Speculative fiction is the exotic coffee, more spicy than sweet, of the book world. You know you’re smelling coffee, but a flavor you didn’t expect suffuses that familiar aroma, and you inhale again, trying to place it.
I never intended to tackle “spec.” I was surprised and daunted to realize that the story my characters insisted on didn’t take place in current reality. Really, kids? Creating you was hard enough. Now I have to create a setting for you too? I concocted newfangled cell phones, futuristic foodstuffs and various other gadgetry. There. I had a storyworld.
Except I didn’t.
One scrapped novel and [cough] years later, a few revelations have sunk into my setting-impaired brain.
Storyworld is more than where and when. Yes, those facts are necessary, but they’re only the first layer. How does the character feel about his world? Of course, that question is vital, regardless of genre. But speculative is like historical in this sense: Characters shouldn’t always share the readers’ reactions. They shouldn’t think and feel as if they’re living here and now.
Along the road of scrapping, restarting and revising, I scribbled a note to self, “Darken the setting.” At the time, I tried to do this from the outside — add more ominous details to the world itself. Craft books and MBT Voices chats revealed my inadequate approach. Some darkness must come from inside the characters.
For example, I’d written one protagonist to fear his world. I would be afraid if yanked from my world and dropped into his, but he’s lived here too long for terror. His future is inevitable. He doesn’t fear it. He dreads it. And replacing the emotional hue of fear with the hue of dread transfigured my storyworld into something bleaker and heavier.
Spec writers, have you considered your storyworld’s effect on your character’s perspective? What pieces of this world will astonish or infuriate or frighten your reader? Maybe your character takes them for granted. What pieces of this world will your reader take for granted? Maybe they astonish, infuriate or frighten your character.
When crafting storyworld, don’t settle for where and when. Forage deep. Question your characters: How does this world shape them? How do they feel about it? For speculative fiction, storyworld paves both the plot’s outward path and the character’s inward journey.
At five years old, Amanda G. Stevens disparaged Mary Poppins and Stuart Little because they could never happen. Now, she writes speculative fiction. Currently unpublished, Amanda semi-finaled in ACFW’s 2011 Genesis contest. She lives in Michigan with her addictions: Amazon.com and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.