Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Where do your protagonists live?

Warning...Rambling post ahead...

Ok, so I get some of the strangest ideas just after going to, not those kinds of ideas, Tan, behave yourself! Well, ok, some of those too but that's another post for another time. Last night's thoughts centered around story locales and how they affect the reader, the characters or the story in general. I'll explain.

Location in stories rely upon the same rules as most real estate in the real world - it's all about location, location, location. For example, you wouldn't place your billionaire hero in the middle of bum-fuck nowhere without a reason because of what is generally accepted as billionaire living arrangements. Most billionaires are generally portrayed as living in the lap of luxury in a resort town, tucked away on an acres-wide estate near a suitably large metropolis and the luxuries they crave, or at the top of the tallest skyscraper of their conglomerate empire. They do not live in tiny podunk villages surrounded by peons without a good reason: reclusive, hiding from the mob, blood-thirsty vamp looking for a town to enthrall, etc.

So...if you are, like me, actually from one of those little blink-and-you-miss-it towns, where do you situate your protagonists if you want more options than the local Wal-Mart and the Carmiked 12?

1. Use a real city - aka 'Research Like Mad'. This is either the easiest route to take, especially if you live in a goodly sized city that would support your story (like NYC, San Fran, Paris, London, etc), or the hardest. If you aren't from the area, you run the risk of getting minor details wrong and simply annoying your readers (that shopping mall was turned into theme park years ago!) or getting major details wrong and alienating your readers (WTF? you have no idea what you're talking about *insert rant here*). Since I live in a rather small central Alabama town of only 35K, I rarely use real cities as evidenced by the fact that I've only done so in three of my stories thus far:
  • Emeralds & Ice was set in Victorian era London. I spent several weeks poring over appropriate era maps of the city and had to return to them often in order to get street names, etc, correct. This was easier, in my opinion, than in using a modern-day London simply because there's no chance that the building listed on the map I'm using is no longer in business (though some are) or doesn't want to be mentioned in my story and will thus send me a C&D. It's hard because there are people who get degrees in the history of that era and could easily tear my descriptions to shreds.
  • Innocent Deceptions is the second that was set in an actual city: Paris of the late 1800s and early 1900s. Though the protagonists rarely leave Erik's underground home beneath the opera house, there were roads that had to be verified as well as surrounding cities in order to lend the illusion of accuracy. And it is an illusion. This one was far less researched than even Emeralds and wouldn't stand up under intense scrutiny.
  • The Other Half is only partially set in an actual location and only in the latter half of the tale. When I settled on how to perform the mating ritual between Micipsa and Kris, I had to find an active volcano which led me to Mount Kilauea in Hawaii. It's the most active volcano on the planet and has been erupting since the 90s. Amazing stuff but I digress. Once I'd decided on that, I spent months researching the area - cities, activities, airports, the volcano itself. I learned more about that area of Hawaii than I know about my own state. But it could easily be torn apart by someone who actually lived there because I haven't.
I see using a real-life city as a double-edged sword. On the one hand, many people will love to see their home town immortalized in a story and will be able to relate more personally to your tale. They may feel a bond with your protagonists simply because they're from the same old stomping grounds. HOWEVER...these will be the same readers who will crucify your story if you deviate too far from their idea of how their city should be represented. Couple that with poor research and your tale is doomed from the outset. It's why I use them so sparingly.

2. Create a city - different from #3 below in that you create an entire city from scratch with a name, streets, industry, entertainment, etc. You are the master of SimCity to the Nth degree and your protagonists live happily in their Pretendville. From what I've seen and read, most Pretendvilles are based on larger easily-recognized cities like NYC or London without the worry that someone will discount your research or lack thereof. A New Yorker could argue that NYC doesn't have a harbor deep enough to hide a Soviet submarine; however, their argument is invalid if you use Pretendville even if it's blatantly based on NYC. The problem here, as I see it, is one of time vs reward. How long will it take to create Pretendville vs how long it would take to simply research an appropriate existing city? How long will it take you to convince your readers that Pretendville isn't just NYC-lite? Will you even try?

I've yet to try this though it will be done eventually in There's a Fine Line. As much as I could care less about my hometown, I don't think I want to place them under the sway of a violence demon just yet. It will also be used, by necessity, in Laelah's Folly. Since there isn't a planet of Malar for me to visit (dammit), I have to not only create the city, but an entire planet. It's a daunting task.

3. Be Ambiguous! - ok, so maybe this is the lazy way out but it's the route I've chosen to take for most of my stories. Essentially, you don't create a city, you don't use a city, it just is. Your city isn't named or described in many ways except those parts you need for the story. I say it's a cop out and believe it is even if I use it. It's a cop out because it requires the least amount of effort on the side of the writer. An ambiguous setting places no restrictions upon a writer because it can have anything and everything the hero or villain needs. An ambiguous setting adapts to the story instead of the story adapting to the setting. It is my goal to eradicate ambiguous settings in my stories some day but until then...just know that my heroes and heroines, villains and villanesses all live...somewhere.

1 comment:

  1. no why do i feel like corrupting you this very instant?!