The Forgotten Character in Story: Your Story World
By Gila Green
Setting is an often overlooked story element for many writers.
I cannot tell you how many short fiction submissions I've received that take place No-where in No-time. When queried the most common answer I receive from writers is, "this story can take place in anywhere USA." Or, "It doesn't matter. They could be in any modern city."
If you've ever sat down to write fiction or non-fiction and used this approach to setting and location it's way past time to stop. This response couldn't be more wrong. There are several key points for you to remember about your story world. Today I will discuss one of them.
Remember this: no one has ever been to your story world except for you.
Consider the world you live in every day. Who inhabits that world? You do. Nobody else. You have a unique perspective on your world. Not sure? Don't think you're very different from anybody else? You're Abby Average, right?
Go to the beach, to a play, or to a restaurant with three other people (they don't even have to be different ages, nationalities and genders, but that would be even better) and ask them to write down a paragraph about their experience the next day. You will see immediately that you did not go to one beach, play, or restaurant, you went to four.
Your teenager might note the hot waiter in the tight shirt, your elderly mother might lament the lack of parking for the disabled, your husband might mention there was no wifi and he couldn't respond to his work messages, and you might have put the inadequate toilet paper and soap at the top of your list. Four worlds. Notice all of these comments are relevant because they all tell us something about the character inhabiting that very particular world.
No one else has ever been to the world of your story but you. Moreover, you yourself discover new places in this world all the time. Every time you think you know this world inside and out, poof! You find another path, nook or cranny. You'd always thought yoga was for granola types until your new boss sponsored a meditation day and snap! You're a convert. The same things happen to your characters and you need to let your readers in for a front row seat.
Now that you've ditched the "anywhere approach" for good, consider your keyboard a highly specialized paint brush. The USA is a vast country teeming with varied climates, wildlife, flora fauna, sights, sounds and smells, not to mention a whole lot of variety in people, diction, local customs and on and on. But your details must be relevant. We do not need to know what every single person in the restaurant is wearing. A few details regarding the waiters (do they wear gloves, uniforms, ripped jeans, aprons, bikinis, roller blades?) will be enough to paint the picture you want.
You must make your story come alive for the reader. The "Anywhere USA" approach means your story is dead on arrival and that's bad news for any writer.
By Gila Green
- Diction. Slang and other everyday words sneak into our vocabularies. If you don’t live and write in the same language, it takes an extra effort to root out unintended foreign words from your work.
- Names. Many writers spend time enhancing their work with thoughtful character names. But when you live in one language and write in another naming story characters can be frustrating. Names from your adopted country often seem awkward in your mother tongue, or worse become words that take the reader out of the story. On the other hand, mother tongue names may appear mundane.
- Setting. If you choose to write about your adopted country, it may appear too exotic or you may worry you lack the background to make the country come alive. How long do you have to live somewhere to feel you have the authority to write about it, especially if the country operates in a language that is not your own? And if you choose to write about your birthplace, what if your notions are outdated? Are you destined to depict your birthplace only in the past?
- Humor. Because humor is cultural, anything you satirize or depict as humorous can throw you off balance. Will a funny everyday experience in one language be understood in the language you use for your writing?
- Layers. There are layers and depth to your work that can only come from the experience of complete ‘otherness.’ True, not everyone will grasp your meaning, but the sense of being the ‘other’ allows you to see both your native culture and adopted culture with a broad lens; a powerful tool for any writer.
What do you think? Are you living in one language and writing in another?