Character Development as World Building – Part One

This is a distillation of a workshop I taught at the Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group conference, “The Write Stuff,” a couple of weeks ago. It’ll probably be a three-part series. Hope it’s of interest!

Frequently, when I talk to new writers, especially in the fantasy field, I hear things like, “Well, I’ve been working on a novel for ten years.”

“Oh,” I say, “what’s it about?”

“Well,” they say, “I’m still building the world.”

“Who are the characters?” I ask.

“Well, there are these guys who wear blue hats, and they’ve been fighting a war for 500 years with the guys who wear red hats.”

“So is your story about a red hat, a blue hat, or a couple of each?” “Well, I’m still building the world…”

Yeah. Like that.

Stories aren’t about worlds. Stories are about people. As the wonderful author Robert Newton Peck once observed, “Fiction is Folks.”

My friend Howard Weinstein likes to remind new writers that any story can be summarized in the form of the statement:

Story [A] is about a [B] who wants [C]. 

This is where the story should start, and it applies no matter how big the story is. To give a well-known example, Gone With the Wind is about a woman who wants to save her home and way of life. Yes, it’s also a Civil War epic, and to tell the tale you need to know a lot about the social and political vectors that influenced people’s lives at that time and place in history. Margaret Mitchell had to build a world, virtually, based on a real one, but still fictional, for Scarlett to live in.

But her story starts with Scarlett. Right up front: “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it…”

Not: “In 1861 War was declared,” or “In 1630, the first slave ship sailed…” The story is about its protagonist. The world we see, we see through her eyes.

And Scarlett’s view is myopic. At the beginning, she’s bored. She wants to know nothing about war. She just wants Ashley. Later, she reflects that she cares nothing about Tara or its lands, she just wants Ashley. But Gone With the Wind  is not the story of Scarlett wanting Ashley. It’s the story of her learning that her world is crumbling, and that she will do whatever it takes to hold that world together. She does care about Tara, and its lands, and the people who depend on it to live — her family, the slaves, even her dreaded cousin Mellie. She’ll lie, cheat, steal and kill to protect them. Because they are her home.

Now Gone With the Wind  isn’t popular with everyone. It’s seen as romanticizing a time and a place when a huge segment of our nation’s population were exploited and treated like property. But that’s an excellent illustration of how myopic the world building process can be in fiction. Scarlett doesn’t know that slavery is wrong. It’s just always been there in her life. And she is a user, seeing people as means to an end. Mostly, she uses men for labor, for resources, to make Ashley jealous… She doesn’t know the political and economic factors that cause people to come and destroy her home. She just sees it happening. That is Scarlett’s world. That is her story. While reading or viewing Gone With the Wind, all the things we learn about that world are the things Scarlett learns or knows about it.

There are plenty of more obvious examples of world building:

  • Tolkein (of course)
  • Eric Flint’s 1632
  • Canticle for Liebowitz and many other post-apocalyptic dystopias
  • Most popular Arthurian legend, including Connecticut Yankee
  • Star Trek, Honor Harrington, Elizabeth Moon’s Hero series, Legion of Space and all the other military SF / Space Opera
  • Tarzan’s Jungle and John Carter’s Mars, as well as Pellucidar and many other worlds Burroughs created
  • The elegant world of Regency Romance

So why does a writer engage in World Building?

In Fantasy and Science Fiction, we often start with an almost fresh canvas. Few of us are so creative, though, that imaginary worlds just spring into being in our minds. We have to have a framework for them. Perhaps we base our world on history or reality, but, at some point, we take a left turn and make a world with different history, different natural laws, different physical features.

Or perhaps we base a world on a legendary place, like Atlantis.

Or perhaps we create an entirely new world that no one’s ever seen before, based on an idea like, “What if there were a world where all people of one gender just disappeared?” (Philip Wiley did this in The Disappearance) or something really offbeat like a world of fire where all the lifeforms are talking coals.

As noted in my example, it’s not just Fantasy and Science Fiction that use world building. Suppose you want to write a historical romance, and you want to create a world that’s beautiful and fascinating. Say you want to write about Camelot. But, let’s be honest, if you were really in England in the 5th Century AD, you’d probably find even the home of the King to be a pretty gross and depressing place. Remember that, in a lot of medieval villages, human waste was dumped out of windows onto the street, or into open gutters. If you’re writing period romance, you probably want to write about something prettier than that. So you’re really building a world.

Fortunately, there are shortcuts you can take to world-building, when you know what kind of story you want to tell, for instance, it’s easy to build a world resembling Tolkein’s middle earth. He did all the research for you, and no one can really claim you’re plagiarizing just because you use his races and landscapes.

If you’re writing space opera, well, there are conventions you can adopt that the reader expects. Every space opera has a United something that spans a lot of planets. You can bet it includes humans as major players. Every space opera has FTL, or not much would happen. Every space opera uses some from of military structure. Star Trek was not the first. Legion of Space was there long before Gene Roddenberry was, and I doubt Jack Williamson created all the tropes either.

But, not matter what shortcuts you take, you need to know the Elements of World-Building:

  • Geography / Astography – the lands or planets that make up your “world”
  • Races
  • Political bodies
  • History – how did your characters get where they are now? Did they get there from where we are, or from where we were?

You will answer all these questions, fill in all these blanks, as you go. You do not have to do that right up front. Some of it will come as you play some creative games. But the first questions you must answer are “Who is [B]?” my protagonist, and “What is [C]?” that they want?

Keep it personal – we each experience the world through one person’s eyes, ears and other senses. NO ONE experiences the world as a big picture, a 50,000 foot view of history. Works that take this view are very hard for a human reader to digest. That’s why even historical epics and family sagas focus on a character or two per generation. Even Downton Abbey, with its huge cast, has the focal points of Robert and Cora upstairs, Mr. Bates and Anna downstairs. The other characters are very important, but these are the observers who see them through it all. At least for five seasons, nothing has really changed for these four people, and we’ve seen history through their eyes.

In order to give the reader a good picture of your world, you need to limit the view to a person or a few people, and show what they see. In the development of the world, you’ll probably come up with a lot of background information they don’t see, but the reader may not see any of that, and it’s not necessary if your characters never see it.

Next time, I’ll give some in-depth examples of how this process has worked for me.

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1 thought on “Character Development as World Building – Part One

  1. I find this information quite interesting and helpful. I currently write short stories and articles and can see how I can use this to produce better stories. Thank you for sharing this!

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