Posts Tagged Setting

Writing Advice from Games

Quick analogy that came to mind the other day.

As computer storage and processing have advanced, the maps for open-world video games have gotten larger and larger.  I’m thinking Fallout.  I’m thinking Skyrim.  I’m thinking…maybe there are games out there made by a company other than Bethesda, but does anyone play them?  Within these Bethesda games, the maps have set points of interest on them.  The first time the player visits each one, he has to either find it accidentally or be told where it is and set out to it.  The second time, the player has a quick travel option allowing them direct access to that location.

This means the first time the player goes to a location, he has to face the challenges on the way.  And has to see all the work that went into creating the landscape.  None of the Bethesda games would be the game they are if characters just jumped from place to place and didn’t see the world in between.

I try to keep this in mind when writing.

Setting descriptions should be front loaded.  This doesn’t mean infodump.  It does mean that a lot of description is necessarily front-loaded in a story.  That first time a character travels a particular city, street, countryside, trail, or any other setting the reader needs to understand where the character is.  Otherwise it’s the “white box” problem that has plagued my first drafts for years.  After that, the character can “quick travel” from point A to point B.  Now, this is going to be a little different from games.  That first time the reader need enough broad details to set the scene.  During the quick travel, either finer details or differences can come up, but the broader details aren’t as essential.

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The Problem with Zombies

Even in their first major movie appearance, it was about the people, not the zombies.The problem with zombies is that they always want to eat your brains.

Wait.  No.  That’s not what I was going to talk about at all.

I’ve been thinking a lot about zombies lately.  Likely this is due to some Twitter conversations I’ve gotten into mixed with the second season of Walking Dead spiced with just a dash of feeling rather like the walking dead myself due to my annual late fall head blah.  That’s why, over in Unleaded yesterday, I talked about just what makes Zombies popular right now.  And why here I want to talk about the biggest problem that exists with zombies.

It has nothing to do with them being an unstoppable horde, that there’s always ten more to replace the one you just killed.  It has nothing to do with the nasty skin issues that come with being a reanimated corpse.  It doesn’t even have to do with the issues that arise when one continues to eat after biological functions have shut down your digestive tract.  Though that’s somewhat nasty to consider.  No, zombies boil down to one problem:

They’re boring.

Yup.  I said it.  Zombies are boring.  That’s not to say they aren’t scary.  That’s not to say they can’t appear in an entertaining bit of fiction.  But take an individual zombie and try to force anything interesting out of it and you just can’t.  By definition they have no personality.  They have no quirks.  They have nothing that differentiates them from the crowd, save for the occasional loved-one-turned-zombie that shows up in the stories.  But even then, they’re not interesting for who they are, they’re interesting for who they were.

Great title I saw on a fake kids’ book: That’s Not Your Mommy Anymore.

Alright, so if you’re willing to follow me this far down my rabbit hole the question comes up: then why do we find zombie stories entertaining.  The answer is that, while zombies are boring, people are not.  And people put into a situation that we can hardly imagine are even more interesting.  That’s why zombie stories can’t be about the walking dead, they have to be about the still living.  Oh sure, there’s the occasional attempt to change the paradigm around.  Any number of short stories written from a zombie perspective.  There’s even the movie Fido, which is more about a zombie than most movies.  But most readers, most viewers, even if they’re seeking out zombie fiction don’t actually want fiction about zombies, they want fiction about people dealing with zombies.

Boring zombies, really interesting zombie survivors.Enter the Walking Dead.  Enter a show named after zombies, is really the first television show primarily about zombies, especially the first show to have its zombies be zombies (if I’m still in this mood next week I’ll talk about the Borg and Reavers), but at the same time it can tell more compelling and better crafted stories in episodes that feature almost none of the titular walking dead.  Because it’s not telling stories about zombies, it’s telling stories about the tensions that arise when a group of people who would have nothing to do with each other are forced together by horrendous situations and told to survive.  It’s about who would go how far.

It’s really a variation of a life raft story, a deserted island story, any of a number of genres that look to create unlikely groupings of people.

And where does that leave zombies?  It puts them in interesting company.  They are the ocean, or the island.  They are not a character, they are a setting.  And as with any good setting, they will dictate how people react, they will even directly affect how the characters behave, but the setting is never the beginning, end, and everything of a story.  Even Lost was ultimately about the people, even as the island’s prominence grew.  At the end, the characters all have to be distinct, and be reacting to the setting in a way that fits.

And there it is, in a nutshell.  Settings are not characters.  Oh, sure, you’ll see reviews about a novel that talk about the location as a character, but that’s just shorthand for a robustness in world building.  In the end characters are characters, settings are settings, and while the two influence each other, dictate to each other, there is a wall drawn between them.

So go forth with your zombie worlds.  Just remember that, as much fun as the zombies might be to write, they are not your characters.  So don’t neglect the living.  That’s who interests people.  We are the living, make the stories about us.

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