Either word, in its broader sense, refers to the entire world that a story’s character lives in. Not just the physical setting, but the whole system under which they operate. To find out what that’s like, I start asking myself (more) questions.
Where does a character spend their time, and doing what? What do they eat, how do they survive, and what are their dreams? What opportunities do they have and what’s denied to them? Who are the people in their life, and how do those relationships expand or contract the scope of it? Are there people or places or situations they avoid, and why?
That’s only the start of the different questions you can ask to find out what defines the reality a character exists within. As for me, I don’t try to answer them all and write them down in a notebook somewhere. I let the details assert themselves – confident that the most important elements of a character’s life are the ones demanding attention. They may even be vital parts of the plot. But they’re always things I need to understand.
In part, that’s because I’ve learned through experience that the better answers come as a natural part of the discovery process, finding out what’s a good fit for the characters and the story – better than when I try to figure things out upfront.
The other part is that defining too much ahead of the actual writing sucks the life out of the story – and the enjoyment out of the process for me. I find that the right answers will come when they’re needed.
Though that’s not always when they’re used. Sometimes I need to understand something about their world the character doesn’t know but which still informs the story being told and may come out later. And sometimes I need to put in details now that will be important for the future, even if I don’t know how or why yet.
Why am I talking so much about character? Because the environment a person lives and moves in is a part of who they are, an extension of themselves. Learning about the world they inhabit helps me understand their life. And vice versa.
Going back to previous examples – if your main character is a multiple pet owner, the lady who lives alone in a small house with a number of cats is a very different character from the female rancher who has a dog and horses who are part of her livelihood as well as being her companions.
If your main character is a young man struggling to understand why he no longer has control over his own words, it’s one story if he’s a high school student navigating his relationships with his peers, and it’s another if he’s a dropout stealing cars to survive.
So knowing the world a character lives in and how they live in it, the parameters of their life, is crucial to seeing the story they have to tell.
Asking questions and using imagination to find answers is how I develop the premise, the characters, and the environment. And it’s also how I expand all three as they grow and intertwine into a story idea that feels real and complex and interesting. And almost ready to write.
But a narrative needs another vital element – a structure to not only give it form, but also movement.
Next week: S is for Structure. (The final part of my SPEC method for developing story ideas.)