Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Using school as a setting

One of the things that used to bug me is the number of writers who use school as a setting. Like for instance, in science fiction of a couple of decades ago, school and colleges were a common setting. Every fantasy series seems to use school at one time or another. There is also that tendency in military stories to use boot camp as a setting.

As I said, it used to bug me. Not any more.

I think that my change in heart about it is that I became a college student myself. Until that point, I did not realize how life changing school could be. Especially college.

Nor did I realize how deeply set the imagery of college could be set into a person's brain. At least once a month I dream that I can't find the room where a class is taking place, or that I forgot my locker combination and need to get my homework out of that locker right now.

I have also came to the realization that people must be curious about how certain profession are trained, and what makes them react the way that they do. Soldiers, spies and magicians all are molded into something not quite normal (compared to normal human reactions and behavior) by their training. Seeing their training allows us to add another layer to their character.

Whether it is Camp Arthur Carrie or Hogwarts, using a school or bootcamp as a setting does have certain points to be said for it. Having the character be a student allows the author to be able to expound on technology or the philosophy that drives a profession without having to resort to the device of having characters explain things to one another that they should already know. "As you know, we must recover after every spell we cast. The more powerful the spell, the longer we need to rest. Therefore after we cast the lightning bolts at the enemy formation, we fall back leaving the field to the infantry..." It is better to show a character passing out in boot camp after attempting to cast a second lightning bolt than to subject the poor reader to the rather dry technical explaination.

Despite its uses, there is a major drawback to using schools as a setting. Quite simply, everyone has been in school (or almost everyone--there are the home schooled, though they are extremely rare). If you do not portray it right, you have destroyed your reader's suspension of disbelief. A hard enough blow in the form of a fundemental mistake and your reader will put your story down--a fatal mistake for a writer. Which is why I won't be writing about the horrors of being a grad student for several more years.

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