Things Fall Apart — Decay as a Mechanism for Characterization

“… but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” ~Excerpt from a letter written by Benjamin Franklin, 1789.

One of my favorite fictional milieus is the world of the Girl Genius web comics. Phil and Kaja Folio have created a setting that feels alive, dynamic, and vibrant. I once had the privilege of meeting Phil Folio across a signing table at Phoenix Comic Con and took the opportunity to ask him for advice on making my own milieus more immersive. “The trick,” he said, “is to realize that everything will decay. To make your milieu feel real, pay attention to how it decays.”

After pondering his advice, I have come to realize that selective decay of milieu is really all about characterization. Maintaining a building or an area is an expensive endeavor, both in terms of time and resources. By carefully choosing how our milieus decay, we can show our reader what the locals value and how much pride they take in their community. We can make a place feel safe and well-loved or threatening and run down by changing a few key details.

When I picture a “good” area of town in my head, I see roads that are in relatively good condition, not perfect but certainly a smooth ride. The homes are painted bright colors, if a bit faded, and the walls and windows are clean. Lawns are mowed, green, and tidy, strewn with bikes and other children’s toys. Neighbors can be seen washing their cars or doing yardwork on a Saturday afternoon, and will often spare a smile or a few words when you walk by. These people take pride in what they own and spend the time and money necessary to maintain them. At the same time, they feel secure enough in their environment to bother doing so.

By contrast, a “rough” area of town isn’t just run down, but rather bears the signs of long-term neglect and willful destruction. Gang tags and graffiti are common on the sides of buildings and stop signs. Lawns are unkempt and overgrown, and the roads are filled with cracks and potholes. Even though there are bars on the windows many of them are broken. Garages and fences are always closed and secured and no one leaves their personal property lying about. People are often scarce, but when they do venture out, they travel in packs. All these queues are signs that human predators live here and that strangers aren’t welcome.

Maintaining a building, let alone an entire section of a city requires a significant expenditure of time, money, materials, and energy. Very few communities have the resources and inclination to maintain a pristine facade. By using consistent and deliberate environmental queues, we can increase our reader’s immersion in our worlds and manipulate their perceptions. As writers, we need to remember that though decay may be inevitable, choosing how to allow our milieus to age will be a significant expression of characterization.


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