SJ Kincaid: Setting As A Character

By Jim Dean, November 1, 2016

Great to have THE DIABOLIC author SJ Kincaid on the site today talking about setting as a character! THE DIABOLIC is published 1st November (that’s TODAY!) by Simon & Schuster.

I’m the author of the INSIGNIA series, and the upcoming book, THE DIABOLIC. I could honestly go on and on about world building for these sci-fi novels in the future, but I’ll try to keep this from becoming a novel in itself. They are both sci-fi stories set in the future – one a bit further in the future than now. I’ve found one single element in world-building that is most critical for me: the setting.

I need a place where the action takes place. That’s what gives my imagination the images I need for devising the plot. There is usually one primary location where the majority of the action takes place, and it is almost a character in its own right.

In THE DIABOLIC, the main setting is the Chrysanthemum, the power centre of a vast galactic Empire. The Chrysanthemum itself is a superstructure of 2,000+ interlinked starships.

In INSIGNIA, the setting is the Pentagonal Spire, a high-rise building that doubles as a transmitter constructed on top of the current Pentagon, used to contact ships in space during the World War Three events of that story.

Both of these structures are visual to me. The first looks like, well, a Chrysanthemum. The second… Well, I have an okay image of it in my head. One time, I idly tried to draw it. I was in public. In a coffee shop. A woman with a child walked by and cast me a scandalized look, and I looked down at my drawing and realized it resembled a doodle of a giant penis.

That… was not intentional. It probably says a lot about my artistic skills.

Once I have a cool idea of the setting, I get truly excited to place my characters in it, to write a story within it. I envision all the other things I can do with this setting, and there are so many possibilities in science fiction. For the purposes of this piece, I’m going to focus on The Diabolic’s Chrysanthemum.

The Chrysanthemum is in space. How would it be defended, I wondered? Automated machines. This is the far-distant future, after all. Oh, and what about the local stars itself? Gravity is a force to be reckoned with.

Thinking of gravity made me wonder: what if the Chrysanthemum has a gravity mass of its own and doesn’t need artificial gravity? What if it’s in a system with three pairs of binary stars – yes, six stars – and they create such turbulent gravity in the system that only a narrow channel of the star system is safe to navigate? Wouldn’t that help defend this place?

But defend it from what? There are so many possibilities here. This is how I envisioned the Grandiloquy, a space-centric elite, and if I followed the Roman model, the most powerful could be Senators.

A myriad of other questions follow: imperial courts require recreation. There have to be forms of recreation that use gravity. What about those that use zero-gravity? And if this Chrysanthemum sits amid these six stars, wouldn’t the sigils of the Imperial family reflect the six stars?

What about the religious rituals in an Empire all centred around a six-star system? Where would that come in? Hey, what if the dead were shot into stars? What if sacrifices were?

So many questions about this galaxy, this Empire, and this world-building all spiral out from there, and that’s merely from deciding on this setting.

How do my characters interact with the setting? Are they in control of it, are they at the mercy of it? Do they fear it or wish to be there?

And how is this setting maintained? Well, this is the far-distant future, so probably there are robots that can do repairs. Everything is being automated now, and we’re very primitive technologically.

If machines can be automated, what happens to the excess people, the ones unneeded by the Grandiloquy? After all, if the elite have no dependence on the masses, then they are free to treat them however they choose, so how do they treat them? How merciful are they? What is their attitude towards these Excess? What do these Excess think of these Grandiloquy?

So many possibilities. Again, all from imagining the setting. That’s why setting has been so absolutely critical in my writing process, at least so far.

A Pentagonal Spire or a Chrysanthemum also takes a lot of mental energy for me to envision, so I try whenever possible to make full use of it, and get nervous about centring too much of a narrative away from them. A setting, as you see above, provokes questions. It requires care because it can influence so much of the story and its universe.

Taking the action from that setting…

Well, it can be done, certainly.

It just means repeating this process all over again of imagining questions for all the answers that will follow.


What do you think?