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Do you see the universe in a grain of sand?  If you do, the beach must be a mind-blower.  What about snowflakes?  No two are alike so wrap your brain around a field of snow, right?  Raindrops?  For literal-minded folks they only get us wet.  Those dullards have umbrellas, but for the rest of us a rainy day is kissing weather or maybe a chance to walk slowly down a noir street, trench coat collar turned up and fedora dripping.

It is our human tendency to make associations.  We read meaning into things.  An old jacket hanging in the hall closet isn’t just cloth sewn together with sleeves, it’s a memory of seasons gone by.  Shrug on that jacket and it will tell you tales.  It’s just waiting to do so.  That’s why we don’t throw it out or donate it to the Salvation Army.  Is that garment inanimate or is it magic?  If you have a heart and an imagination then you know the answer.

The settings of novels invite us to make associations, too.  We search for our world in the world of a story and we find it there—or do we?  I am pretty sure that you think of the setting of your WIP as a microcosm, but will I feel that way when I read it?  Sorry to report, in too many manuscripts—most, to be honest—I do not experience the microcosm effect.  Why not?  Let’s take a look at that today.

Certain settings seem as if they will act as automatic microcosms.  High school.  Hospital.  Prison.  Army.  Pro football.  Others ought to be microcosms because they fit the bill.  Rock tour.  Dog show.  Casino.  Congress.  Life raft.  The Ritz Hotel.  Route 66.  Ocean liner.  Starship.  Jersey shore.  Time boundaries ought to produce the microcosm effect, as well.  D-Day.  The Victorian era.  The Hunger Games.  Same for geographic singularities.  Shangri-La.  Narnia.  Cincinnati.

However, the truth is that the hometown settings of most hometown manuscripts do not feel like much of anywhere.  Most offices in manuscripts are just offices.  Even the CIA is too often only a generic spy agency, hardly more than an acronym.  Fantasy realms are too frequently can be flat, which is a shame.  I mean, why conjure a magic place only to allow it be like so many others and at the same time nothing resonant of our own reality?

The microcosm effect is not automatic.  It is produced.  By what means?  Here we go.

The Human Carnival

There’s a reason that writers have long been drawn to carnival sideshows.  The sideshow alley is a parade of human variety, mostly grotesque to be sure but nevertheless fascinating, bizarre and lurid.  How did human beings become so deformed?  What must it be like for them?  How remarkable that people can turn their oddity to advantage, or at least a living!  (If you can call it that.)

What’s different about people is not only entertaining, but causes us to reflect.  To associate.  Aren’t we all in some way The Strong Man?  Aren’t we all awed—possibly even weirdly turned on—by The Cat Woman?  Don’t we all feel leaping inside us the life-giving spark of Mr. Electrico?  (Thank you, Ray Bradbury.)  The greater the human variety, the more we feel kinship.  The more we identify.  The more others, somehow,  become just like us.  Is it strange that a community of oddballs can seem to represent our whole society?  Certainly not.  That’s the microcosm effect.

It is disappointing when in a manuscript a protagonist’s friends are just friends, nothing special about them.  Absent parents in YA fiction are frequently either conveniently abusive, divorced or dead, as if there are no other options.  And demons, don’t get me started.  They so often have little personality other than a maniacal streak or permanent sneer.  How can there be a microcosm without variety and surprise?

For the microcosm effect to take hold, there has to be a range of human types.  Take a look at the following list, by no means complete, and ask yourself whether there are characters in your current story who could be more like…

  • Unwanted Suitor
  • Whip-smart Granny
  • Idiot Savant
  • Hopeless Addict
  • Third Wheel
  • Adrenaline Junkie
  • Lone Survivor
  • Hometown Booster
  • Charming Moocher
  • Crystal Healer
  • Constant Loser
  • Shoe Collector
  • Civilian Who Is Still an Officer
  • Man’s Man
  • Woman’s Woman
  • Broken Doll
  • Ice Queen
  • Too Good for This World
  • Arch Enemy
  • Horrible Driver
  • Lucky S.O.B.
  • Motorcycle Pastor
  • Gambling Nun
  • Fallen Sports Star
  • Kung-Fu Santa
  • Ballroom Klutz
  • Beach Bar Blonde
  • Blood Brother
  • Better Friend Than Lover

Now, it may seem to you that I’m pressing for stereotypes; advocating casting your novel out of that wonderful time-sink website tvtropes.org.  I’m not.  Every character deserves your own unique spin, but every reader also deserves a walk through the human carnival and that’s not what every reader gets all the time.  Are they getting that in your current manuscript?

Besides, we all know people who affirm some type or other.  I do, right on that list.  Did you guess that I know a “Kung-Fu Santa”?  Well, it happens that I do.  Kids sit on his lap in malls at Christmastime and he can use his ki to hurl you across a room with a mere touch of his finger to your sternum.  (So he claims.  I haven’t tested that out.)

My point here is that there’s no reason for any character to be nothing more than a walk-on.  Every human comes with history, so why not make it an interesting one?  Every human is a cypher, a bundle of contradictions, someone’s heart throb, a walking timebomb, nobody’s fool, a granny-wolf, Ahab with a grudge against an aquatic mammal, Alice with a bottle, Dorothy with a yearning for dusty Kansas.

The more the merrier—and the greater the microcosm effect.

Role It Out

In our real communities, people have parts to play.   Professions.  Assigned roles.  Policeman.  Fireman.  Teacher.  Lawyer.  Librarian.  Doctor.  Nurse.  Priest.  Dog catcher.  Your story may involve any of those, and if so I hope that each is distinctive, but there are certain other community roles that are not civic posts, sanctioned or necessarily paid.

To create the microcosm effect, it can be useful to find roles for characters to fill or characters to fill those roles.  Let’s call them “unofficial” community roles, such as…

  • Gadfly
  • Busybody
  • Legacy Guardian
  • Rogue Historian
  • Fixit Wizard
  • Corner Bar Referee
  • Police Band Monitor
  • Beauty Queen Without a Crown
  • Professional Divorcee
  • Local Golf Legend
  • PTA Lifetime Dictator
  • Magical Baker
  • Borderline Criminal
  • Beloved Girl Next Door
  • Despised Personal Injury Lawyer
  • Full Time Activist
  • Godmother to All
  • Streetcorner Eye
  • Knows Where the Bodies are Buried
  • Handsy Poet
  • Celebrity Pride
  • Historical Hero now Pariah
  • Famous Ghost
  • Feared Enforcer
  • Boogie Man
  • Best Dad in Town (with Pregnant Daughter)

Again, the point here is not to grab at stereotypes but to make secondary characters interesting and round out the story world in a way that feels all too familiar.  Every town has unique characters.  Every city has strange public figures.  Every nation has horrific heroes and hidden saints.  Every story can too.

People Do the Strangest (and Most Wonderful) Things

The late Bob Saget hosted a TV show called “America’s Funniest Home Videos”.  Who was it who figured out that we would watch hours and hours of people losing their shorts on water slides or sailing into barbed wire fences after jumping onto trampolines from roofs?   Some low genius, that’s who.

Also Charles Dickens and thousands of other memorable novelists.  People are not just who they are but what they do, and sorry to say it but in a whole lot of manuscripts the people don’t do all that much that you or I couldn’t do on any given day.  Let me ask you, what’s the most outrageous thing you’ve ever done?  What about your cousin Larry?  Talk about crazy!  Does anyone in your WIP do anything that memorable?

Here’s a list of prompts—just scratching the surface—suggesting things that characters might do…

  • Mess Up Big Time
  • Marry Too Well
  • Play an Ace in the Hole
  • Launch an Acid Attack
  • Turn the Tables on a Sorority Initiation
  • Discover an Ass Tattoo in the Morning
  • Prank the Sergeant
  • Adopt a Weird Fetish
  • Go Back to School
  • Get Back in the Saddle
  • Come Back from the Dead
  • Win a Battle of Wits
  • Wipe the Slate Clean—Almost
  • Risk a Ten-to-One Against
  • Shatter an Illusion
  • Forgive Thad for the Marshmallow Incident
  • Eat the Wrong Mushroom
  • Make a Fortune But Keep a Penny Jar
  • Swim the English Channel
  • Punch Out Someone’s Lights
  • Give Away a Secret Recipe
  • Travel Far Just to Shake a Hand
  • Blurt Out the Truth
  • Let the Better Man Win
  • Blow the Roof Off the Place

You get the idea.  Big actions bring it home.  Without drama there is just ordinary life and who needs to read a novel for that?  Outrageous behavior isn’t just for comedy, it’s what makes us pay attention and see that story people come from our planet.

No doubt you have in your life amassed a trove of human traits, achievements, foibles, fuck-ups and follies.  People are weird and wonderful.  You never can tell when a teacher will eat bugs or a Marine will take up weaving (two more true cases known to me).  Many writers hope to capture the human circus but wind up with a story world that is too ordinary to be recognizable as the world we know.

A story world gets to be a microcosm not by being a perfect mirror but by celebrating our uniqueness and enacting a wide range of human behavior.  We don’t see ourselves in a world that’s safely like ours.  We recognize our world in stories in which it’s safe for characters to be anything and act in ways that we only wish we could.

Share your favorite microcosms in fiction!  What is it that makes them that way?


About Donald Maass

Donald Maass (he/him) is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency. He has written several highly acclaimed craft books for novelists including The Breakout Novelist, The Fire in Fiction, Writing the Breakout Novel and The Career Novelist.

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