Settings get me going. Like, really going. I see a field of blond grain set alight by a sunset and I’m trying to make scenes out of that color. I’m driving down a highway with a downward gradient and see clouds on the horizon that frame the blue sky in a way that suggests the horizon is much higher up, the blue sky really a lake I’m looking down into. That NieR or Xenoblade OST song plays that throws me back into running through huge digital fields of grass that I wish I could capture in a story.
I woke up one morning (the only time it’s ever happened to me) with an idea in my head, with a smell and the gentle sway of a little earthquake. The atmosphere of the story that got into my head was so potent that I wrote just shy of 50,000 words in six days. I had no idea where I was going, but man did I love going there. By coincidence, that story was about grain too, but please, future editor, don’t peg me as a grain fantasy author. The market really isn’t that big.
I want to be in these places. I don’t even know what’s there. That’s why I want to go.
Sooner or later, the honeymoon is over though. All you’ve really got is a place and a decently purple paragraph of description you wrote to make sure you remember. It’s not perfect, and so you keep tweaking the paragraph to match what inspired you, but all the while, you know it’s not a story.
When is just setting good enough?
Who is the character in your story? You don’t know yet, but try to imagine the silhouettes of interesting people moving around. What are they doing? Why are they doing it? Is what they aren’t doing relevant? What are they worried about?
Even if you can think of a few such nameless actors, what if they’re not the main character? If you recontextualize the setting itself as the main character, what happens to your story? Is the story about the place more than the people acting out the events?
If you’re in this situation a lot, consider what the story would look like as a look into environment more than into character.
When you find that you’re not excited about that as a story, you can move on to looking at those silhouettes a little more closely.
If you could come up with the perfect characters just by wishing them into existence, you wouldn’t have this problem, so what’s the point?
Dress the characters. What are they wearing? Who is looking at them?
Describe the characters. Forget long faces, brown hair, sapphire eyes, and broad shoulders. Are they walking along the sky lake because they’re in desperate need of a distraction? Who do they miss? Is who they miss not good for them?
Insult the characters. Do they react at all, or look disgusted at your rude public show of dislike? Do they grin and go head to head with you to cut you down with a sharper wit? Do they retreat inward, or get angry?
Dream for the characters. What are they thinking about? Is this beautiful place actually very boring? Is this slum their paradise? If you made that character rich, what indulgences would they snap up right away? If you made them poor, what would they do to cope?
Sympathize with the characters. What does this person look like they’re going to be doing when they go home? Are they excited for that, or are they full of anxiety?
These are questions to detail who these people are, but we’re still not talking about what they’re doing for your story.
Character and Plot
I tend to pick a viewpoint character way too early in my brainstorming process. I’m trying to tell someone’s story before that story matters to the book. It’s a great prewriting exercise, but don’t mistake it for your character’s involvement with the plot just yet.
The plot comes about because of conflict. Conflict can be just about anything, but not just anything is automatically conflict. If a warring kingdom completely levels a neighboring province, it might not even be a conflict if the whole world is fine with it. Does that mean you should be telling the story of the woman about to be cut down in the attack? Or perhaps it really isn’t a conflict, just something that is mentioned in passing while the bigger conflict eclipses it?
I personally don’t worry myself with coming up with a perfect “introduction” conflict. I’m still looking for a character that is interesting right out of the gate, but that interest might only be coming from the reader being quirked out by what the character is doing.
I won’t bore you with an explanation of why coming up with plot is hard when all you have is a setting. You might need a solid character to get your mind working on a plot, but try to avoid retrofitting a conflict onto that character if you’re adverse to revising who that character is.
A plot is something that the characters are involve with. If you took the (viewpoint) characters away, there wouldn’t be a plot to speak of, just a written account of it in a history textbook. Your characters really need to be involved somehow.
One of the obvious places to inject viewpoints are at the top of the chain of command, but I’m going to suggest that you avoid going for the king, the queen, the military commander, etc. These people might be ripe for viewpoint, but it’s not always at the exclusion of people caught in the middle of the conflict. The story of the battle general safe in his war tent while his armies do the fighting might not automatically be interesting.
Don’t mistake an important person for an interesting person. A character might indeed be both, but it’s not by virtue of the size of their hat. You’re probably looking for someone that has a lot of skin in the game and is consequently proactive about it. A king might be that, but the kind of proactivity they can engage in is limited to politics or delegation.
Now, if the king is a soldier in his own army, there’s something you can tell me about. What kind of kingdom sets itself up that way? This isn’t exactly breaking ground for originality, but can you spin me a compelling story anyway?
There are plenty of political stories you could tell, just be sure you know what about the character is worth being interested. You can even string me along for forever until you drop the interesting part at the end, but you will have to find ways to convince me that the wait is worth it.
Something I love that Brandon Sanderson has said about his Stormlight Archive books is (paraphrasing, I’ll link the Writing Excuses episode if I ever find it again) that he needed to build his main characters in a way that every single one of them could carry the storyline. He’s doing massive epics, but in a way, the importance of an interesting character matters that much more as you take us deeper into your story’s plot.
For Brandon, his characters all have pasts that aren’t necessarily mysterious, but are in some way compelling nonetheless. Kaladin wanted alternately to be a surgeon and a soldier. It brought out the dichotomy of that character’s larger personal struggle, and it justified why he had it. Some characters, like Dalinar Kholin, do have mystery as a component of their past, but the character is not written in a way that forces his story arc to be obsessed with it.
The story isn’t about where the character came from, it’s about what they’re doing. In the case of Dalinar, the story continues with or without his mystery being explained, and so he holds the mystery to himself (presumably to be dropped on us in a later book, when it really does matter).
So… how about that plotting strategy you promised?
If I’m having trouble synthesizing an interesting plot, it’s a sign that I’m not using enough ingredients in the plot soup. Your world or character might be too complacent for their own storytelling good. Because I’m often starting with a setting, I really have no choice but to look at what is wrong in the world that someone wants to set right. Or, from the other direction, there’s someone for whom the status quo doesn’t serve very well and they are shaking things up. A situation’s complexity won’t automatically be compelling, but in adding it, you should be able to shake loose a few characters for whom the complexity leads to difficult decisions.
For example, I’m a big fan of trying to add motion to the setting.
What if those mountains over there were actually the spine of a starship so big that my eyes are bugging out of my head just thinking about it? Why is it on the ground instead of flying?
What if this field of grain is extra emotional to a character because just a few months ago, it had been burned to the ground?
What does a natural disaster do to the setting? The disaster doesn’t have to be your main conflict, but it might expand what you think of when you picture this place.
Who needs what this setting can produce? Who is jealous of what it produces? Is it the setting itself (e.g., nature) or the people who simply chose to live here that produce this thing? Could they go anywhere else? Why or why not?
If we can make this setting come alive just a little bit more, what does it imply about the people there? At the end of the day, the story probably doesn’t have legs unless you have some interesting people, and if your setting isn’t providing any of those, the setting needs to have just a little more going on.
If a character is really not coming forward for me, I will resort to pure storytelling tone. This conjures for me the characters of others—a noir detective, a farmer youth, a lab assistant—and I can try to adopt what I see in my head and make changes until I realize something about them that frames their motivations in an unexpected way.
Of course, it could be that it’s just not time for a setting to blossom into a real story just yet. File it away, but don’t stop fitting it against unusual conflicts to see if you’ve got something that looks amazing, or perhaps disastrous.