How Characters Shape Worldbuilding

Using Discovery Writing to Fuel Your Speculative Worlds

One overlooked aspect of worldbuilding is the characters. How characters interact with the world tells the reader both about that character’s personality and the world in which they were raised. The most successful books have the characters drive the story—and the world.

If you’re a discovery writer like me, you might struggle with the traditional ideas of worldbuilding. You’ve probably heard a million methods about the complex worldbuilding writers use in order to write a book. From George R.R. Martin’s wiki mining to Tolkien’s complex language creation, it seems that most theories of traditional worldbuilding require the author to know every single detail of their world—even if it won’t make it into the book—and then to pare down those details in a monstrous task that leaves most writers bamboozled.

Of course, there are plenty of authors who are fantastic at navigating that complex process of distilling a waterfall into a single drop of magical worldbuilding mana. Those authors usually understand that worldbuilding works best when it feels organic. And the most unpredictable part of a book is its characters. When they change, the world changes.

This is the main topic of my upcoming one-hour webinar with Reach Your Apex, happening May 15th at 6:00pm CST via Zoom.

Character-Based Worldbuilding
DATE: May 15th, 2024
TIME: 7:00pm EST / 6:00 pm CST
Location: Online via Zoom with Reach Your Apex
Price: $40

When it comes to worldbuilding, many methods require writers to conduct extensive research to learn about the world they are creating. While creating lists and building a Wiki can be helpful in preparing to write, it can also hinder creativity for writers who prefer a more spontaneous approach.

  • Using Characters to Drive Worldbuilding: Discover how to build your world as you go, connecting genre elements to your character’s narrative.

  • Emotion as Story: Explore your character’s actions and emotional motivation, the keys to resonant storytelling.

  • Crafting Genre “Gestures”: Learn how to use well-known tropes to pull a reader into your world without sacrificing originality.

  • Generative Exercises: Engage in real-time writing activities to build your world using your character’s interior journey.

This workshop offers an alternative method of worldbuilding that centers on the character’s actions, emotional journey, and story. Learn how to build your world as you go, connecting every significant element to your character’s narrative. This approach is perfect for writers who prefer a more organic and flexible style, allowing the character to develop alongside the story. This workshop is open to all genres but is best suited for writers with a short fiction work in progress or book-length project.

What Is Character-Based Worldbuilding?

“Everything is worldbuilding. Worldbuilding has this negative connotation as sort of this homework that you have to do beforehand…Everything in a story is worldbuilding in the same way that everything about us is worldbuilding.” —Scott Lynch

Character-based worldbuilding is a technique that uses each scene to explore the world of the story through a character’s point of view. How the character interacts with the world can tell us a lot about the character, but also about their world. The argument here is that simply by having your character do something in a scene, you can create worldbuilding opportunities.

A scene is a closed loop—the character enters a place, does something or talks to someone, and then leaves. In a book or short story, every scene matters. If you struggle to figure out how to explain an important aspect of the world to your readers, one way is to simply have your character interact with that aspect of the world.

For example, in the short story “The Summer People” by Kelly Link, the first speculative scene involves a character literally stepping over a threshold into a magical world:

So Ophelia took a breath and stepped over the threshold and into a dark, crowded hallway with a room on either side and a staircase in front of her. On the flagstone in front of her were carved the words: BE BOLD, BE BOLD. Despite the invitation, Ophelia did not seem tempted to investigate either room, which Fran thought wise of her. The first test a success. You might expect that through one door would be a living room, and you might expect that through the other door would be a kitchen, but you would be wrong. One was the Queen's Room. The other was what Fran thought of as the War Room.

Fussy stacks of magazines and catalogs and newspapers, encyclopedias and gothic novels leaned against the walls of the hall, making such a narrow alley that even lickle tiny Ophelia turned sideways to make her way. Dolls' legs and silverware sets and tennis trophies and mason jars and empty matchboxes and false teeth and still chancier things poked out of paper bags and plastic carriers. You might expect that through the doors on either side of the hall there would be more crumbling piles and more odd jumbles, and you would be right. But there were other things too. At the foot of the stairs was another piece of advice for guests like Ophelia, carved right into the first riser: BE BOLD, BE BOLD, BUT NOT TOO BOLD. 

Everything Ophelia interacts with in this scene becomes central to the plot later in the story. We also learn a lot about Ophelia from this scene. We learn that she is brave, but careful. She’s not afraid to walk into what is clearly a not-normal-at-all house, (she is being bold), but she’s also taking careful note of everything in the house. Ophelia is literally discovering the world, and we the readers are along for the journey.

In character-based worldbuilding, every action has meaning. Yes, the writer still goes through the work of describing the room in detail: its objects, people, and general vibe. But it’s how the character approaches the room that matters.

Character-based worldbuilding draws on the theory that a character’s emotions are what drive the story—and that without knowing how a character feels in each scene, we as readers won’t care about the story. It’s also about the “less is more” theory: The less we tell the reader, the more they will assume about the character and setting.

When exploring this method in your own writing, resist the urge to go into too much detail. Only describe the elements of the world that are key to the plot. Don’t be concerned with showing off what you know about the world—and potentially confusing the reader who doesn’t yet know.

Allow your reader space for their own imagination to become a part of the story. Focus on plot and emotion versus explanation. Give the reader space to connect to the character, and they’ll be hooked.

Doug's NewsletterEvery Thursday, I provide simple tips to help you create more pauses — with a generous sprinkling of humor — in 5 minutes or less.

A Character-Based Worldbuilding Exercise

To try this technique out in your own writing, start with a simple scene. Even if you don’t yet know what the scene’s goals are for the larger plot, that’s okay. Write a scene where your character enters a space (a room, a spaceship, a castle…) and interacts with something, preferably an object, that demonstrates the genre you’re writing in. To close the scene, have the character leave the space.

Now, look back at what you wrote. What details did you include? What do they tell you about the character—or their backstory? How could this interaction relate to a larger story? Use these details to build the world as the story progresses, reintroducing them later with new significance.

For example, you might have a character who is a spaceship captain. They enter a part of the spaceship and find something broken. They fix it and leave the space. You can bet your reader will assume that something in that broken item matters to the larger plot.

Like Checkov’s gun, even the smallest details are signifiers to the reader. So choose them wisely.

Upcoming Workshops from Holly Lyn Walrath

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