An ad for a popular screenwriting class recently stated, “A great screenplay starts with character,” so their latest offering was on creating great characters. But that’s not how many writers start.You see, a great character has to come from someplace, has to interact with his environment, his world. If you’re writing contemporary mainstream stories, you might well pick a character and set your story in your world. You probably know that world very well. If you were born and raised in Brooklyn, you’re pretty much an expert on Brooklyn, and so your character will reflect that.
But what if you decide to set your tale in Shanghai? Being born and raised in Brooklyn, you’ll find that the world of Shanghai is alien to you. You might have difficulty understanding what it was like to be a young woman whose parents were so ashamed of your gender that they dressed you as a boy for the first twelve years of your life. You might not understand the pride that the people of Shanghai feel in their state. You’ll miss out on the subtle nuances of culture and in short, you won’t be able to portray a character who is so alien, realistically. Anyone who is from Shanghai that reads your story will recognize that you’re not a part of that culture.
So you may have to do some heavy research in order to get it right, and then you still won’t get it. I recall having an old friend, a cultural anthropologist, who tried to write a story set with my own culture, the Mormon culture of Utah. He proudly brought his story into our writer’s group, and every person who read it was a bit dismayed. He proved quite handily that he was a complete alien to our society.
The farther away you get from your own culture, the more alien the world becomes. You can move away from your own culture physically—as in setting your story thousands of miles away, but sometimes you only have to move a block away. When I lived in Chicago, we might have Polish immigrants on one street, Cubans the next, and Tibetans on a third. So moving physically three blocks put you in a whole different world.
But you can also set your stories in cultures that are temporally distant from you. For example, I was born and raised in Oregon. I could easily write a story set in the hippie culture of the 1960s and 1970s. But could I just as easily write about the 1860s, or the 2060s? No. I’d have to exercise a whole lot of brain cells just to try.
It is possible to research a distant civilization and create an illusion that you know what you’re talking about, but of course it isn’t the same as living it. I could set a Biblical story d-$uring the time of the New Testament. Thousands of scholars have written about it. But I doubt that the illusory construct of the time period would really reflect the vision of, say, the Apostle Paul very well. I couldn’t duplicate his thoughts and speech, his worries and his hopes.
Yet, before you can create an interesting character, you do have to create their world.
You need to understand its dangers and pitfalls, the culture of the place, it’s technology and trade practices, the beliefs and standards of the people.
Too often, I see writers who try to fake it, who try to create distant worlds that are just like ours. For example, I read stories where people who are farming distant worlds are very much like the settlers in Texas in 1860, only with a bit better technology.
Just remember, your character has to grow out of his world in order to feel as if he’s real.
If you don’t know your world, you can’t know your character.
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