Tuesday, September 25, 2012

TTYU Retro: Tired of cliché? Want to be unique? Pursue the why.


They say it's details that make a setting unique. Some would say, "Don't just create a character who is the generic chosen one who grew up on a farm unaware of his destiny," and they'd be right, but it's been done successfully. I'm thinking a lot of this is about details.

If you're just starting out on something like this, though, hearing this advice can be maddening. Details? What details? The last thing you want to do is take the same old tired scenario and add on a few bells and whistles, a bunch of superficial stuff that you made up because somebody told you that you needed details. Then you're still sitting where you started, just with a lot of extra words.

Pursue the why.

It's not really the details that make the scenario unique. It's how the scenario grows out of your world organically. Does the city have dirty streets? Okay, then why are its streets dirty? Does the village have an idiot? Okay, then who is he, and what is his family like, and how did he come to be where he is? Does he have a real disability or is he simply disaffected?

There are all kinds of societal scenarios that we see constantly in stories. But the fact that we see them constantly may not be because people are unoriginal. It may simply be because these things are real features of our own world. If we're working in a different world, we can have these features appear, but it's important to dig down into the underpinnings of the world and ask, "Why would this common phenomenon happen in this world?" Because things don't happen for no reason.

To make this concrete, I'll tell you about an insight I had some time ago about my Varin world. Funny enough, it's about a part of my Varin world that plays only a tiny part in my current novel in progress. I was inspired by a recent discussion about how to make larger economic patterns in society concrete by thinking about their impact on individuals.

Here's the part that I had before the insight. It's the part that isn't as original as it could be.

Varin has an undercaste. They take undesirable jobs, so they work with trash, or in cremation, or as prison janitors (this will sound familiar to those who have read my "trashers" post). They get abused in their jobs. They live in small apartments. They have hoodlum gangs. One of my characters, Meetis, works in a prison and has a "good job" and a "good apartment." The other character, Corbinan, is a trash collector who has an "okay job" but not a "good apartment." He is a fighter who used to live on the streets.

It's not that it's not detailed. I had put in a lot of setting and stuff. But look how it changes when I tell you what I figured out.

The undercaste members get different economic benefits from their different possible jobs. People who work in prisons get apartments near their work, clothing, and food paid for by their place of work, but they get paid virtually zero cash, so once they have the job, it's almost impossible for them to leave (because they would be homeless with no money), so they have no recourse and are pushed around by their superiors quite easily. People who work in crematories get housing near their work, and are required to maintain high standards of cleanliness, but they don't get fed at work; they are paid cash to buy their own food. They are also paid "by the body" as an incentive for them to do the hardest work. Thus they carry cash but this money is often seen as dirty. Trash collectors are paid by the hour, in cash, and receive no other benefits. Thus they have a hard time securing apartments, and often a group of several people will join together and pool funds to secure an apartment (even if the apartment isn't designed for so many people). People (especially teenagers) without jobs form gangs and steal to keep themselves alive, but it's far riskier for them to try to rob members of other castes, so they target the trash worker neighborhoods first, the crematory neighborhoods if they're desperate, and only then would they try to target a member of another caste. They don't bother with prison neighborhoods because there's no money in it. The trash workers create their own gangs so they can stand up to the penniless hoodlums. The only way to get cash outside of the system without stealing it is to be able to read. These people deal with government workers all the time and are handed papers they can't read, so they will pay anyone who can actually read what they're being given and help defend them against manipulation by the contract writers.

It sounds complicated, but what it does is establish the reasons why gangs exist, who has them and who doesn't, and where they operate. These are details, but they are not random. So once it's all set up in theory, then I operationalize it on my characters' lives.

Meetis is the daughter of prison workers. Her mother is a reader, which is the only honorable way she could get the money to buy a ticket for her daughter to take a prison job in the capital when jobs are scarce at home. Thus, Meetis has an apartment near her work that she shares with her cousin Flara. It isn't well-maintained, but it works. She wears company clothes and eats at work. She works hard and doesn't eat a lot, but she has a safe home and doesn't starve, and she isn't targeted by gangs unless she goes into someone else's neighborhood. She is also a reader, so she has the means to earn cash if she can find the time to fit in reading work.

Corbinan is the son of crematory workers. As a result he got a lot of hard teasing as a kid, had to learn to fight early and ended up running away from home, and running with the hoodlum gangs. When he realized he was starving, but was too young to get a job, he decided to learn to read, so he cornered a reader and threatened him with a beating if he didn't teach him the skill. Once he could read he was able to separate from the hoodlum gangs and save some money, and when he was old enough he got a job as a trash worker. He lives in an apartment with six other people who work out of the same trash center, and though he's tired of gangs generally, he's now a target of the hoodlum groups, so he and the other six form a gang for their own protection. Now he uses his fighting skills to run off the hoodlums, and also to help the gang leader make sure everyone pays a fair share of rent. He's far too smart ever to pick a fight with a member of another caste, but if he and his gang become targets, he can hold his own long enough to help the others get away.

Suddenly he's not just some guy who knows how to fight for who knows what reason. He's simultaneously jealous of Meetis' easy life and a bit contemptuous of her for her lack of "freedom," and her lack of toughness. We can also see why Meetis' life is easy compared to his, but why it is hard on her anyway.

The phenomena are still there, but the whole thing feels different.

10 comments:

  1. Hi Juliette,

    "Pursue the why." This makes a lot of sense to me. It's easy to see that your revised examples play much more naturally than the original. Thanks for sharing.

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    1. Thanks, Ray! I appreciate you coming by to comment.

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  2. When you explain it, it makes such sense: Why is the key question.

    I find that true in general. If you live long enough with these people in your head, you will end up asking why a lot, and the backstory reaches out like tendrils in all directions, but it eventually becomes self-consistent.

    Wonderful how human brains do that, looking for patterns. Then, when you ask the brain a question, it gives you the answer from the pattern it has created out of the discrete bits you fed it - and surprises even you.
    ABE

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    1. Thanks, Abe. Patternmaking is one of humanity's great instincts, and it's wonderful for storytelling.

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  3. Nice breakdown of the causes and consequences of your choices!

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  4. I love it! Is it really "just that easy" for you? I'm assuming this is a talent you developed over time with much practice, but you make it seem so...instinctual. Keep it up :) You seem to do a great mix of macro and micro building to your world and characters. I instantly respect anyone that can do both so effectually.

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    1. Aw, thanks, Realmwright! Yes, I've been working on this a while. My sensitivity to the links between macro and micro-levels comes from my studies of anthropology and discourse, but I've been figuring out how to apply it to my stories little by little. There always seems to be more to discover.

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  5. You teach a very valuable lesson. The whole setting and characters have to sound plausible, even if it's a completely different world than ours.
    I know I have a hard time with that myself and I guess it takes a lot of planning. Thanks for sharing!

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    1. You're welcome! Thank you for commenting.

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