I met, a while back, an aspiring writer who worked from the world, going inward. That is to say–she liked the gimmicks of worlds. Whatever story she was writing, she could tell me what the continents were, what the biomes were like, what peoples were isolated and what peoples were separated by what land formations, what wars had been waged, who spoke what languages… and so on. She always knew, first and foremost, how the world looked.
I go the opposite way.
I am a character-centric writer. I want to know who I am writing about, what gets them up in the morning, what annoys them. I want to know about their hang-ups with their surroundings, and how they move, and why they do the things they do. The way the character exists in the world is usually how I open up into world-building. If I see my character doing something a certain way, I wonder why that might be.
The answer to such questions usually reveals something about the fantasy world. In other words, my characters are a window through which I can understand a bit more about my fantasy world.
Neither way is right, obviously, but both certainly do lend themselves towards different oversights. I’ve read enough early drafts to see what kind of problems can crop up:
I find that people of the first variety, who build from the world inward, can create a heck of a premise, but can sometimes struggle to connect their characters to the world, and have them interact with the world in a way that creates tension, conflict, and interest. They can create a vivid world, yet struggle to tie that marvelous premise of theirs into their character’s background, motivations, and interactions.
On the other hand, those that tend to be character-centric sometimes write as if all is taking place in a void. The characters will speak with one another and may even reference the world outside, but the reader will have no way to look at the world. Prose is scant of any setting description, and the characters are so busy with their own business that the reader never has a moment to get a sense of the larger picture. For all they know, the main characters might be standing in a blank room for all their goings-on.
Again: neither way is foolproof. There will always be oversights. There is no way to write, I think, without some oversights. That’s why writers invented multiple drafts, re-writing, writing workshops, beta readers, editing, proofing, and all the other tools in their kit to help patch up holes and cover all the little details they missed the first time.
The question becomes: how do you locate the weaknesses in your own world-building, and work to amend them on your own?
Firstly, of course, you have to know which direction you’re going. Are you a world-inward kind of writer, or a character-outward kind of writer? Do you find yourself with a marvelous world and little to do within it? Or do you have two pages worth of dialogue and inner reflection with a single sentence to mention that your character is, indeed, standing in a room?
It can help to think about what you enjoy writing, and what feels most comfortable to write. I, for one, dread the moment when I have to describe the lay-out of the room, or remember which continent lies to the south. But give me time to imagine how a character feels about some event, or a difficult decision they have to make, and I will happily type away until the cows come home.
Once you know what is easy for you to write, it is easier to locate what is more challenging. Keep in mind: unless you very consciously keep these challenges in mind when you’re writing, these are the parts that will often be overlooked. When you are first cranking out that draft, you want to get it down. The game is one of “finish at all costs,” and it will cost you. In order to write it, you will lean upon what is easy and familiar to help support that which is hard and challenging.
(There is, I should mention, no shame in this. You finished a draft! Well done, and please be proud of yourself, because it’s an incredible feat to finish something. Not everyone can, and even those who can struggle to manage it. You’ve done good, I promise.)
So–knowing that you’ve written what was easier for you, in the first draft, look at what is harder for you. Are you a world-inward writer? Then here are some questions that might be worth asking as you tackle re-writing and editing:
- How does the world affect your character? How are their perceptions, skills, insecurities, or sense of self affected by the world they live in?
- Find a passage where you describe the world. If they aren’t already, imagine your character is the one noticing everything mentioned in this passage. Why are they noticing it? Is the scene usual, unusual? What reasons might they have to reflect on their setting at this moment?
- Can you explain why your world operates the way it does? If there is a single ruling family, how have they kept power, and how do they maintain power over their people? Why has that political system won out?
- Likewise, if you have an oppressed group, how did they get there, and how are they kept complacent (or not!) by the powers that be? If you have planet that is slowly cannibalizing its population, can you explain why it is doing so, why it has not done so prior, and how this may affect the people living there who had previously lived peacefully on the planet’s surface?
The main thing to keep in mind for world-inward writers, to my mind, is connecting your passion and skill for world-building back into your characters. Show how their culture and their thinking is affected by their world. Because humans are tied to their senses and their perception of the world, connecting your world-building to the eyes of your characters will ground your story in a sense of reality. A world must affect its characters–otherwise, it is just a world.
On the other hand, if you are an character-outward writer, who starts with characters and builds the world around them, here are some useful questions to ask yourself:
- If you are a dialogue-heavy writer, check your most recent stretch of conversation. Can you see where your character is? Can you describe it? What kind of chair are they sitting in, is the light natural or man-made, steady or flickering? Can your character impatiently tap on a table, or worry at the arm of their chair, or otherwise interact with their environment?
- If you write a lot of internal reflection, check the questions above a second time. Whenever possible, externalize your character’s thoughts into motion. Can you make them interact with their environment, and reveal something about where they are?
- Have you drawn a map of your world? Can you say with certainty what countries lie to the north, east, south or west of your fantasy location? What sort of geography might be contributing to political alliances, wars, or cultural isolation and discovery?
- Whether your character occupies a position of great power, or whether they are part of an oppressed group, you can ask the same question: why does that power structure exist? What is it about the world that necessitates some to occupy high positions of power, and others to occupy lower ones? Are there oppressed groups or prejudices in the world? If so, what history, geography, or politics have led to the systemic validation/oppression of certain people in your fantasy society?
For character-outward world-builders, the crucial thing to keep in mind is that world affects character. You can use your characters as a window to look out at the world around you, but you must slow down and interact with that world in similar ways that the characters would. They would notice if the weather was unusual that day and hesitate to go out in it. They might hear news of people crossing into their borders, and that event might be more surprising depending on whether the border is an imaginary line or a steep mountain range.
Your character’s actions and reactions will depend upon the make of their world–it’s important to make them live inside of it, or else you may as well have your cast floating in a void.
Again–there is no wrong way to go about world-building. Some can happily spend days on the politics and environment, while others tackle the emotional and the social. The good news is, each is one side of the same coin. People are affected by their world, and the world is sculpted by people. With a few poignant questions, the construction of one side lends itself to the revelation of the other.
So go on. Think about what you’re good at. And when you’re cozy with that, ask a few questions. See what you can’t build bigger and better on the next draft.
Until then–here’s to it. Keep writing, folks!