Create a space where your characters thrive
One piece of technology that defines where you are in the world more than any other is the local toilet.
I’ve seen all kinds - barely functioning, duct-taped together atrocities in basement bars, singing works of art with heated seats from Japan, and dubious holes in the floor hiding in the back of chic clubs in Shanghai. Nothing defines a place like the essential piece of technology in a bathroom.
When I arrived in Madagascar back in 2005 to meet my host family and start to learn the local language, I was handed a small, bright green bucket with a lid on top. It looked like a garbage can you might see in a home office.
“This is your po,” Sherri, one of our American trainers, told me.
“Your po,” she said, a big smile on her face. “You use it at night when you can’t make it out to the outhouse.” She didn’t wait for my reaction - she had more colorful buckets to distribute. As she moved on, I stood holding my new bathroom and took note of its cool surface. I wondered if I could handle it when that plastic got decidedly warmer.
Technology puts your reader in the heart of your world
It’s easy for a reader to hold a new location or fictional place at a distance. Why get too invested when this isn’t home? But small things like how people get their water, grow their food, shop, or travel all help connect your reader to a new place.
In my book planner, you have a section devoted to technology. Take a moment to consider what exactly your characters need to do things like listen to music, get to another town, or do their work.
For instance, if your story is set in the 1970s, you need record players, big family cars, jukeboxes, bottle openers, smaller refrigerators, and portable radios. You could also highlight corduroy fabric, and Breck shampoo, and put a Popcorn Popper in your main character’s kitchen.
The trick is to get specific with your brands, colors, and names. All of these things help solidify the time and place of your story for you as you write. For the reader, they bring each location to life and help them get pulled into your creation.
Then, think about power
Directly below your technology section is an important line - who has the power? Then you need to explain why.
The development of your plot, character, and setting all hinge on figuring out who’s pulling the strings in your story. Is it the local church, a father, a terrifying child? If your power lies with an organization, imagine the head of the group and give that individual a name. Maybe this person decides if everyone in town has a job or not or wants to oppress one specific group in the community.
Once you have a source and representation of power, you can start to work out how your characters feel about it and why. It’s essential to get the heart of that power worked out so that everyone in your story can gravitate to that center and either get drawn in or repulsed.
I’m reading Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism by Amanda Montell and I could literally talk all day about how cult leaders create and hold onto their power. These are absolute nobodies who build communes around themselves and do it with such finesse that everyone around them feels there’s simply no stopping this person. He or she is the leader, full stop.
A cult is a great example of how people react to power. According to Montell, about 95 percent of people who consider joining a cult change their minds almost instantly, leaving their informative pamphlets in the garbage. Of the few that join, only about half stay in the group for the long haul. The call to build a life around one powerful person repels most of us, even if we get into the idea for an afternoon. But the unlucky few who feel that spark of hope often stay for years. They can’t shake the sense that maybe, just maybe, this person is the new messiah and they work tirelessly to make that belief a reality.
Power can also be forced onto someone. An old friend of mine who just happened to be stunningly beautiful and endlessly charismatic, immediately shut me down when I called her a leader.
“No one follows me!” she insisted. I rolled my eyes to the ceiling.
“What are you talking about?” I asked, stretching out each word. “Everyone follows you! The second you say you’re going to a party the whole group shows up. But when you say you’re not into something, they all follow along and insist they don’t like it either.”
Her eyes got as big as saucers as she shook her head no.
“That does not happen.”
But she was wrong. It happened all the time and I saw it again and again.
So, how do these elements come together in a story?
Here’s how to do it
List out any pieces of technology you can think of for your story. I often find creating a setting to be the easy part of the story. What’s difficult is making the setting push the story forward and generate excitement for your readers.
I decided to set my story about a murderous child in my favorite decade, the 1990s. Here’s my list of important technology:
Computers in the library, a water filter in the refrigerator door, a set of professional knives in the kitchen, second-hand kids’ toys from the eighties, (lite bright, My Buddy, clip-on roller skates), cassettes, Walkman players, A Jeep Cherokee…
Who has the power?
The kid, Sammy, has the power
He lords his mother’s fear of him and his potential future as a killer over her. He loves to see her doubt herself and walk on eggshells around him.
Now, how do I make this important?
I can make the kitchen the mother’s sanctuary. This is where she reads cookbooks, works out recipes of her own, and bakes homemade bread. So, when baby Sammy walks over to her chef’s knife or scares her by toying with the ice cube maker, he’s stealing her security from her. That will help me build tension in the story and establish power with visuals as opposed to exposition.
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