Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net

Characters and Settings: 

The Choices People Make

by
Bonnie Cowgill

2003, Bonnie Cowgill
 

hen considering the elements of fiction, few things are as important as characters and settings.  History revolves around people.  People create and are created from places and periods. Themes, plots, and moods are nothing more than ideas until they're attributed to people and places.  But what happens when you have a theme, a plot, a mood, and no character to inherit them?  Or you have a theme, a plot, a mood, a character, but lack a place to plant the seeds? 

Characters from setting 

What country, time period, culture will showcase your story?  Characters are often either products of their environment or in opposition against it, with degrees of separation wedged in, depending on importance of setting vs. character in the individual story. 

Hardy, enduring personalities can come from environments that teach practicality and steadfast methods, in work and in love.  Shallow, flighty personalities can come from environments that make few demands and don't instill strong values from the outset.   

Let's play pretend.  If writers take their settings and pretend they grew up in their chosen environments, we can begin to extrapolate from values and surroundings to build a character who is a product of his environment.   

A man who grew up in the American south during the depression has learned the value of money, so deeply that he knows the pain of being unable to feed his family.  He's a hard working man, but he finds himself subject to periods of inactivity later in life.  Maybe he's been laid off from his company, and having lived through the depression he knows the consequences of not having an income.  

If he knows the consequences, and they affect him, it probably means he's a caring father.  He worries about the survival of his family because he hasn't been able to find a job.  His wife understands, or she doesn't understand, and that shapes his personality too.  If she understands, he may be the sort of man who feels comfortable talking to his wife in bed at night about his feelings of failure and uselessness.  Maybe he hides that from his kids because he doesn't want to scare them, which makes him outwardly seem a stoic and withdrawn man, but in the dark before sleep he finds succor in his wife's confidence and understanding arms.  He hides it from the neighbors because his troubles are none of their business.  He remains strong because someone knows what he's going through, and his wife promises him that life has its ups and downs, and up will come again. 

Maybe the story calls for a man who appears not care about his family.  He finds himself without a job, and instead of getting out of bed day after day to comb the classified section of the newspaper, he crawls back under the covers.  He tries to pretend that the freezer isn't empty, and that his kids aren't going to school in clothes that weren't washed because milk was more important than laundry detergent that week. 

He sinks into depression; he resents his children because worrying about their care and well-being makes him feel like less of a man every time he has to decide that the kids can't have new shoes or ice cream Friday night.  He starts to drink because he has to get out of the house or he'll explode, and his buddy next door offered to buy.  The first night out at the bar was the first time in months that he relaxed and forgot about the responsibilities waiting for him at home.  He isn't a bad guy, our unemployed father on the fast track to alcoholism.  He's a man who has tasted failure and found escape from his faults in the bottom of a bottle. 

Setting from Characters 

Some stories start with the idea of a choice to be made.  What kind of person might find herself faced with this choice the story hinges upon?  In what environment would this choice logically exist? 

Let's pretend again, this time that we have a story idea.  Will the student tell her professor about the other student who cheated, or will she keep her mouth shut? If outing the other student is the choice necessary to tell the story, what kind of a person would rat out a fellow student? 

Is she a character with honor, or a character with a competitive streak?  She might blow the whistle if cheating is something so deeply wrong to her that she can't do anything but tell the truth.  What kind of environment would inspire such honor?  An Ivy League school?  

Maybe she's not a student, but a businesswoman, or a mother, or a teacher, and she witnesses a shady deal, an incident of child abuse, from another parent or another teacher.  Is she living in an environment where honor may cost her safety?  

What if Eliza Carroll is a student who points out a cheater? Why did she do it?  Is she a competitive woman in a school that grades on a curve? Did the other student really cheat, or does Eliza need to eliminate a step in the competition ladder to save her own butt when the semester marks come out? 

Let's decide that Eliza Carroll is a woman who chose to keep her silence after witnessing her brother beating his child.  She kept her mouth shut because she lives in a culture or a region that has laws against child abuse so stringent that talking to the authorities will mean her beloved sister-in-law could lose her child, or where her beloved brother could go to jail. Besides, Eliza's brother isn't normally like that.  Maybe he had a high-stress day and lost control once.

Where could Eliza live, where could her story take place?   

In the first scenario if Eliza reports the cheater she could leverage herself into the top spot.  If she's discovered to be a liar she could lose everything.  If someone discovers she played the role of tattletale, the cheating students friends could make her life miserable. 

In the second scenario, if she reports her brother he could lose his child, his job, and his life to a judicial system that acts on black and white instead of shades of gray.  She could lose contact with her nieces and nephews, and she could lose the trust of her sister-in-law. Maybe her brother's downfall would destroy her parents. 

She could be a woman living in the high-stress 21st century, with the pressures of a competitive business world, who knows that sometimes good people do bad things, and sometimes one bad thing can ruin a person's entire life. It could be a world where one warm body might be the difference between personal success or failure, a world of every man for himself.  It could even be a world, or a culture, where people value their parents and strive to ensure their parents feel they lived a comfortable life, and die knowing they raised good children. 

What other locations, cultures, time periods could reflect that?  Could such a culture be created?  An entire society can be built off something as small as one character and her choice to hide or reveal something.   

Choices 

    • What choices make a man?

    • How does environment affect the choice a man makes?

    • What kind of society evolves from the choice of honor or deception, of war or peace?

    • The choice to love or hate, to fight or hide, to act or look the other way?

Characters can be products of their environment, but they're also products of choice. Take a setting, pick a situation and pose a choice to even a ghost of a character idea, and the man will make himself.  Conversely, the choice a character makes could be the foundation of a city, a culture, or an entire world. The Civil War and World War II exploded from the choices and ideals of one man in each situation, creating a society where ethnicity and issues of faith have built, and continue to build, many facets of politics and culture.