An interesting conversation on Twitter (started by Erin Whalen) got me thinking about where my ideas for fiction originate. Do I start with the characters, the plot, or the setting? Most people in this conversation were character or plot devotees, but I have to admit I'm a setting guy.
Maybe this is because I write mostly speculative fiction, which puts a premium on where things take place. The fictional world isn't our world, and so it's particularly important for the author to visualize it distinctly and to know it intimately.
And that's what tends to happen in my creative process: I see a place that I think would be interesting, then I ask myself what kinds of characters would be there, and why. From that, character and plot flow more or less naturally.
An example is my forthcoming novel Survival Colony Nine. I couldn't get the image out of my head of a wasteland world, a desert setting sparsely populated by small roving groups of people. The questions of how the world got that way, who these people were, what they lacked and wanted, what obstacles stood in the way to their achieving their desires, and how they might overcome these obstacles all developed from that original image, which I quote here as it appears in the manuscript's current form:
The world stretched in an endless circle of dust around me, broken only by the shapes of ragged tents and squat, rusted trucks. Both were patterned with camouflage colors. Everything else was a dead reddish-brown, the color of dried blood under fingernails. The sky was a uniform brown so similar to the land my head spun with the feeling that the solid ground was only a reflection. The heat felt like a blanket wrapped around my hands, my eyes, my throat.
That setting was enough to propel me into the story of fourteen-year-old Querry Genn and his colony, Survival Colony Nine, as they struggle for existence in a ruined world overrun by the monstrous antagonists I call the Skaldi.
I wrote in a previous post about the risks of "info-dumping," or revealing too much about the fictional world in a single lump of information. But balanced against that risk is the need for the author--and particularly the author of speculative fiction--to have all that information in mind. Indeed, I've found that the more I know about my own setting, the less inclined I am to dump what I know on the reader all at once; if I feel confident in the setting, I also feel confident in letting it emerge slowly and organically.
So let's hear it for setting! Plot is what makes readers keep reading your book, and characters are what make them fall in love with it--but setting is what keeps it real.