Ask The Escapery: How to Populate A World

Just a reminder: The world is ending in two days – The End! Writing Inspired by Apocalyptic Fiction & Poetry is this Sunday, November 22nd, and there is still time to join the wonderful group of writers already enrolled. It’s going to be apocalyptically fun. If you want in, come join us!

Snow White Forest 2.jpgWelcome to a new Escapery feature – it’s a cross between Dear Abby and the advice column on This Old House, where we try to answer a writing problem with a writing experiment. Got a stumbling block? A part of your novel that feels like the thorny forest from Snow White? Give us a shout, we’ll see what we can do.

This week, I got to read the beginning of a piece that had me so excited, I had to put it down and run around the block. It was so good, I forgot all the past trauma of world-narrowing, stereotyping, ennui-laced fiction. I believed in stories again. But one question the writer asked stayed with me:

Once you’ve built a world, how do you populate it?

It made me think of… Thatcher-era British Reggae! No, really. here’s the song “Ghost Town” by The Specials.

The last time I saw this video, a very snarky friend who will remain unmentioned said:

Oy, I know why this town is a ghost town, it’s because everyone who is supposed to be in the town is in the fecking car.

And we laughed and laughed and then I realized!

That’s what first draft (or first drafts) is!: the entire potential of story is closely wound up in the main characters or the image or impulse or spirit that launched the story. The characters and events and details that make up novel worlds are all there already, but they’re coiled up like a snail in a shell, packed tight in this car, and so the outside feels a bit like a ghost town.

So this is how I redefine the problem: how to let some of that story energy out of the clown car and into the ghost town. OR How to make the ghost town exciting enough that the characters will get out of the car and start interacting. In other words: how do we get extras on the set.

Here are three writing experiments. Let us know… Good luck, and happy writing.

  1. The Kidnap and Graft Method.

a) List five people in your life that have some kind of story tension with you – ex lovers work wonderfully, but also the man you noticed on the bus, the uncle you hated as a child (or loved as a child, before you knew better), teachers, former friends, the colleague you don’t understand, the person who died too young, the person who got to be too old…;

b) Change one significant fact about each kidnappee. Eg: add or subtract 20 years, change their health, their attractiveness, gender – changing one thing about them will begin the process of allowing them to change to fit your story.

c) Have them walk through the world of your story. Where would they end up if they lived there? How would they get by? How would others see them? What would be different about their lives? Write 1-2 sentences of them in the landscape of the novel where one thing that troubles you about them becomes apparent. 

2. Instead of the Character Sheet, Try: The Boomerang Soul

Some paint-by-numbers books suggest a character sheet where you fill out each character’s favorite color, favorite animal, favorite song – I’ve always found that boring. Instead, consider asking: what’s their action?

An action is a theater term for what a character wants, but it’s more than just a want. Samuel Spencer defines an action as “a movement of the soul.” It’s deeper and less surface than a want. It’s a constant pull. Even if a character is on stage for one sentence, one page, they should have an action.

Write about a moment in every day life (shopping, farming, changing a lightbulb) where this deep want becomes momentarily apparent. Or where the obstacle to this want becomes apparent. 1-2 sentences. 

3. From your characters:
After a bad day for your characters, who might be able to relate to what they’re going through? Whose life almost rhymes with them, except for the thing that makes them too different? Who intrigues them and why? Who is going to push on their point of weakness, or give them everything they want except – what they most need?

Write a scene where your character tells a total stranger what just happened on a terrible horrible day. Have the stranger sum up everything in one sentence. What do they miss?

Good luck!

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