Creating the Fictional World


Creating the Fictional World

In the last post, we discussed how to do a backstory but there is another technique which can help expand the realism and fascination of the continuous dream you’re crafting.  I call it creating the fictional world (CFW).

What is creating the fictional world?

With every story, you place your characters not only in a plot but also a setting (or world).  The world may be another planet, another time period, or the house down the street. Doesn’t matter.  Just as you do backstory to develop your characters, you can do CFW to leverage your setting/world to deepen the impact of your story.

Backstory and CFW have many similarities but CFW is different enough to warrant separate treatment. Most importantly, CFW is not description. Description of your world has its place, of course, but CFW is more focused on how your fictional world influences your characters’ thoughts and actions.

How to do it

As with backstory, this technique works best somewhere in the middle of writing your story or, at very least, when you have a good sense of your plot and characters. Doing it beforehand can lead to a stilted feel as you try to shoehorn them into your world.

To consciously explore the world you’re creating, you can ask yourself:

What is distinctive about my fictional world? An answer of ‘nothing’ is not the right one. A completely generic setting means you’re losing an opportunity to enrich your narrative. If you’re having trouble with this, think back to when you first conceived the story. Why did you pick the setting to begin with?

What aspects of your world might intrigue the reader? Pick two or three of the most prominent.

How does my distinctive world affect the characters’ thoughts and actions? Are there morals, customs, values, unspoken expectations and even external events of your setting which can and should influence your protagonist?

An example

Let’s use my novel, Kimono Spring, to work through the technique.

What is distinctive about my fictional world? It happens in the 50s and is seen through the eyes of a child.

What aspects of your world might intrigue the reader? 1950s, Japanese-Canadian, seven year old girl.

How does my distinctive world affect the characters’ thoughts and actions?

  • My protagonist (the little girl) observes but doesn’t comprehend what is going on in the adult world. The reader understands more than the little girl. Possible scene: parents fight over discipline. Reader realizes the marriage is in trouble but little girl is just relieved that she won’t be punished.
  • Caught between two cultures when post-war hate of Japanese still strong. Possible scenes: the family experiences prejudice at work, shopping, etc.
  • The 50s’ pressure to present a perfect picture to the world. Possible scene: Mother trying to deny Japanese heritage to conform to 50s’ ideal.

Don’t go crazy about this

You can easily see that this could get out of hand. Don’t work this exercise with every item of your world.  But try it for a few distinctive aspects. The huge upside in this approach is that it often gives you ideas of scenes to write.

A fully realized world will help you create a fully realized novel.

How to Create a Backstory


How to Create a Backstory

In the last post, I covered why you might want a backstory and an abbreviated example. In this post, I’ll discuss how to create one. But first, I think I will cover:

Why/when to create a backstory

When you’re stuck. You envisioned the plot going one way and then find the planned twist won’t work.

When you have written yourself into a corner. Your protagonist has to be hard-hearted for this scene but you’ve already established her as kind and generous.

When your story feels flat/boring/ any other adjective which strikes fear in a writer’s heart. Don’t believe this too quickly. As I talk about in Everything I Write is Junk!, this may be just destructive self-talk we all occasionally fall prey to.

All these reasons assume you’re already writing the story. Backstory can be just what you need once you’ve gotten the shape of the piece.  It’s the pause to take stock and hopefully re-energize.

It might be tempting to do a backstory before even starting the writing—sort of warming yourself to the character—but by and large, I’d avoid it. A backstory before writing comes dangerously close to a plot outline which I don’t think is helpful to your process.

Write, write, write

Put aside a period of time for this. You can’t usually do this in fits and starts. You can always come back once you’ve broken the back of the issue.

If it feels right to start with the definition of backstory and write the history, goals, dreams, and nightmares of your character by all means, go ahead. But I tend to do a backstory only when a problem from the section above comes up.

Your backstory will be unique but here are some general questions you can ask yourself.

What’s the problem? Don’t be brief. Do a detailed exploration of the problem up to and including rants, frustrations, and emotions (yours, not the character’s).

Why do you think this has happened? An unacceptable answer: because I’m a crummy writer. First off, it’s probably not true and secondly, it lets you off the hook for doing some hard thinking. Instead, pose questions like ‘Have I focused too much on the secondary characters?’ OR ‘Is the protagonist more acted upon (i.e. passive) than acting?’ OR ‘Are you trying to cover too much (since the cooling of the earth) or too little (not enough meat for a full story).’ Etc.

In a perfect world, how would the character/story turn out? Not necessarily just the ending, but also the feel, intent, theme of the piece.

To attain the perfect world, what writing needs to be created, revised, or dropped? Identify the scenes that are lacking in some way.

Is mastery of craft or failure of imagination standing in your way? If you don’t know how to achieve the desired effect technically, get writing coaching or tutoring. If your creativity seems to be on strike, take a stretch, a walk, a shower or a nap. Get away from the piece for a few minutes or if you must, a few days. If none of that works, toss the problem around with your writing group or a close friend.

Isn’t this a lot of work?


But what are your options? If you continue to slog along, convinced that you are writing junk, you might well talk yourself into stopping.

It does take time, so don’t backstory every problem you face. Pick the big one and work it through. That’s frequently enough to energize you and the story.

 The big bonus of backstory is that it often provides fodder for new scenes. If the heroine is boring, thinking through how to deal with this can prompt ideas for exciting ways to address this.

There is one aspect of backstory which I think is a bit different. Next post.

Creating the Continuous Dream and Backstory


Creating the Continuous Dream and Backstory

As I have mentioned in other posts, the job of writers is to create what John Gardner called the continuous dream—that is, a story the reader can immerse herself in and live in the world of your fiction. The more you do this, the more your reader finds the story both credible and compelling. Similarly, you need to avoid breaking the dream—that is, momentarily pulling your reader out of the story to wonder something like would Joe really do that? Or worse, abandoning your piece altogether because it didn’t grab him. To keep the continuous dream going, you want to create characters which are both fully realized (i.e. act like real people) and powerfully transmit your message. One way to support that is to write a backstory.

What is backstory?

Backstory is the writer’s exploration of a character’s motives, history, goals, dreams, nightmares and generally, how the character fits into your fictional world. The character is usually your main protagonist but can be others.

Backstory differs from the story you’re writing in that its intent is to inform you, not the reader. It helps you make decisions about where to take your narrative and so may never appear in the actual story.

An example

In my novel, The Honest One, my main character (David) is a hard-driving, ambitious young man who does whatever it takes to succeed. He steals an idea from a colleague to garner senior management’s attention.

At one point, I wasn’t sure where to go next for David to be a fully realized character. The following is a very abbreviated version of what I wrote as I was working through.

Who is David?

He knows he should not steal but does it anyway.

How interesting. Why?

Because he wants to succeed at any cost.

Why is he so driven?

His father Gord tells the truth all the time and has been sidelined and ostracized at work as a result. David knows that truth doesn’t lead to success.

But this, coupled with the ambition, creates an unsympathetic character. Do I want to make David more sympathetic? But then the whole point of the character is lost. I want the reader to be routing for him while recognizing the deviousness. How do I square this circle?

I think the reader would continue reading if David was a compelling character—that is, you can’t stop reading even though he is somewhat unsavory. How do I do that? Would it be enough to see his inner guilt? Or that he has other positive and sympathetic traits? Or something else. But what?

Would it work to have a personal life which isn’t so driven? Does he compartmentalize work and personal life so he can do things at work he could not justify in his non-work life?

As I said, this is an extremely condensed version of what I wrote. In the full version, I would have come up with some possible solutions to my questions and then written some experimental scenes to see if could achieve the effect I wanted. In any case, I hope the example above illustrates that you can use writing about the character to help you work out where you want to go even if the backstory itself never makes it into the novel.

Next post: how to do a backstory.

Prologues in Fiction


Prologues in Fiction

Prologues are tricky things in fiction and operate quite differently from their role in non-fiction. In non-fiction, they often let you know what’s coming. On the lines of tell them what you’re going to tell them; tell them; and then tell them what you’ve told them. And in non-fiction that often works as the focus is on facts and information. But fiction is about emotion and the unseen.

Non-fiction approach to fiction

I once reviewed a would-be novel using a non-fiction approach. I recreate sort of what it read like:

Prologue: Jason is deeply concerned about the upcoming battle with his brother. He knows that all their history will come to bear and it wouldn’t be just about dividing up Mom’s furniture. It is going to be a knock-down, drag-out.

Story: Jason and his brother fight about who gets what in their mother’s house. Jason wants the blue bowl but so does his brother. His brother accuses him of always trying to grab the best. They fight endlessly.

Last chapter:  Jason is alone in the house. He puts his head in his hands. Just as he feared, things got out of hand.

In short, Jason feared it was going to wrong, it went wrong, and he reflected on the wrongness. I.e. tell ‘em what’s gonna happen, write what happens, and tell ‘em what happened.

Instead of prologues

Now, truthfully, if you wanted to use a prologue as I set out in the example, I suppose you could do it if it were short enough—a fleeting thought as Jason enters the house, for example. But then of course, that’s not a prologue.

Generally, I think you need to ask yourself why you need prologues at all.

I can think of some reasons which I then will go on to brilliantly refute.

I want to give readers the back story.

Why? Why do they need to know what happened before the story starts? How come you don’t start with this back story stuff as the beginning of the plot if it’s so important? Back story is usually most useful at the point readers need it to inform the story. Use a flashback or other device to impart the important bit of history rather than piling it all up front.

 I want to let them know how to approach the story

Doesn’t this sound suspiciously like telling the reader what conclusions they should come to or feelings they should have while reading? As I’ve mentioned, you heighten the reader’s pleasure when you Let the Reader Participate in the Story by allowing her to come to her own decisions. If deep down, this is the reason, for your prologue, I’d dump it completely. Trust that you can get the message across in the story and trust your readers to find it.

I can’t find another place to stick this stuff that I want them to know

I know—during research for the book, you found many riveting facts. But you can’t shoehorn them all into the plot, so why not whet the readers’ appetite in the prologue with all these cool things?

But news—unlike you, they’re not fascinated by your research. Instead, they want to be fascinated by the saga you tell, using the insights you gleaned from the facts.

So bite the bullet and drop all the information which doesn’t in some way further your plot. Save it for boring dinner guests.