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Words for Writers: World-Building, Culture-Building, Character-Building, and Finding The Story

When people come to me for story-telling advice, I often ask them to narrate to me the story they’re trying to tell. I find it helps, for me at least, to narrate the whole story out loud for a friend so that I can see what parts I gravitate to, which scenes I find important enough to linger on and which ones I skip, and which moments make my audiences’ eyes widen or makes them frown, or makes them tune out.

However, when I ask this of others, especially those really struggling with their novels, I often find myself at the receiving end of world-building info dumps:

“See, there’s this world where plants are alive, and some of them can even talk. Like, roses sing everything they say and nobody likes roses because even though they smell sweet they’re real assholes and they’re kinda shrill. And then oak trees…” etc.

This isn’t a bad thing, per se. I listen to everything they have to say about the world, but I usually have to follow up with something like:

“Well that sounds like a fascinating reality you’re constructing, but where’s the story? Who is the protagonist? Who is the antagonist? Who are we following and why? And why should I, the reader, care? You have to make me care about the character I’m following.”

Many writers are so stuck on the world their creating that they forget that a story is supposed to be about a protagonist who goes on a journey to get something they want and grows or changes along the way. This usually also includes an antagonist whose desires or motivations get in the way of the protagonist achieving their own. That is the basic plot of any novel, and if you don’t have a person you’re following, then you don’t have a story, no matter how awesome or detailed the world you’ve created is.

(I’m going to assume you know that I mean that there is no one right way to do the above: the protagonist can be a flower, an elf, a toy, a human, etc. The journey can be emotional, physical, metaphorical, etc. You get what I mean.)

So what does that mean? This means that, while you are world-building, you also have to character-build – you need to focus on one or a group of people and tell the story about them and not about the world itself.

How do you do that? Some people find it easier to start with the character and build the world based on what you need that character to be like, and to do, the nature and the nurture of the character’s history. Some people find it easier to build the world and then pick one of the people out of their world to focus on.

There is no right and wrong way to do it, but don’t forget to do it. The character is the one that the story is about, not the world.

(Remember: The protagonist is Harry Potter, not Hogwarts and the Wizarding World.)

But I can’t tell you how to do that; that’s something you have to do for yourself, for your own book. All I can tell you to do is to remember it.

I can, however, tell you how I do it.  Usually I start with the character.

What gender is this character? What sex? What age? What class? What race? What ethnicity? What kind of story do I want to tell? A high-fantasy quest narrative? An emotional literary fiction tale about love and loss? A science fiction action adventure?  What sort of person do they have to be to fit that kind of story? What is it that the character wants and how is the character going to work to get it? Who or what is going to get in their way and how will they deal with being denied what they want? How will they overcome this obstacle? What do they fear most, above all else, and what would happen if they were to be forced to endure the thing they fear? Why do they fear that thing, what’s the socio-economic reason? Why does this person need to be my protagonist, the person the novel follows, and not say, his or her sibling, or neighbour, or oppressor, or slave, or pet cat?

In answering these questions, I usually begin to have to world-build alongside this. I have to know why my character fears X instead of Y, and what that means in the scope of their culture and upbringing. For example, in the novel my agent is currently shopping, my heroine fears confinement most – she’s claustrophobic, hates cages and the dark. Why? Because she loves the sky, open spaces, flight, and travel. She’s from a nomad culture and to her home is where she has room to breathe among nature and the gods they worship, not in a choked up, sterile, technology-crammed city.

Oops – look what I just did there: world-building. Actually, what I really was doing is culture-building.

Nomad culture, believe in a pantheon of gods who need free air to travel about, love light and fear the dark.  Why? What’s the history of that? What  myths and stories did she learn at her grandmother’s knee? And what sorts of foods does this mean her people eat? What are their staples? What sorts of clothes does being a nomad mean she needs to wear – what does her clothing need to protect her against?  Where do they travel and what’s the climate like in those places?

And, if this is two hundred years on from when her people were last nomads and have settled into cities (which they have), then what traditions did they preserve and which ones did they chuck? What part of her life harkens back to that nomad lifestyle?

In telling the story of a character, you are automatically telling the story of the world they live in. If it is a world rich in tradition, stories, and understanding, then you can learn about the world at large by spending time in your character’s smaller world. Macrocosim via microcosim.

Who a person is and what they want are very much imbedded in the hegemony of the culture in which they were raised. That means, you, as the writer, should probably have some idea of that culture not only on a grand worldbuilding scale, but how it directly affected the growth and values of your character.  Yes, know the mechanics and the principals of the world at large, but also those of the neighbourhood that your character grew up in.

I find that when a writer has considered all of this, it shines through on the page, and the characters are more compelling, more in-depth, and more interesting to spend time with. Think of your favourite characters, and then think of what you know of their childhoods, their parents, the food they prefer and the entertainment they like. This makes them accessible, because we all have preferences and things we fear and like, too. This makes for an attractive character that people want to spend time with (even if they’re an anti-hero), and with whom the reader grows comfortable.

Then it’s easy to want to spend time with them, to want to invest 400 pages worth of reading about this character and their journey.

Usually when I begin to worldbuild-via-characterbuilding, I decide three things:

 1)      What sorts of things does my protagonist wear? What do the people around him/her wear and the people below and above him/her in class/station/career/etc. wear? What do they wear lounging around at home, and what do they wear at their most fancy? What kind of fabrics are most clothes made of? Are there some colours or fabrics that certain people cannot or do not wear? Why? How much does it cost to buy premade clothing? To make your own? What’s more expensive, bespoke or off the rack? What part of the body is it considered lewed not to cover? What part of the body does everyone display with no thought? Why that part and not another?

2)      What sorts of things does my protagonist eat? Does (s)he grow their own food? Where do they buy it and does it cost a lot? Are there foods that are imported or exported? What sort of climate do they live in and what kind of agriculture does that allow them to have? Can they afford to buy exotic foods? What is their staple grain? What was their childhood treat? Is the water safe to drink? If not, what do they drink instead?

3)      What sorts of swear words and jargon does my protagonist use? Swear words are an important gateway to worldbuiding because they are usually, in most cultures, blasphemies or oaths. In English we say, “Goddamn it!” or “Jesus Christ!” or, in Quebec we say, “Tabernac!”, which each originate in Christianity. So what kind of religion does your world have and how can someone blaspheme? Or, if no religion, what is considered sacred, holy, and virtuous? In Harry Potter they say, “Merlin’s shorts!”, which means that Merlin himself was revered. Jargon comes from shortcuts in speech, metaphors and similes that have been reduced to just a few words. In my novel The Skylark’s Song, my protagonists’ people, the Sealies, are considered a burden on the society that they live among, the Benne. The Benne call Sealies “ticks” or “leeches”, blood-drinking insects better for squishing than spending time with. The Sealies call the Benne “scrubbed up cows”, docile farm animals that are led around by their nose rings like cleaned-up cattle at an auction house, useless and stupid. What sorts of sayings might have come about in your world, and why? How and when are they used? Are there certain segments of the population that use different idioms and jargon than others?

Once I have these three things in place, I feel like I have enough of a basis for my culture to begin the story. My protagonists’ habits and preferences will fill out the rest of the world for me as I go, and I can use what I’ve decided about his/her world to explain why he or she does some of the things they do.  For example, in The Skylark’s Song, my protagonist takes her tea clear with honey. This is because she is a Sealie, and most Sealies keep hives in their back gardens because they cannot afford to buy refined sugar. I don’t go into huge detail in the book about the socio-economic background of why the Sealies can’t, and why they moved to honey (mostly because before they settled in Saskwyia they were a nomad culture and it was easy to put a hive on a wagon and have the bees follow along after you), or any of that. But I do make the honey a bone of ethnic contention between my protagonist and her sugar-preferring coworkers.

While worldbuilding, don’t forget that you must also culture-build. To help, ask yourself these questions:

–          Who is the least priviledged, most oppressed, most agency-denied peoples in your world? Why are they so? Can you tell a story from the point of view of these people?

–          Who is the most priviedged, the least oppressed or the ones doign the oppressing? Why are they doing it, why are they where they are? Can you tell a story from the point of view of these people?

–          Where are the class/race/religion/ethnic tensions? Can you tell a story set firmly in the middle of that mire?

–          How does courtship play out? Who chases and who is chased? How many people are involved in a marriage, and what is the legal definition of a marriage?  Are they arranged? By whom, and when, and why? If not, why not?

–          What is the explanation for love? Does your culture have love? Why? Why not? Do they let love dictate their relationships or hierarchies?

–          How are children conceived? Sex, magic, medicine? How are children reared? What is the tradition around birthing children? Who is present, and who is excluded? What is the medical explanation for pregnancies happen? The mystical? To whom do children belong? Whose responsibility is it to raise them and educate them? At what age are they considered adults? Do they have to perform some task or reach some milestone to be considered independent and in charge of their own agency? Does it differ between sexes or genders or ethnicities?

–          Can people own other people? Is there slavery? Are a specific group of people considered non-persons? What does the law have to say about this versus tradition? Can people become un-owned by another? By what method?

–          How many genders and biological sexes does your culture acknowledge? What is the traditional explanation for this? The medical? Is there a taboo surrounding some of these, either individually or in combination?

–          What do these people do for fun? Do they consume intoxicants or hallucinigenics? Do they partake in sex for fun instead of just procreation?  Do they enjoy music, or theatre, or literature? Do they have sporting events? Is the entertainment government sanctioned? Is it illegal? Is it underground? Is it just free?

–          How is their society ruled? Who makes the laws and who upholds them? How are they decided? Is it a monarchy? A democracy? A dictatorship? How is the one or ones who ruled addressed? Thought of? Are their feared or loved and why? Does it matter? Is there a revolution or a war happening or on the horizon? Who is fighting it and what are their aims?

–          What happens to people who break the rules? Are they punished? How? When? Why?

–          How are people rewarded? What sorts of things are they rewarded for, and what do they gain? Money? Fame? Things? A title?

–          What do people think of property and possessions? Who owns what? Does anyone own anything? Is money used, or a barter system? What things are precious, and can be exchanged for other things? Is it metals, or stones, or paper representations of wealth? Is it animals, or land, or in trading boy-children?

–          What do people think of animals? Do they have souls? Are they reared for labour and food, or is their no animal husbandry? Are people vegetarian? Are they vegan? Why or why not? Do they use animal skins and things like milk and honey? Do they wait for animals to die naturally and then use their carcasses?  Do they not use animals for anything at all? Why do they think animals exist? Do they believe animals have souls?

–          Do they believe in souls, gods, or some sort of higher power? What do they believe happens to them when they die? Is there some part of them that lives on in some fashion or does the meat of their bodies just die and go rotten?

–          Are they hunted by anyone? Are your people livestock themselves? Or outcasts?

 

Another great way to worldbuild is by talking about things the protagonist doesn’t understand. Much of the protagonist’s beliefs and way of life can be exposed by having them stuck in a place where their beliefs and way of life don’t match those of the people around them. What confuses your protagonist. What offends them? What shocks or startles them? What happens that makes them think, “Oh, that’s a much better way of doing it than the way my people do it!” What new food delights them, and which disgusts them? What fashion seems indecent or prudish?

Consider: in Triptych, Kalp teaches the reader a lot about the life he lived and the world he came from by describing the things about modern western culture on Earth that he doesn’t understand.  He doesn’t understand why he can’t enjoy cooking if he aligns male, or why he must take up a sporting team to support. He doesn’t like shoes, doesn’t understand “cheers!” and the bedroom furniture we use hurts his back.  What does that tell you about gender roles, clothing, language, and dwellings on his world? In Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonflight, we learn a lot about Lessa’s home life by how she reacts to the strangeness of the Dragonriders and the Weyr in which she is taken to live. McCaffrey also gives us snatches of a folksong, which tells a history of the Weyrs and the Dragonriders without pummeling us with the facts.

Lastly, my advice for you is to keep all these musings and thoughts, reasons and descriptions somewhere that is outside of the Manuscript. I put mine on a giant chalkboard that hangs in my living room, in plain view of the sofa that I prefer to write on. That way it’s out there and I don’t feel the need to infodump in the book.

This way I have it all in one place, easy to read at a glance, and ready to remind me what I’ve decided. It’s also easily added to or changed.

And above all, don’t info dump. It is the story that is paramount when writing a novel, not the world. No matter how cool a thing you invented for your world may be, if it doesn’t serve the story, don’t waste pages describing it. It’s boring. It slows down the plot. It gets in the way.

I mean, we all love Lord of the Rings, but the history gets in the way of the story a lot. Tolkien wrote a history text book with a plot, instead of a novel. I can appreciate what he did, the academic exercise of it, the characters he created, but it wasn’t until Peter Jackson excised a lot of the history in the book and just told the story of the Fellowship and Frodo that I actually had my imagination grasped by Tolkien’s creation.

Think of it this way: good world/culture-building serves the plot. If something has to stop – some action, some conversation, so journey – so that someone has to explain something (even if that someone is you, the narrator/writer) then it is probably not necessary and can be cut. You can tell us that information, but find an engaging, active way to do so that keeps the story rolling.

I do this because a) I believe my audience is intelligent enough to infer the latter without me having to beat them around the head with the facts, and b) putting it the latter was is boring. It’s simply not good storytelling.

To close, let me sum up:

Don’t write a text book. Write a novel about a person and let that person’s life give all the clues about their culture the reader needs to understand the world in which they live.

*

And now, I’ll leave you with some great worldbuilding:

 

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

 

What have we learned? That our protagonist is a hobbit. We don’t know what hobbits are yet, but they live underground and they like comfort, and probably, based on what was said about the sandy holes, plush furniture and good meals. I can also infer, because I assume he’s going to be the protagonist, this hobbit is human-esque, as readers prefer to read about creatures that resemble them.

So the world: Some sort of fantasy land, with creatures that we don’t know, but who greatly resemble us in that they want comfort, safety, and good meals.

 

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

It is a truth universally acknowledge that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

However little known the feelings or  views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families that he is considered as the rightful property of someone one or other of their daughters.

“My dear Mr. Bennet,” said his lady to him one day, “Have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?”

 

What have we learned? That this is going to be a book about marriage, and potentially comical. That we are in a neighbourhood with grand estates that are up for rent, and that a woman named Mrs. Bennet – potentially the wife of landed gentry, as she is called a “lady” – must have some daughters that need marrying off.

So the World: Classist England, and probably in the past when wives addressed their husbands with their family names. Most likely going to focus on a country neighbourhood with families of unwed girls, and a rich neighbour in a good estate for rent.

 

The Bogart by Susan Cooper

The little boat crept closer, over the grey-green water of the loch. Tommy could hear the slow creaking of the oarlocks, and see the white hair of the lean old man bent over the oars. His father said the MacDevon was one hundred years old, but Tommy had never had the courage to ask if it were true. The MacDevon was a clan chief, the last of his line, and you didn’t ask a clan cheif a question like that.

“Good Day, Mr. MacDevon.” He caught the bow of the dinghy as it crunched into the small stones of the beach. This was a weekly ritual: the old man’s shopping trip from the island of Castle Keep.

 

What have learned? That there is an old man who lives in a castle on an island in a loch; we are probably in Scotland, and that there is a young boy who helps the old man. We know that it must be closer to modern times, if the clan is died out and The MacDevon is the last of his line. We also know that the old man mustn’t be wealthy, because he only owns an old dinghy that he has to row himself, and he has no one to send on his shopping errands.

So the World: Run down castle in modern Scotland where the clan chief is old but respected by the locals, and is possibly thought of as a quaint relic.

 

Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips

One morning, when Artemis was out walking the dogs, she saw a tree where no tree should be.

The tree was standing alone in a sheltered part of the slope. To the untrained eye, the casual passer-by, it probably just looked like a normal tree. But Artemis’ eye was far from untrained, and she ran through this part of the Hampsted Heath every day. This tree was a newcomer: it had not been there yesterday.

[…]

“Hello,” she said.

There was a long silence.

“Hello,” said Artemis again.

“Are you talking to me?” said the tree. It had a faint Australian accent.

“Yes,” said Artemis. “I am Artemis.” IF the tree experienced any recognition, it didn’t show it. “I’m the goddess of hunting and chastity,” said Artemis.

Another silence. Then the tree said, “I’m Kate. I work in mergers and acquisitions for Goldman Sachs.”

[…]

“So,” said the tree in a more conversational tone. “You’re the goddess of hunting and chastity, then?”

“Yes,” said Artemis. “And of the moon, and several other things. Artemis.” She put a little emphasis on her name. It still hurt when mortals didn’t know it.

“I didn’t know where was a goddess of hunting and chastity and the moon,” confessed the tree. “I thought there was just the on God. Of everything. Or, actually, to be honest, I thought there was no God at all. No offence.”

“None taken,” said Artemis. Unbelievers were always preferable to heritics.

“I have to say, you don’t look much like a goddess, though,” added the tree.

“And what does a goddess look like, exactly, said Artemis, a sharpness entering her voice.

“I don’t know,” said the tree, a little nervously. “Shouldn’t you be wearing a toga or something? Or a laurel wreath?”

“You mean, not a tracksuit,” said Artemis.

“Pretty much,” admitted the tree.

“Times change,” said Artemis.

 

What have we learned? Whew, lots to unpack in this one. Artemis the goddess is a character, possibly the protagonist, and she’s real. It’s modern London, because of Hamsted Heath, Goldman Sachs, and the tracksuit. But the girl was turned into a tree, in the same manner that Laurel was turned into a tree when she fled Apollo in the ancient Greek myths. Also, the tree didn’t know Artemis, so this isn’t a world where the gods are known as anything beyond the stuff of stories.

So the World: Modern London, filled with ancient Gods who live and work and play in the city, but aren’t worshipped or known to the populace in general. The rules of ancient Myths still apply, but this isn’t generally known. The gods are a bit perturbed to be forgotten, but have modernized themselves along with the rest of the world.

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For more posts on the business and craft of writing, search my Words for Writers tag.

 

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