What is it about the circus?
What makes young people want to run away and join one? What makes it an ideal setting for the strange and wondrous? The bright colours and cheerful music? The daredevil acts? The nomadic lifestyle? On a more fantastic spectrum, is it that the magic could be real? Could it be that there’s something perverse about this place of amazement?
But a circus is more than jugglers, tightrope walkers, and beast tamers. Here are some things to consider for your circus setting.
Does your Circus have a theme? You can choose your basic, three-ring circus, but it’s good for narrative, world building, and business if there’s something unique about your circus. It can be something as simple as a colour-scheme—The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern uses a purely black-and-white one—or the theme can encompass every aspect of their show, from colour choices to performances. Your theme can be virtually anything. It can revolve around things like monsters, or you can have a floral theme, or focus on fire-based acts and appearances. There’s no actual limit as to what you can do with a circus.
Who inhabits your Circus? What you choose as a theme and the kind of world you’ve created will effect who makes up the circus. A vampire-themed circus is more likely to have a large population of actual vampires working for them (though there doesn’t need to be). Are the lower ranks made up of runaways and drug addicts? Are the clowns just guys in suits or unrepentant monsters? The type of story you’re trying to tell will determine if the people who make up the circus are just ordinary folks or something more.
The Staff? What are the big, headlining acts in the show? Who does them? Do they have understudies in case of injury or illness? What about the other jobs? A circus is more than just the beast tamer, the trapeze artist, and the ring master. Who performs in the sideshows? Who wanders around in colourful costumes, handing out balloons? You can’t forget the non-performing jobs either. Someone has to work the games, rides (if there are any) and concession. Someone had to repair costumes. Someone has to help with make-up. They need people to cook, clean, and repair. Not every member of your circus is going to be a full-on performer.
How’s your Circus doing? The success of a circus will determine how the performers are living. Are they world renowned with wealthy patrons? Then they’ve probably got well-maintained set-ups and gear, everyone gets paid on time, and they’re more than accepting of new members. A circus that’s struggling, or on the verge of closing, probably has sickly animals, only a few decently maintained attractions, under paid workers, and are likely to do anything to avoid having extra mouths to feed, whether those mouth are coming from outside or inside the circus. The financial status of a circus can tell the reader a lot about the situations that could potentially be encountered.
What’s the roster? Just like determining who does what, it is important to know what the big spectacles are. Your main players need names, though they need not all be main characters. Make sure the characters can fit their occupations (someone with stage-fright will not make a good ringleader). Determine what sideshows are offered. Fire breathers? Jugglers? Puppeteers? Is there a Freak Show? Is it a historically-based Freak Show, displaying people with deformities or other physical traits differing from the so-called norm? Or is the Freak Show full of actual freakish or mythological beings?
What the heck is up with your Circus? Are we looking at an average, real life circus, more observing the lives of its members than anything? Or is your circus in some way fantastic? Is the magic real? Is the circus haunted or manned by supernatural creatures? Is the circus kidnapping children for unknown purposes? Are they a front for a soul-stealing doomsday operation? Really, there’s nothing like taking something meant to bring joy and putting a dark twist on it.
Remember to research. Research is always important. There’s a lot to the circus. Research what kind of training performers do. Determine what goes into running a circus. Know terms. Know how some of the acts work, even if magic is involved.
I wish you all luck on your circus adventures!