Fiction Writing

Variable Control

Variables are commonly thought of aspects of research. They are. However, writers of all kinds deal with variables, especially fiction writers. I address both fiction and research variables.

Constants in Fiction

A story contains many moving parts. Things change all the time, for example, characters’ ages, interests, and relationships; story location; plot via twists. No matter what variables there are, and no matter how much those change, a writer needs to remember the story’s constants. For instance, if a character or groups of characters move into a location at a certain time, that must be remembered. An author most likely would not consider having the character move to, say, Arkansas five months ago in the beginning of the story only to refer to the character as having been in Arkansas for the last year a few pages down the line.

Variables and Control

Variables, on the other hand, can change at any time. If a character despises a workmate when we first meet him, when he decides he can stand the colleague in the next chapter, we can accept that. Acceptance is not without conditions, though. This is where control plays the game. The reader needs to understand how the character came to the change of mind. Even if the change is critical to the plot, it makes for poor storyline to leave variables to their own devices, so to speak. The reason the character had a change of heart could be summed up in one or two sentences or it may be a gradual shift shown to the reader rather than told. No matter what, control your variables! Take note of them and attend to them.

Research Constants

In research, specifically educational research, constants are anything about your sample that do not vary. In a study on third graders, the students’ grade level is constant regardless of the rest of the study. Sometimes there may be multiple constants such as age, gender, and socioeconomic status (SES). That might occur in a study regarding 12-year-old girls of low SES and their attitudes toward going to college. The dependent variable is their attitudes.

Variables and Control

Gaining control of research variables includes moving step-by-step through the proposed methodology and determining if any variables are not being measured, and, if so, whether that is desirable, acceptable, or a problem. You will also need to continually revisit your research questions to ensure your variables are being properly addressed.

There are different types of variables: independent, dependent, moderator, and extraneous. They play different roles in your design and study. The independent variable is something that will have an affect on dependent variable, such as a curriculum, a program, a lecture, a group classification if comparisons are made. The independent variable is applied to a situation, a certain type of grouping, or something manipulated in the study.

Dependent variables are those characteristics that vary. If your study is on children of all ages, age is a dependent variable. If you want to determine how many teachers at a specific site respond to using a new curriculum, the variables are as follows:

Curriculum                       Independent

Gender                            Dependent

Age                                 Dependent

Years taught                    Dependent

Grade level/subject          Dependent

School site                       Constant

When analyzing data, if you have kept track of all data for all variables, there is much you may do with that information. You may want to see if men ages 24-35, more positively responded to the curriculum than men ages 36-54. That may be valuable information. The data can also be split by gender as well as by years taught or grade level. There may be no differences between the curriculum response and most or any of the variables.

If, in the same study, you find a difference between how men and women responded to the curriculum, gender becomes a moderator variable.

Finally, extraneous variables are those which cannot be controlled. It is critical you decide how you will address these variables in your design as well as in your analysis. You can only control what you do with these variables since they themselves cannot be controlled.

Deciding on your variables has much to do with your research questions. But knowing your variables and controlling for them is key.


See also:

Location, Location, Location – Fiction Style

How important is location to your story? Maybe the whole story takes place in a store and every detail matters to the point of knowing all about the failing furniture and why it is in the state it’s in. Perhaps the plot forces the characters to travel and you, the writer, need to know more about multiple locations. Maybe it is about time travel and location plays both a smaller part and a larger part depending on the story segment. Generally, though, location plays a great part in any story.

Note: This post is about analyzing location for your story as opposed to describing it.

What is the Story Focus?

Recently for me, it was about a tree. The tree was not the story, but it was an integral part of it. The tree was not an initial fixture of the story, so when it entered my writing, I needed to know…would the tree grow in the location I’d already chosen?

Where to Write

In this post, I am speaking to writing in a geographical location as opposed to a more specific location such as a café. Writing in areas we’ve lived in or visited will happen naturally if we don’t push ourselves to think about the setting in different ways. Writing where we’re comfortable has its advantages, among them knowing the landscape and high points and pitfalls to being there. Then there is writing in completely synthesized worlds, which happens much in Science Fiction. But if we’re not doing that, then writing in locations foreign to us requires research, or as I like to say, allows me to play.

I love picking a place at random, a general area, such as a state or small country. I visit Google maps, or some such site, and scroll around looking for desirables for my story. Location desirables include the size of the town or city as well as its proximity to other cities, population, and topography. Those are some of the first things I look for. I already have character traits swirling in my head so my location needs to fit who my characters are. Why would they live there, or visit there, or come from there?

What is it about There?

There may be many questions to ask about location before deciding on one or several. If location is an important part of a story, the following could be critical to your decision about using a place:

  • What amenities does the town/city have? Does it have a downtown? Would my character need to go somewhere else to shop? Does it have public transportation?
  • Does this place have things like a cemetery, places for characters to work, a music scene?
  • Are there nearby natural amenities such as rivers, mountains, forests, farmland?
  • What is the weather like there? Does it get tornadoes, earthquakes, hurricanes, sleet, snow, summer thunderstorms? What is the climate like?
  • What is the government structure of the place? Will it inhibit some character activity? What rules are in place making it different from somewhere else?
  • Is the city a major hub of a region? How does the general population make its living? Are there homeless?
  • What is the history of the area? Who are the communities? Is the character part of the community or a new arrival?

The Fiction Aspect

Some of aspects mentioned above do not have to be true to a particular place. Whether or not a place actually has a homeless population or how the general population makes its living are things that could be created as you write. They don’t necessarily have to be true to the location. However, that is a decision in and of itself. How much do I fictionalize? If you are naming the place by its true name, it is worth it to explore what readers may know about a place (topography, government structure, proximity to other places, things to do for fun, etc.) or things they could discover on the internet with a few clicks.

Your research will most likely take some deeper clicks, perhaps a visit, or even some emails to residents. You will probably turn up some of the quirks of the location, even better for storytelling. Location can be, and most likely is, an important part of many stories. Taking time to pin down the aspects of location important to your characters, your plot, is crucial to solidifying your work.

What are some the steps you take to finding a location for your fiction?


Also check out Kate Pullinger.