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Is Your Setting Pulling Its Weight? Part 2: Group Dynamics

In Part 1, I discussed the importance of narrowing down the actual, physical location that your story is set in. Then, I discussed the importance of making that physical location relevant to the story itself. Your setting shouldn't just be anywhere; it should be offering both obstacles and affordances to your protagonist. There should be a reason why this particular plot occurs in this particular place. Once you've locked in on your setting, you want to pull out the details that make this location unique, and filter them through your protagonist's relationship to that setting. This will give your reader not just a sense of place, but serve the dual-purpose of revealing facets of your protagonist.

Today, I want to look at group dynamics as a feature of your setting. Identifying groups and group dynamics is what's really going to make your setting feel alive, but you can't do that before you've zeroed in on an actual place (whether that's city, town, or place of work). As a reminder from last week: one way to create specificity for your story, particularly in the event that your story takes place in a large city like London or New York, is to focus the plot of the story within a certain sub-setting of that larger environment. J.K. Rowling does this in the Strike novels, which take place largely in London, but in which each crime is centered in a certain industry (The Cuckoo's Calling takes place in the glamorous world of the rich and famous, The Silkworm takes place in the world of publishing). This allows her to still maintain her vibrant London setting, while creating more specific group dynamics within her chosen industry.

Group dynamics is one of the easiest ways to develop your secondary or even tertiary cast as efficiently as possible. You don't want your characters to feel like extras on a stage set, but you also don't want to waste time developing the entire life story of someone your protagonist talks to once. Answering the following questions can start to bring your setting to life because it creates a culture within your setting, giving not only the environment a sense of movement and place-in-time, but can add distinctness to even the most minor characters.

Step 1: Consider what kinds of groups people in this environment sort themselves into.

Even within tight-knit settings, for example, the small town of Wind Gap in Sharp Objects, people will always sort themselves into smaller groups. That may be departments in an office setting, or even friend groups within that same department. These groups begin to define how people relate to each other.

To dig further into the group dynamics of Wind Gap, Wind Gap as a place has its own small-town culture. Gossip is a cultural feature of this town and we witness nearly every inhabitant participating in it, which means that most characters have strong opinions, even theories, on the case itself, as well as each other. Additionally, Wind Gap as an entire town celebrates and participates in Calhoun Day, another cultural feature or ritual particular to this context. However, Wind Gap also has smaller groups within it. For example, the former cheerleaders of Wind Gap have their own ritual of wine nights (and their own expression of gossip, which they do specifically about each other and behind each other's backs). The result is that every character we meet seems to take on a life of their own, simply by their version of participation in the culture of the setting: whether they are acting as a representative of the overarching town culture, representing their own dissenting opinion from the setting, or representing the opinion of a sub-group within the environment.

Step 2: Develop group and sub-group cultures

This will vary slightly based on your setting. A place as big as London may not have the same sense of over-arching group identity as a workplace or a small town. It's up to you to decide if your setting as a whole has its own culture or if you need to focus on the subgroups within that setting. (Again, the Strike novels are a good example here because Rowling does that using the industries that the crimes take place in)

Once you've identified your groups, you can ask the following questions:

  • How do the groups in your environment feel about other groups within the environment?

  • How do different groups relate to the environment itself?

  • What kinds of vernacular, rituals, or insider knowledge do these groups have?

  • Is your protagonist a part of any of these groups?

  • How does your protagonist feel about these groups, if they're even aware of them?

Note how the last two questions will also serve to develop your protagonist. If they're an outsider, they may struggle to understand how one or more groups operate, which will impact their ability to navigate the setting. Or, if your protagonist is a part of one or more groups, they may be blinded to certain truths or uphold certain biases. Now, your setting not only comes more alive, but your protagonist too begins to have a place (or lack of place) within the setting, which gives you ample opportunities to establish and reveal their character.

This week, I would challenge you to assess the groups in your setting. Does your setting have its own culture? Do you have different groups or sub-groups within your setting? Do those groups have their own relationship to the setting? Does your protagonist have a relationship and/or opinions on the groups in your setting?

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