Thursday, February 2

Getting Mad: What Mad Men Can Teach Us About POV and World Building

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

My husband and I started watching Mad Men on DVD, which we hadn't seen before. All I knew abut the show was that a lot of people praised it highly, but we like to find old shows we've missed (no matter when they aired) and go back and try them.

Turns out Mad Men is about a group of Madison Avenue Advertising guys in the 50s. It's also a fantastic study of world building and point of view.

The world really was different back then, and this show is genius for inserting all the little details of life in the 50s. If you catch them, great, if not, you aren't hindered in the story. But the more you notice, the richer the world is and the more you shake your head at what life used to be like.

Imagine today if you...
  • Slapped your friend's kid for knocking over a glass, and your friend was okay with this.
  • Saw your 6 year old with a plastic dry cleaning bag over her head playing spaceman, and gave her a stern warning that she'd better not have messed up the dry cleaning that came in the bag, then sent her on her way.
  • Were fine when all the men in the office made regular sexual advances on all the women, and that this was expected.
  • And then treated the new divorcee in the neighborhood like she was there to steal all your husbands.
What makes Mad Men so compelling is that all of these things -- and more -- are just part of the background. No one thinks twice about it because that's just the way the culture worked. There's no judgment on it, except by those who feel one way or the other about their own world. A woman can  playfully scold a friend for making a racist comment, but she's the only one who thinks it's inappropriate, and it's not even that big a deal. Her "offense" was less than when someone told an off color joke.

Another woman gets upset about the sexist treatment when it works against her, but she's all for it when it works in her favor. A man who has no trouble cheating on his wife (and girlfriend) is the one who spends the most time trying to figure out what women actually want. And another man says, "who cares?" and "I can't wait til my daughter is another man's problem."

None of these people see the world as we see it. And their acceptance of things we know are wrong makes it all the more interesting. Because this is the way it was, we don't judge them as harshly either. Since it's so obvious, the creator can make points without ever saying a word. You watch and think, "boy, have we come a long way." And in some cases, "yikes, we haven't come that far at all."

When you create your worlds and the people in them, no matter if they're here at home or in a fantasy world, remember that the people who live there take that world for granted and see it as it is, and has always has been. They won't have modern day views on how it works (unless of course it's set in the modern day, then they'll have their views on how it works).

Even if they're trying to change the world, chances are they won't be trying to make it what we think the world should be. They'll try to change the part that they disagree with based on what they've experienced. (This holds true for modern day stories set here as well) If slavery is acceptable, they won't think about the poor slaves. One might treat them like furniture, another may treat them like favored pets and think they're being kind. If backstabbing and ruthless business practices are the norm, no one with think twice about betraying a friend to get ahead. Or if they do, they won't think of themselves as being bad people, just hate the fact that this is what they have to do to do their job. Let your characters see and react to their worlds as someone living in that world would see and react to it. Keep your personal views out of it, and let the personal views of the characters fill it.

That means lots of small details that show the world in action. A variety of views on the social and cultural ideals and rules. Conflicting views, even within the same person. And yes, no matter what the world, this still applies. Someone who lives in LA has different views than someone who lives in Pocahontas, Arkansas. And both have different views than the gal in Finland.

No world is all anything. Take advantage of that, and your story world will be richer.

Are the rules of your world the same or different from ours? Do different characters have different views on things? Are there any "wrong" aspects or views that are seen as normal and right? Any "right" views seen as wrong?


  1. Yeah, stories irritate me where someone believes something other than the status quo "Just 'cause!" when they've grown up with it being right. Their problems with the status quo have to stem from somewhere.

    That said, it's hard to accurately create characters with different worldviews than yourself, especially for works based in the Real World. I can consciously choose to make my cast vary in religion and denomination (and I consider "religion" to be any basic structure of belief, and "denomination" the subheadings), but can someone of those worldviews read my work and say "Hey, she actually got humanism right!"?

    I hope so.

  2. Thanks Janice!

    You have got me thinking, even as I read, about the social norms of medieval life and how I've "bent" some of them in my current WIP. But I think I'll need to revisit those scenes and figure out what should really happen. Hey, maybe I'll end up with better conflict! :)

  3. This is an interesting subject you brought up here. Even Skeeter from The Help wasn't completely perfect in terms of worldview, and she is pretty radical for her time.

    I'm reading Clockwise, which this partly goes into place. The protagonist is from modern times and she keeps going back to the late 1850's. When she accidentally brings someone else along...let's say it causes some awkward moments.

    I'm thinking if I write a story in a Steampunk setting, I'll probably strike a medium in terms of beliefs. For example, the characters being suspicious of the "colored person" that seems to be around a lot, or a LGBT character being justified with hiding their true self, and then other characters reacting as expected when they find out the secret.

    Once I'm back from school, I'll add this onto my weekly round-up.

  4. Janice, as always your tips have been of the greatest value. I stop here everyday - I mean it, because your blog is the one who helps me the most when writing craft is concerned. And as I know a little gratitude goes a long way, I'm thanking you for all the effort you put in helping other writers. I wish loads of good karma to you! :D

  5. This is awesome. The stuff with the recently wrecked Costa Concordia cruise ship (children, women, & pregnant woman shoved aside by men; compare with the Titanic where ideals of chivalry ensured that more 3rd class women survived than 1st class men) has made me think a lot about how someone from any time/place we ridicule as backwards might very well extend the modern world the same scorn.

  6. Hmm . . .

    On the one hand, I can't come up with a good reason why I don't think like the people around me, other than "their views just don't resonate with my own inner sense of morality." If I can think at times of my own culture "this is appalling," it seems narrow-minded or even offensive to make all my characters in other cultures unable to see what's appalling around them.

    On the other hand, maybe I'm actually harder to appall than those around me. I'd have no problem writing a hero who engaged in culturally-approved cannibalism or incest, and I've written characters who gleefully fought and killed other characters they considered to be racially subhuman. I just want my heroes to be the sorts who, when seeing someone clearly suffer, would at least give a passing thought to why they were suffering, and maybe change for the better because of it.

  7. If a character is enlightened about some moral problem in their world, they must have a reason to be so. For instance, a girl in my wip rebels against the traditional role of women...once she experiences a level of sexism that she just can't tolerate. Even then, it's a personal matter for her -- she's not thinking about the state of women everywhere. Before that, it was just a normal part of her world and life. For a character to make a shift like that, they have to be pushed pretty far.

    I tend to take issue with books that have an overt message or overt exemplification of the author's moral standards. Not that one shouldn't be moral or that one should write about depraved worlds and characters -- but keep it realistic with what the story requires.

  8. Carradee, it is hard (I worry about getting it wrong), and not everyone will see it. But I think they'll still pick up on something deeper there, and some will see what you're doing.

    Amelia, I hope so! If the plan is to give a modern feel to it, those little bends aren't so bad, but if they pull the reader out of the story it can be troublesome. Keep me posted on how it goes!

    CO, you could probably write dissertations on this topic :) And it is fiction, so you do have all kinds of leeway. It's just one more area where you can deepen your story. (and thanks for the round-up!)

    Anon, aw, thanks. :) Much appreciated.

    MK, great comparison! A perfect example of this. (and a sad one)

    Feotakahari, that sounds like a good reason to me. If pressed, you'd come up with examples on what doesn't fit. And people do see the appalling around them, but they don't always act on it. I'm not saying have your characters be oblivious to things, just think about how someone in that situation or culture really would view their world.

    Right now there are plenty of people who think girls aren't good at math and don't teach them, or steer them toward other more "girly" pursuits. They think nothing of this, while others find this horrible. Or think about how girl children are treated in China. Some parents love their daughters, others sell them or kill them to make room for a boy. If there's something so ingrained in the culture that it's normal, there's a good chance very few are going to notice it much less think of it differently than anyone else. But some will, as some always view things differently.

    But if you have a character who was born and raised into a culture where servants were regularly worked half to death and fed poorly, they probably wouldn't think of that as being bad. To them that's not suffering, unless something has happened in their life to make them aware of these people in a different light. Which may be the case and why they're the hero of the story.

    Laura, good example. Change happens, but it's usually because someone was unhappy with something personally and fought against it. It's usually not a selfless act.

  9. I've always enjoyed creating characters whose views are wildly different from my own. It's kind of liberating, and one of the reasons I like writing historical fiction.

  10. Wendy, I can see that. I think that's a reason why I like fantasy, as well as villains. You can come at something from a totally different perspective.