Character Development as World Building – Part Two

Last time I talked about world-building, and how I think it’s properly accomplished by starting with your lead characters and building the world that they need to live in, the world that would have produced somebody like them. (Of course, it’s important to point out that the world we grow up in is only one factor in the person we actually become. “Nature or Nurture” is an old question, and I agree with L. Neill Smith’s answer–ultimately it is each one of us, not external factors, who determine who we are. But there’s no denying that place changes us.)

So this week, I want to start showing you how I used my own method to create worlds for my most successful series, a space opera called The Arbiter Chronicles.

My Example

The Arbiter Chronicles is a teen-angst story about outcasts. When I started, I knew I wanted a cast of five young characters, mostly from different worlds. I made them each different and therefore rejected by most of the people around them. Why did I do that? Because, above all, you’ve got to write what you know. You may be writing about worlds that don’t exist, where people have powers no human could ever have, but, at some level, you’ve got to write what you know. I started creating the Arbiters when I was a freshman in college. At that point, what I knew best was what it was like to be a high school geek. So I made my characters young misfits in space.

I pulled the character archetypes from my own experience. This lends verisimilitude to my fiction (I hope), because I can speak from experience about people and situations, at the same time delivering a scientific romance to the reader that (I hope) stimulates his imagination.

I created them first, with a few sketched lines about what I wanted them to be–broad strokes based on kinds of people I’d known–then I built the world around them that would have shaped them. Keep it personal. It’s easier to grasp one person. You grasp yourself. You are this way. The world helped make you this way because of conditions A, B and C. A, B, and C are elements of the world around you.

I jotted down what I knew about my characters, and then I added questions about what kind of world they might come from. It looked something like this:


  • Terry Metcalfe – Terry is from a world that’s shunned by the galaxy. Everyone assumes he’s stupid and bigoted because he doesn’t have the right pedigree. Terry is the Southerner among the Northern elite, the underprivileged urban kid among the entitled suburbanites. But Terry is smart, pretty well-adjusted, and a natural leader.Question: In what kind of world does a perfectly normal boy find himself considered less than human by others?


  • Kevin Carson – Kevin is Terry’s childhood best friend, so they come from the same place. Kevin wasn’t even accepted on his own world, unlike Metcalfe. That’s because Kevin likes boys. But he doesn’t want to be completely outcast, or possibly even killed, so he keeps his homosexuality a secret. Indeed, he keeps it such a secret that he’s a notorious womanizer. He’s that guy in space opera — Jim Kirk, Starbuck, Will Riker. (When I was creating this, there was only one Starbuck, and he was a dude.)

    Question: Since sexual preference bias is being worn away, why would a gay man in the future face any sort of discrimination?
  • Kaya – The girl from space that Metcalfe falls madly in love with. A rich, privileged girl who doesn’t fit because she’s too smart to be just a rich, privileged girl. Stock romance character. But what’s really strange about her? She’s also close to her father, and people think that’s weird.Question: What kind of society makes it strange to have a relationship with your parents?


  • Aer’La – is a slave. Outcast from the start. All slaves are rejected by their world. They’re not granted humanity. Aer’La commits the further sin of falling in love and of wanting to choose whom she loves. Her character would especially give me a chance to develop themes like freedom, gender equality and sexual preference bias. (We hadn’t even started talking marriage equality then. We were just fighting to get people to stop saying you were mentally ill if you were attracted to your own gender.)Question: In what kind of world is Aer’La living that she can’t chose her lover, and that she’s not allowed to fall in love?


  • Cernaq – I was a geek, so my friends were people of high intellect. Geekdom can be a pretty insular little world, and it has its own culture and the resulting drawbacks. I needed someone who grew up in a place where intellect was all, so I could show the pitfalls of intellectual arrogance. I also wanted to show the pressure that was placed on especially smart people, and the mistakes I’d seen smart people make in trying to relate to “normal” people.Question: What does a world where intellect is all look like? How do you even begin to build such a world?

This whole “jotting down questions” thing is a habit of mine as a writer. I always follow a pattern of goals and questions: I want to do ‘A’ in this story. Why would ‘A’ happen? Where would you have to be for ‘A’ to happen? When would ‘A’ be most likely to happen, etc. I jot down my goal, then I list my questions. Then I brainstorm answers for them, right on the page. As I go through that process, a framework begins to emerge. It’s a little like sculpting with clay. You keep picking up formless chunks, you add them to the whole, and a shape begins to emerge. Sometimes you have the whole shape in mind, sometimes you wonder what would happen if you added this piece, so you add it and find out.

So, here are my questions from the Arbiters character bullets. I’m not going to tackle them all this week, since this whole presentation goes on for a while. But here are the first couple:

Question: In what kind of world does a perfectly normal boy find himself considered less than human by others?

Answer: In a world where most people are genetically engineered. This one didn’t take much thought. I needed a hard metaphor for the “in-crowd,” and chose genetic engineering. We’ve all dealt with the “in-crowd,” the people who think they’re better than everyone else, especially because of some qualification. In my professional life, I’ve dealt with many such cases, including those with certain advanced degrees, certain certifications, or certain ranks. We all have that experience. In the case of Terry Metcalfe, I wanted him to illustrate the outsider’s experience in a very concrete way, by being confronted with a group of people who were demonstrably, factually superior to the “average person.” Not just in their tiny little minds, but in fact.

And then of course I wanted him to show them up and prove that from the ranks of the “average people” or below-average people can come the greatest among us. Metcalfe is a young variant on an old stock character from the early American theatre. Metcalfe is a Stage Yankee. The Stage Yankee was the not-so-sophisticated guy, the folksy guy with the twang and the homespun manner, who just happened to be, through no fault of his own, smarter and more competent than everyone else around him.

In the context of the 19th Century stage, the audience completely understood the sort of world the Stage Yankee came from. He was from down-on-the-farm, back-out-in-the-woods, coming into a world of pretentious douche bags who mimicked all the latest styles from Europe. In the context of outer space, colonized by man (because I’d already decided to write a space opera) what was the equivalent of backwoods or down-on-the-farm? I decided it would be the old Earth itself, abandoned by the fashionable people who went to space and genetically enhanced themselves, just as a lot of urban Americans today are people who have left small towns and trained away their cornpone accents, become educated, and now look down on their “lesser” former countrymen.

And I threw an extra edge in there. I’m a Southerner. I am not a racist, and, to my knowledge, my family neither owned slaves nor had members in the KKK. My parents taught me that prejudice was a bad thing, and I know many, many Southerners who feel the same way. I get tired of hearing that we’re all racists. Or that we all have bad teeth, or that we’re all inbred. (And interesting side-note on Terry’s surname–I am descended from the Metcalfes of Western North Carolina. When one of FDR’s many Federal “project” teams visited the area in the 1930s to study it, one of their reports concerned the “Madcap Metcalfs,” who were apparently all inbred and birth-defected. I guess they thought it would give them city-folk a laugh.)

I don’t like the stigma that comes with being Southern. It is, itself, a prejudice. And yet it’s sadly predictable that it exists. There really was slavery in my part of the Country, and we really did have the KKK and Jim Crow.

So I wanted Metcalfe to not just be from the back woods, from an Earth scorned by its descendants, but for those descendants to have a credible reason for resenting him and his people. So I had the earliest out-migrants from Earth be those proponents of genetic engineering who were criminalized by an anti-science backlash. They fled to space for their lives, and for the freedom to conduct their scientific research. And, on other worlds, they really did refine the human race.

And all that led to my developing a lot of back story for future earth, back story that included economic downturn, an upswell of fundamentalist religion, pogroms against scientist, the colonization of space, an alien invasion of Earth, and, finally, a military occupation of earth by its children from the stars. And it was that occupation under which young Terry Metcalfe came of age.

By developing a character who has overcome much adversity, and setting him up to face more, I built a whole new planet Earth. Next up, I needed to deepen that world by answering some questions about his best friend, Kevin Carson.

Question: Since sexual preference bias is being worn away, why would a gay man in the future face any sort of discrimination?

And now I tripped over a bit of soap opera I’d injected in my initial few paragraphs of story suggestions: All heroes have a sidekick, a best friend. Terry has grown up with Kevin. The bit of soap opera? Kevin’s in love with Terry, but won’t admit it. In fact, Kevin won’t admit he’s gay. He covers by sleeping with any woman who will have him, and that’s most women, apparently.

But I’m telling a story set centuries in the future, and humankind has already progressed to the point that, in First World countries, marriage between partners of the same sex is being recognized legally. Most people accept same sex partnerships as legitimate. Governments are making it policy that no one is to be discriminated against based on their sexuality. We’re not in Utopia, but we’ve made a hell of a lot of progress just during my lifetime. So why, a few centuries down the road, would a young, gay, man find it necessary to hide his true nature?

Because history suggests that tolerance is often merely cyclical. Homosexuality was accepted in Greece and Rome, and then demonized by the dominant powers that came later. Often it was demonized by religious orders that were trying to grow, trying to gain power through greater numbers. If people are enjoying sex with their own gender, they might be less likely to breed. If you’re part of a group that feels pressured to grow bigger, that’s a big deal. It’s not right, but my studies have suggested that history bears this out. The kind of equality we’ve fought so hard to achieve, sadly, could be threatened by population-diminishing cataclysm.

So if you have the economic, social and military devastation I’ve posited for Kevin and Terry’s future Earth, I think it’s a very real, very scary possibility that things would deteriorate for gay men and women.

With this bit of development, I added a requirement to my future Earth that it be held under the sway of a very powerful religious organization. It’s almost always religions that dictate sexual customs. So if I wanted to tell stories about Carson wrestling with the secret of his sexuality, I needed a powerful church in the mix. I didn’t want another Bible-based church, partially because that’s not original, and partially because I don’t want to offend anyone. So I created a whole new religion with the back-story that the church was deliberately engineered by one person, in an attempt to calm a frightened populace. The stories which make up its “bible” were largely 20th Century pop culture references.

That’s it for now. Next time, I finish off the rest of the Arbiter main cast and show how their development led to the creation of three whole new worlds, and I lay down some rules for world building.

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