It’s the descriptive part of your narrative. What do your characters look like? What does the room look like? What color are the walls?
But more importantly, it is how the character feels about what they see. One of my favorite exercises in setting goes like this: Describe the exact same room from three points of view. Someone who likes what they see; someone who hates what they see; and someone who doesn’t really care.
Done right, that evokes an emotional response. The child walking through the forest having a grand adventure by pretending to be in the Hundred-Acres-Wood is radically different from the teen fleeing a monster in a horror story, and yet they are the same trees. Walking into a magic store to buy new ribbons is going to feel different from buying materials to summon a demon, even if you are the same wizard and she is the same shopkeeper.
Setting, I am reliably informed, is one of those things that separates the new writer (or the not-that-good-writer) from the competent writer, which is what I aspire to be every time I put words on paper. (There are also those people like Stephen King who mind control you with their words, which is why they are so successful. I’m not that good, but I’m working on it.)
For me, one of the ways I convey setting is with fashion. I tend to write a lot of military science fiction. One of the keys to that genre is that everyone is wearing uniforms. Those uniforms will vary, and in the variance you have value: rank, assignment, MOS, etc. And the other side will also be uniformed.
Additionally, I have been teaching myself to sew (middle-aged, middle-class, white male, dork, never learned to operate sewing machines when I was a kid, just how to fix buttons and such with needle and thread) so I have an appreciation for fabric: how it flows, how it shimmers, how it feels on your skin, what message you are trying to convey to the people around you.
Clothing is all about attitude. What a goth girl wears her first day of high school is going to send a very different message than the band geek.
Mental game: What are you wearing, right this second? And why did you choose that particular outfit when you got dresses? And, most importantly, what does THAT say about you as a person?
Me: old tan shorts, basic purple t-shirt. It is not a day I have to face anyone, and am not really planning to leave the house except for the occasional walk around the block.
For work: Nice jeans and a golf shirt. Black tennis shoes. Cleaned up around the beard. That’s me going into an office with a bunch of other nerds to commit software, but not to have to deal with customers or clients.
I’m conveying quiet competence without committing to stupidly-uncomfortable fashion shows for nobody but me. That includes days I wear a kilt (summer and warm, for the most part).
I always chuckle at the assumptions that people bring to my books. Readers will rave about the the action sequences, but bitch about “pages and pages of clothing. Where is the action?” because they read science fiction for explosions.
Based on my sales, those few dozen people represent a significant minority, if however vocal, of my overall readership. They don’t mind stick figures in white rooms, because that’s all they ever read, until they run into Jessica and Moirrey. And boy, does that get sideways in a hurry.
I work really hard not to write women as bimbos, unlike some of the old guard, sexist, dinosaur writers in the process of finally dying off. Where I work, three of the four immediate bosses in the section are female, and we are a software development organization in Seattle. (We might be the only one so female-heavy in the city, but that’s one of the reasons I like working there. I get to see strong-willed, competent women on a daily basis. I haven’t used any of them as characters yet, but that’s because this generation is barely a year with the company at most, and they are just getting settled. Three years ago, four of the top eight execs with the company were female.)
The purpose of that aside is to remind you that there are a LOT of female fans of science fiction these days. They run down a whole different path than many of the male readers. They won’t settle for just getting straight to the explosions and space battles. They actually might want to know who the characters are, what motivates them, where do they want to go?
Shocking, I know. Girls reading science fiction? Yesterday, at the month writers lunch, towards the end, we got onto the topic of how girls can’t write science fiction. Mind you, this was according to the distilled wisdom of a bunch of jackknob assholes, that same generation of writers and publishers who are also happily dying off as we speak.
I was the only male at the table at that point, the other one having departed for the long drive home. So me, Fabulous Publisher Babe (TM), and four other women, three of whom write science fiction. I’m pretty sure Judith Tarr sat bolt upright, down on her ranch in the Southwest, and said “Hey, fuck you,” to the air in her barn, possibly frightening a horse, for no apparent reason she could name. (There have been a lot of people who told her that she WASN’T ALLOWED to write SF over the decades. Happily, she stopped listening.)
So there is an element of rampant sexism in Science Fiction. I won’t overcome it by myself, but I also won’t stand for it. You can ask my friends about getting thumped for saying something out of line.
Modern readers, including a large contingent of females who have graduated from just reading fantasy (because that tends to have way more setting built in, when done right), they demand better writing.
Setting. Opinion. Texture. Color. Place. Hair color. Eye color. Build. Stance. Sneer.
You who are readers are nodding your heads right now, perhaps suddenly realizing why some book you read left you so cold, when it was supposed to be the greatest thing, including sliced bread.
Can any of you tell me how tall that main character was?
So if I hammer on those things repeatedly, there is a reason. Jessica is 5’3. Javier is 5’10. Vo is 6’5. Two of them are confronting hair going gray as they settle into their forties and become middle-aged adults.
Little things. Details. Color.
We call it setting.
Are your favorite authors giving you enough of it?