Humanity has an endless, innate drive for innovation. We create tools to make our lives easier, invent weapons to defend ourselves and conquer others, and develop new ways of sharing our thoughts and words to make the world a smaller place. Regardless of why an improvement is made, technology often translates into power, and power further translates into conflict. As conflict is the crux of story, we as authors need to be aware of this effect and use the technological state of our milieus to our advantage.
Star Wars is a classic example of using technological development to drive plot. It’s not a coincidence that Episode IV begins shortly before the Death Star is brought on line as a fully operational battle station. Its completion represents a technological change for the Empire that the rebels can’t match. Furthermore, the Empire is willing to use this power differential to end the conflict once and for all. The Rebel Alliance must destroy the weapon or be destroyed themselves. As we sympathize with the rebels, the audience feels a strong sense of dramatic tension, and therefore rejoices when our protagonist succeeds in destroying the evil superweapon. Without the technological step change, the plot wouldn’t exist.
Though technology can be an effective source of conflict, its influence is often subtler. Consider how the Internet and mobile communication revolution has shaped our world. For one, we have fundamentally changed how we do business, moving from physical currency to an almost entirely digital system. Furthermore, because of social media and other public forums, the evolution of language, public opinion, and social reform seems to have accelerated faster in the past twenty years than in the forty that came before. These changes can most clearly be seen in the younger generations, the ones who grew up with this technology as part of their every day.
Though technology drives perception and fundamentally shapes character, the interaction between milieu and character is bidirectional. As authors, we often change our worlds to fit the needs of character and story. One of my favorite examples of this is the world of the Gentlemen Bastards. In an interview, Scott Lynch stated that he chose the Renaissance as a model for the world of his series because he wanted his protagonists to be con-men. He argued that con-men couldn’t live in the traditional medieval setting because the population of those cities was too small to provide the social cover and anonymity that they would need to survive. And so, he created his world to suit his vision for his characters.
The long range influence of any piece of technology is almost impossible to fully predict. Technology often creeps into our everyday lives until it changes us as a society. It shapes how we think and interact with the world and creates conflict. Therefore, it is essential that we as authors be mindful of the technological choices we make during world building, and their effect on subsequent plot and character decisions.Tags: Sequence 06: Making Milieu