Friday, May 6, 2011

World-Building, Part 1: Characters

Everyone builds worlds differently.  Everyone writes differently.  I know there are so many writers out there who have built far more worlds than I have, but I'll share what I can from my experiences and I hope that you guys will share your thoughts and world-building techniques, too.

In all of the novels I have written and/or co-written, I've had the chance to develop several different types of worlds.  Each of these worlds required different types of building blocks to be established and I've learned different things from each one. 

I was torn between talking with setting and characters today, because they go hand-in-hand in many ways.  Of course you have to have a setting.  What is your setting?  A world covered with mountains?  Post-apocalyptic Earth where the only continent habitable now is Antarctica?  People living in boats, trains, floating cities, normal houses, caves?  You need to figure out what your world is like, and I will talk more about developing setting in my next world-building post.  Right now, I'm focusing on what I learn from characters, because when it comes down to it, I start my world-building with them.

I am a "character author."  My novels begin when a character walks into my head and says, "Hello, you're going to write my story! No, I don't care if you don't know what the setting or the plot is; you'll figure it out!  Now let me make myself comfortable in you brain and I'll poke at you with a stick until you figure out what kind of world this is."

More than that, characters are the eyes and ears and voice to tell the readers about your world.  (Unless you are telling the story in omniscient narrative, which I don't do--I would feel too disconnected from the characters.) I'm not talking about info-dumping; I'm talking about letting readers learn what the world is like by what a character sees, thinks, and does.

Let me throw some examples out there.

Example 1: Character sees a giant pointy-toothed cat and isn't fazed by it.  I know now that giant, ferocious looking cats are a natural part of this environment.  Character isn't afraid of it, maybe I shouldn't be worried either.


Example 2: Character observes a street full of people carrying white lilies.  She realizes that someone must have died, because white lilies are the symbol of death in this world.  Later in the story, someone approaches her with a white lily and I'm freaked out because: Ahhhh!! Who died!?!?


Example 3: Character loves this restaurant.  She goes there every week, and we find out through the gossip of a couple servers that her dad took her there when she was little.  After her dad died, she's come there by herself.  Later in the story, when the restaurant is destroyed in a storm, we feel the loss of the character's haven.


We didn't just learn about the characters, we learned about the world around them, what is happening in the story, and what their environment is like.

*What are your thoughts on characters and how they shape your world and settings?  Or do you come up with your world first and shape your characters around that?


  1. I'm so excited that you're doing this series! It's something I'm needing right now. But I did recently learn in a class that like you said, world-building comes through the characters. What they see, experience or feel in the world around them, whatever that world may be. No info dumping!

  2. Did you make those drawings yourself, you artistic little blogger you! hahaha, thanks for the e-mail back. replying tomorrow! :)

  3. Ruth-I'm excited to be doing it! We'll see how it goes. It's been so interesting to find ways to explain a fantasy world to people without info-dumping--but a lot of fun.

    Rebecca-LOL, stick figures in paint is about the extent of what I can draw. ;)

  4. Yay I'm glad I saw this post :) I must have missed it...

    I'm like you. I design a world around my characters. My characters show up in my head, refuse to leave me alone, and then I sort of discover the world with them. Through each revision, I add a little more to that world, solidify themes - all based upon the characters I have and what they're going through. My world starts to have a more defined "character" through the revision process, because if I think about its entirety ahead of time, I'm so overwhelmed I want to fall down and pass out.

    So glad you're doing this and I love the illustrations :)

    btw do you have an email I can contact you? I want to ask you about Oaktara

  5. Great information, and timely! Thanks. I'm also someone who typically has an idea and basic scenario for a character before anything else. In fact, I typically have a full picture of the character in there well before I start writing. Looking forward to the rest!

  6. Great info. That's a tough one. Sometimes it's the character that comes first, and other times a world will pop in my mind with the characters closely following.

  7. Great post (and love the drawings!) :) In my current WIP, my world has been a little slower developing, taking third place behind my plotline and characters. It's interesting how it can change from book to book.



  8. I'm on my first book and the characters came to me first. The one character is a librarian and the opening is set in the library.

    I'm developing the rest as I go.

    The Write Soil

  9. Love your post and the drawings.

    For the last couple of novels or so, the idea for the world or something about it came to me first.

  10. I have to say I'm both. I like plot just as much as I like character. I try and work on both equally. And I do try and have the character drive the plot.

  11. Such a cool post and you know how much I love the images LOL! So, I'd have to say that the character development and world development kind of happen simultaneously for me. I can't really flesh out one without knowing enough about the other.

  12. Barbara-I totally understand being too overwhelmed if you focus on too much! Thank you for sharing some of your process!

    Shannon-I'm the same way, but even then, some of my characters completely take me by surprise. When I was halfway through the book I just finished, my character who was supposed to be this hermit announced to me that he was, in fact, married and had children. I was like, "Excuse me??" Characters are fun. ;)

    Donna-I think that characters and world really go hand-in-hand. They shape each other so much.

    Rach-It is really interesting how it can change! Some books are more easily written one way, and then the next is completely different. Thanks!

    Dawn-Developing as I go is pretty much the only way I do it. ;) How cool that your character is a librarian! It's not something you see all the time.

    Kimberly-Thank you! And that's neat that your worlds came to you first in recent books. What kinds of worlds were they?

    Donna W.-Thank you!! :D

    Laura-I tend to be the same way--I may start with the characters, but the plot ends up being just as important (and sometimes extremely frustrating when it won't cooperate!), but my plots are all very character-driven.

    Lindsay-:D Thanks! And I hear you. I tend to get the characters first, but they can't really go anywhere without the setting. Once I have a shred of character and world and can start writing, they both develop along the way.

  13. Very interesting post! I feel the people first, and a second later, the plot. It all comes together running hard from my fingertips, it's hard to separate from what and what.

    I really enjoyed your post! Thank you!

    Can Alex save Winter from the darkness that hunts her?
    YA Paranormal Romance, Darkspell coming soon!

  14. Elizabeth-It is hard to separate them once they all come together, isn't it? It's been challenging for me to pick apart aspects of world-building, because once all is said and done, they flow together. Thank you for coming by! :)

  15. I love the background of the world. That's what I'm still thin on with my SciFi project.


Thanks for sharing your thoughts!