SPEC Revisited (Part 3)
The characters who drive a story are already a part of the premise, and the world they live and move in and engage with is fundamental to who they are and what the story will end up being. That environment (or economy) defines the limits of their choices and also suggests a wealth of opportunities. And so it may be the most crucial piece of the puzzle.
After all, a character can’t realistically dream of being an astronaut if there’s no space program, and you can’t have a story about a female soldier in a world where women can’t serve. So understanding the boundaries of the circles my characters are circumscribed by is vital. Maybe a character will push against those boundaries or maybe they’ll break them – or perhaps they’ll pursue their dreams within those limits – but first I have to know where the lines are drawn.
Not only that, I have to get a grip on why things are the way they are. That helps me understand who would like those boundaries and who wouldn’t, who would try to draw inside the lines and who would try to erase them. Knowing the setting intimately helps me see my characters more clearly.
It also points out areas of conflict—sometimes between a person and their environment and sometimes between people because of the environment or economy. So it’s important to dig deep to understand how different characters see the setting. Where there’s friction in how characters relate to the world they live in or because of differences in how people see the world around them, there’s also a lot of story potential. Uncovering that is what helps me develop the tale I’ll tell.
No matter how big or small that setting is, there’s a lot of work involved in exploring it before I can even begin to write a story there. Whether it’s an alien world or a fantastic future, or simply one fictional house and its inmates, it’s still a realm of make-believe, and I need to understand the rules that run the place.
I like to think of it in terms of various circles (some of which overlap while other sit wholly inside or outside of other circles.) There are smaller orbits – the street someone lives on or the place they work or the school they attend. And with speculative fiction there can be really huge spheres of activity, like galactic empires and alternate universes. But big and small, all those circles are important to the characters’ lives.
The setting isn’t just integral to the particular people who will drive the story, though, it’s also fundamental to the premise. Whatever the central problem may be, it will necessarily arise out of that landscape. More importantly, the solution to the problem will have to be inherent in the way things work in that world.
And while I find the beginning and end points of my stories in the intersection between that problem and the characters who face it, it’s the topography of that fictional world, its contours, that end up shaping the course of the story.
Part 4: Sequencing the Structure