Last week, we talked about worldbuilding. So the logical next step would be to populate that world with characters, right?
Everything about the world you’ve created is going to have some meaning. Having successfully survived a university-level college course on how to perform “proper” literary analysis, I can tell you my greatest fear as a writer is that a hundred years from now, some college professor is going to stand in front of a classroom and ask their students why this author decided to make the main character’s shirt blue.
GAH! I made it blue because it was the first color I thought of, okay?
Not everything has a deeper meaning, but you can bet someone with more education than is strictly healthy for them is going to try to find it, and if they can’t they’ll damned well hang their own view of what YOUR words mean on your work. The good news is, this can be minimized to a certain degree. But to do this, you have to understand the symbology of emotion.
This becomes interesting, and problematic, when you consider colors in the Western world don’t mean the same things in Asia. Their meanings change from Northern Hemisphere to Southern Hemisphere. So a color that is perfectly appropriate for a summer wedding in America might prompt a Brazilian to ask if you’re going to a funeral, or may prompt someone from Thailand to ask why you are in mourning.
The relevance of this is to demonstrate how cultural antecedents and ethnocentrism can impact the meaning the reader assigns to your piece. Not only are the emotions you intend the reader to feel bound up in your expression, but they are going to impose their own ideas and conceptual models on it as well.
Likewise, the wardrobe, weather and environment play roles as well. If I describe to you a gray inner-city slum marked with bold slashes of red, blue and gold graffiti, and a character in a bright red dress hurrying down the street looking happy even though it’s pouring down rain and she’s soaked to the skin, we have a discordant note.
She’s not part of her surroundings. She doesn’t blend.
Everything around her, from the weather to the sagging, tagged buildings, is gray, limp and lifeless. Her environment conveys an overriding sense of depression, loss and hopelessness. Yet she’s hurrying, she’s happy, and she’s wearing a color which sets her apart instantly from the backdrop against which she moves. She’s now a more interesting character because she seems out of place. We want to learn more about her. We wonder why, in this bleak atmosphere, she’s even capable of being happy…and we keep reading to find out.
So, let’s take the same environment and weather. Now our character is a homeless man, shambling along with a tarped-over grocery cart full of odds and ends, junk relics which have no meaning or value to anyone but him. He’s plodding, his shoulders down, his head hunched, body held in the attitude of a dog who has been beaten several times too many. He’s not an interesting character because he “fits” here. He’s part of the scenery, an expected and unfortunately commonplace fixture. Everything about him signals disengagement, disinterest and discouragement, from his shapeless hat to his battered and torn jacket to his cardboard-stuffed shoes. He’s a logical part of this environment, and immediately becomes someone who fades into the background.
But what’s this? The woman in red is stopping to talk to the homeless man. The interesting character has taken an interest in the uninteresting one. Why? What is it about him in particular that makes her stop and speak to him? Is she going to give him money? Is something in his cart more valuable than we would expect it to be? Does she know him from another time, in another life? She has found a reason to find him interesting, and in doing so, given us a reason as well.
Now we’ve gone from bleakness to curiosity to sadness to interest, perhaps even something that resembles a glimmer of hope. We are noticing things about the environment and its actors. We are seeing what they see. More to the point, we now have a reason to care about the interaction between these characters because one of them is acting out of the expected context. What if she gives him money, and he in turn pulls out a trinket from his cart which proves to be something worth killing or dying for, something which could create or destroy a world? What if she gives him money and he thinks she’s threatening her, so he lashes out and attacks her? What if she has no money, and he decides to rape her only to find out she’s an undercover cop, or worse?
There are so many ways this simple scene could play out.
Now, let’s change it up. Same characters. Same possible sequences of events. But now, let’s make the setting a park in an affluent suburb on a sunny, warm day.
In this instance, the woman in the red dress is still likely out of place, if everyone else around her is wearing shorts and T-shirts. The homeless man is too, because they’re wearing clothes from The Gap and J. Crew and he does his clothes shopping from the dumpster behind the Goodwill on Third Avenue. More than that, she’s a blade of brightness which has nothing to do with the day. He’s like a cloud cast over the sun, causing parents, nannies and older siblings to call their charges closer and keep a careful watch.
The feel of this scene is completely different, isn’t it? There is a different series of emotional loads being played out here. Even if we give the characters the same dialogue, actions and reactions, the backdrop against which this scene plays out will change the reader’s evaluation of what to expect from the scene. Obviously, we could go a lot further with this, but the point is to emphasize and become more sensitive to how worldbuilding in the context of a scene changes the mood, feel and reader’s expectations.
So, now you give it a try. See how changing the place of a scene from a corporate boardroom to a nicely appointed bedroom to a ramshackle trailer to a dungeon, and altering the color palettes in play in each place, transforms the feel of a scene and sets the mood you want your readers to engage with. Also, don’t forget to make one character seem just a little out of place. That’s the character you want the reader to focus most intently on, whether their actions ultimately drive the plot or they’re just a side note to the real show.
Always remember: The ONE unforgivable sin of writing is to be predictable! You can screw up 9,732 ways and your readers will probably forgive you, but predictable is boring and boring is NOT something readers overlook willingly.
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