The Ten Commandments of Fiction Writing, Part Seven

As a student of the art of fiction, there are several axioms and pieces of advice that I come across again and again; "show, don't tell", "write what you know", "don't trick the reader", etc. These aren't items from a single book, they're everywhere. Some of them surely originate with specific authors, but as ideas they've taken on a life of their own, becoming more than something one person said.

In this series, I will try to gather all those admonitions, encouragements, and adages into a single, definitive list; the Ten Commandments of Fiction Writing. Hopefully this will be as fun and educational for you as it is for me.


Commandment Seven: Thou shalt know thy characters and settings as thyself

We've all been told to write what we know (and if you keep reading this series, you'll be told again), but that axiom works in reverse too: know what you write.

Part of my problem with pantsing is that when you begin with a blank page, you begin with flat, undeveloped characters (Like this quote? Click here to tweet it!). You might put them into a dramatic situation, but you don't really know how they'll act, and without some kind of plan for character development, you're bound to miss a few opportunities. They might surprise you, which is good, but chances are they won't start surprising you right off the bat.

Characters are the core of your story, and they are the part that readers are most likely to remember. When I read Foxfire as a lonely teenage boy, I fell in love with Maddy and Legs. I missed them when the book ended. I missed them so badly that I actually wasted the time to see the god-awful 1996 adaptation. I don't know if Joyce Carol Oates is a plotter or a pantser, but she damn sure spent some time on the characters in Foxfire. They felt more alive and real than a lot of actual people I've met.

The issue is the same for settings. If you create a setting on the fly, chances are it's going to be pretty drab on the first pass. If you describe anything, it'll probably be the most obvious stuff, and that isn't what brings settings to life. Readers are savvy enough to fill in the obvious details on their own. The key is to provide the details that aren't obvious, and just enough of them to get the reader's imagination going. To do that, you have to get your imagination going.

Settings aren't always the most important element of a story, but they can be powerful if you develop them well. Anyone who's read Lord of the Rings probably wanted to live in Middle Earth, orcs and all. I remember reading those books and vividly imagining all the food, drink, and pipe-weed the characters consumed--heck, I'd be lying if I said it wasn't part of the reason I'm a pipe smoker to this day. Little details like that made the world so real that a part of me never left. Tolkien definitely overdid it when it came to exposition, there's no question, but his setting became part of his reader's lives forever.

While I strongly advise restraint when it comes to including details about characters and settings, it never hurts to generate those details. The only way you can know too much about your characters and setting is if taking notes becomes an addiction, and keeps you from actually writing. And as a borderline OCD case, I can see where that would happen. But when you're plotting, it's worthwhile to research or create as much detail as you can. You never know when you'll see an opportunity for intrigue. It's the Pantry Method again; gather all the information you can, and only show readers the really interesting bits. The rest will be there if you need it, and if you don't so what?

For me, a well-defined task is essential. That's why I took the time to build templates to help me in this process. I've tried to ask myself every possible question, and when I'm plotting a story, I answer as many as I can. If that sounds helpful to you, Check out my Plotting Resources page, where you can download all of my plotting templates.

Even if you're not a plotter, you need to find a way to get into your characters and explore your settings. Without them, your book is a synopsis at best.