Evoking place isn’t always easy in fiction. You can get hung up on the details at the expense of the overall image, or not show enough to make the place distinctive. Based on the recommendation of another writer, I’ve been thinking about how to use tools from the Fate roleplaying game to do this better.
Fate is a tabletop role-playing game, like Dungeons and Dragons or GURPS, except that it’s very different from those two. It turns the game into an act of collaborative storytelling, with more description and cooperation in place of the turn-taking adventures and numbers-based mechanics of many RPGs.
Fate is built around aspects – words and phrases that describe characters, places, objects, and events. A character might have aspects such as “Owes Jo his life” or “Master swordsman”, and if they can show how these are relevant to the story they gain an advantage. Similarly, places can have aspects, things like “noisy”, “dilapidated”, or “owned by the Triad”, just two or three aspects that get to the essence of the place.
I’m starting to use this as a way of thinking about places in stories. If when I’m first defining a place I decide that its aspects are “made of ancient oak” and “full of tribbles”, that tells me a lot without a great deal of planning. I can then use descriptive details to evoke those aspects, and as long as I don’t contradict myself in the details, I’m likely to create a place that is evocative but not bogged down in minutiae. The aspects also give me something to go back to whenever I need to add a new detail. Doors are made of more ancient wood, and the nails holding them together must be equally old, rust spreading from them to stain the wood. When a character opens a previously unexplored cupboard, tribbles will probably fall out. Maybe dead tribbles that have been left in that ancient space too long. If there are insects here, maybe they’re oak-boring worms or fleas living on tribbles.
I’m not saying that this is the ultimate solution to getting setting right, but for now it’s helping me.