From Character to Storyworld

This post was first pub­lished as How to Build a Sto­ry­world Based on Char­ac­ter.

Before I start speak­ing of world build­ing, there are a cou­ple things I need to talk about. What­ev­er I say here is my per­son­al opin­ion, not some uni­ver­sal truth. I’m hav­ing fun, so I kind­ly advise you to do the same. World build­ing and writ­ing is fun.

I write in the sci­ence fic­tion genre, but I do not both­er with Character/Plot dual­i­ty. Maybe you have been ask­ing that same ques­tion many peo­ple ask—is the best fic­tion plot- or char­ac­ter-dri­ven? To me, plot and char­ac­ter are almost one and the same enti­ty. With­out char­ac­ter there is no plot — there is only a ran­dom num­ber of facts and events with no intel­li­gent observers and par­tic­i­pants to tell us about the first-hand expe­ri­ence of those. That’s what you call not very engag­ing (notice I didn’t say bor­ing), unless you write chron­i­cles. That’s dif­fer­ent meat.

What I do keep in mind, though, is the dis­tinc­tion between the sto­ry­teller and philo­soph­i­cal foci. These two are the sub­gen­res in the genre. Hard sci­ence, dystopia, aliens, time trav­el, etc. are themes.

Some even argue that ‘char­ac­ter-dri­ven’ sci­ence fic­tion is not and can­not be hard sci­ence fic­tion, with science/technology reduced to a lev­el of plot device. That’s not true. It is said there are sev­er­al types of con­flict: man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. self… Man vs. Sci­ence (tech­nol­o­gy includ­ed) any­one? Sci­ence is awe­some. You can have both as main char­ac­ters in your fic­tion – as allies or ene­mies. (Please note that I make dis­tinc­tion between main char­ac­ter and pro­tag­o­nist. They might be one and the same, or not.)

Any­way, regard­less of the genre you are work­ing in, world build­ing is an essen­tial part of your work.

As a sci­ence fic­tion writer, I will be speak­ing of my expe­ri­ence and meth­ods.

ON CHARACTER

I start with a char­ac­ter. With a voice, to be exactly–someone says some­thing awe­some inside my head. I’m just one of those authors who hear char­ac­ters speak and write these things down.

The impor­tant thing here is what the char­ac­ter says and how she says it. These are the key aspects of any sto­ry. ‘What’ gives you a clue about goals, moti­va­tions, and con­flict, both inner and exter­nal. ‘How’ hints on the character’s back­groundcul­ture and any­thing that goes with it. Just shut up and lis­ten. This is how a sto­ry is born and you start explor­ing what and who else is present (it can get chat­ty in there), why and where all of it is going, and who’s dri­ving.

This is where I usu­al­ly decide on voice and POV. For me, this deci­sion is final.

Then, maybe, you think how a char­ac­ter looks like.

If you do start with the looks, here comes anoth­er tricky part – how your char­ac­ter species evolved to look like this and why. You don’t skip this part even if you write about humans. We have ances­try; we have many things inside us that deter­mine how we look like.

Dig­ging into all this will not lim­it your cre­ativ­i­ty; it will feed it like crazy. Expect Cam­bri­an Explo­sion in your head. You don’t have to include every detail on your cul­ture, tech­nol­o­gy, etc. you have accu­mu­lat­ed for your sto­ry. Pick the most unique details. Start with those, weave them grace­ful­ly into your sto­ry. Add more elab­o­rate parts lat­er on. This is valid for both char­ac­ter devel­op­ment and avoid­ing imme­di­ate and com­plete info­dump.

The truth is, info­dumps are unavoid­able.

ON INFODUMPS

Cur­rent­ly I write novel­las. Space mat­ters. So anoth­er thing you want to con­sid­er is how much space you have. The most won­der­ful thing you might dis­cov­er on your writer’s jour­ney is that word count does not lim­it the story’s dimen­sions. Think of a sto­ry as of a DNA mol­e­cule: it’s tiny, but oh, how tight­ly packed it is, hav­ing all the instruc­tions to cre­ate the whole liv­ing being. These ‘instruc­tions’ are the essence of your sto­ry, which allows read­ers to recon­struct the world you’ve built in their imag­i­na­tions. This expe­ri­ence will be unique for every read­er, but it will be a reward­ing expe­ri­ence. Do not deprive them of it.

Info­dumps are not nec­es­sar­i­ly a bad thing. In many gen­res they are inevitable, if you want to pro­duce a com­pelling, com­plex, deep, and rich sto­ry. All great sto­ries are good exam­ples of info­dumps any­way – they are so inter­twined with the nar­ra­tive, you might not notice them unless some­one points them out. So instead of call­ing them info­dumps, let’s use a bet­ter word for those things – sto­ry­telling.

Don’t be afraid of writ­ing those dread­ed large chunks of expla­na­tion – you will trim those lat­er in revi­sions; all you have to wor­ry about first and fore­most, is to keep the character’s per­spec­tive on every­thing. Don’t think about the amount, think about the con­tent. If any of it belongs in the sto­ry, it will fall into right place lat­er. Don’t wor­ry about how much nar­ra­tive, dia­logue, descrip­tion, and what­ev­er you’ll need. Each sto­ry is unique, and each sto­ry requires its own bal­ance. Always remem­ber – this is your sto­ry – read­ers have their own pref­er­ences any­way, so stick to how you would tell it and trust it. Love it. And you will find read­ers who do, too.

ON WORLBUILDING

So there you have it, a char­ac­ter, and you are think­ing how much world build­ing you need to do before you can start writ­ing. The hint is, if you have a char­ac­ter and noth­ing to say – noth­ing hap­pens, there’s not enough world build­ing. Con­flicts, events, facts are all essen­tial parts of the world. No con­flict = no sto­ry. No details = no depth. So start with that — who wants what, where to get it, and who has oppos­ing goals, or sim­ply is in the wrong place in the wrong time, and where that place is. Or what­ev­er you can think of hap­pen­ing there. Keep notes. Then elab­o­rate on the set­ting; the details, the spice of your cre­ation. Go as deeply into it as you feel is right.

How much is too much? There is no such thing as too much. There is only as much as your sto­ry needs, and as much as YOU need to fuel your cre­ativ­i­ty. Not every­thing that helps the lat­ter will get into the sto­ry even­tu­al­ly.

Also, don’t wreck your brain rein­vent­ing the bicy­cle.

As Jim Jar­musch said, “Noth­ing is orig­i­nal. Steal from any­where that res­onates with inspi­ra­tion or fuels your imag­i­na­tion. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paint­ings, pho­tographs, poems, dreams, ran­dom con­ver­sa­tions, archi­tec­ture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bod­ies of water, light and shad­ows. Select only things to steal from that speak direct­ly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authen­tic. Authen­tic­i­ty is invalu­able; orig­i­nal­i­ty is non-exis­tent. And don’t both­er con­ceal­ing your thiev­ery — cel­e­brate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remem­ber what Jean-Luc Godard said: ‘It’s not where you take things from — it’s where you take them to.’”

ON RESEARCH

Before any pos­si­ble com­plaints I’ll say this: every­one has a busy life and dead­lines and shit. If you call your­self a writer none of those excuse you from doing research.

As a writer you set the rules, you draw the base plan to start the con­struc­tion of the sto­ry. It’s good to have some under­stand­ing of how things work in real life, it’s impor­tant to learn. If you are a writer, say­ing ‘I don’t need to know this’, ‘or I’m too stu­pid to under­stand that’ is wrong. You are lim­it­ing your cre­ativ­i­ty and your sto­ries will suf­fer in the end. You don’t need to major in numer­ous fields of sci­ence or any­thing; all you need is the desire to learn new things, to explore the world, and to broad­en your hori­zons.

Speak­ing of the base plan, every ele­ment in it needs to be prop­er­ly researched.

What is prop­er research?

Col­lect what is rel­e­vant to your sto­ry, but keep track of things that inter­est you, even if they are not need­ed now. Some of those intrigu­ing bits might unex­pect­ed­ly find the way into your sto­ry lat­er.

If you write in spe­cif­ic genre — sci-fi, his­tor­i­cal, fan­ta­sy, even mod­ern romance set in spe­cif­ic place, any­thing — always check your facts. Don’t be lazy; always check your facts before build­ing on them. Even if you assume you know and under­stand some­thing – dou­ble and triple check. Now you might think this is unnec­es­sary pre­cau­tion. No, it’s not. It’s your job as a writer.

Speak­ing of places to gath­er knowl­edge from, besides read­ing books and search­ing for infor­ma­tion on the inter­net for a par­tic­u­lar project, I sug­gest enrolling into a free online course in the sub­ject of inter­est, or talk to some­one who works in that field (don’t be afraid/embarrassed to ask for help), if it is not your back­ground. Not only would you find some amaz­ing info, you will also learn where and what to look for in your research – that will save your time in the future. (Ok, that’s the main rea­son. :D)

One more thing that needs to be said here–no one is per­fect and every­one makes mis­takes. As a fic­tion writer you should aim for sto­ry integri­ty, not for writ­ing an ency­clo­pe­dia. So don’t be afraid to get some­thing wrong. It hap­pens to all of us – we can’t be experts in all fields. But try not to make it a habit.

CHECKLIST: WORLDBUILDING THROUGH CHARACTER

Here’s my set of ques­tions you can answer to find out if you’ve cov­ered the basics about char­ac­ters and their world.

If you are inter­est­ed in design­ing a planet/planetary sys­tem, you can check out all of my world-build­ing arti­cles.

Jeno Marz
JENO MARZ is a science fiction writer from Latvia, Northern Europe, with background in electronics engineering and computer science. She is the author of two serial novels, Falaha’s Journey: A Spacegirl’s Account in Three Movements and Falaha’s Journey into Pleasure. Marz is current at work on a new SF trilogy. All her fiction is aimed at an adult audience.

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