Or, Start With a World
So, let’s say you already have a great idea for a world. That’s cool. It doesn’t mean you’re backwards (if you read my last article about starting with a character), it means you have a different kind of work done.
I had a few details about the world and culture in mind when I picked my story up again, and it did help. For example, the Chimarin written language was one of the first things I created. But I knew that it had to be an unknown language in the beginning. It had to be exclusive. So, I set them up as this looming history that not a single character really understood. When you have something like that, it gives you a whole lot of inspiration from which to draw not only history, but current events.
Another thing that I had pieced together was the disappearance of Kairus and Kalvin’s brother. And while that isn’t directly “world building”, it made me realize that this world was at least in part a “war-torn” setting. But, I had this cross-cultural story that didn’t allow for an outright elves vs humans thing. That’s how the Barbarian wars came into play. They served as this outside threat that gave both nations a common story.
Once I wrote the barbarians into the outline, it made me question the entirety of the world. That fed into the origins of how the two nations came to be. It also played into the lives of the main characters over time. That war had to carry a lot of weight, or it wasn’t worth much.
In my case, it all came together by asking questions as every step of the way. I feel like a whole lot of taking world building to story is like that.
“So I have this abandoned castle, now what?”
“What if the main characters find it, and it’s haunted?”
“I know my main character is an elven archer, so how should he react to this?”
“Well, is there a tradition in his culture that teaches him about such things?”
You get the idea. Now that archer, who I may or may not have understood has a bit more depth. And there’s a little bit of ground from which to ask more questions.
The more broad you get with the world building, the harder it is to bring characters directly into it. For example, if you’re at a high level of defining rivers and mountains, what’s the direct line to the characters and plot?
Well, it could be that you can start from a city or a town. Where is the most likely place for those? What about the features of the land have influenced the lives of the people in that town? That could play into the character’s backstory and influence their direction forward.
If you want to look at a real-life example of this, just take the Indiana farm lands. Now, not everyone who lives in Indiana is a farmer. But, the more rural of an upbringing, the more likely it is that someone from Indiana knows about farming. A farmer and someone from an urban background usually have opposite views of the world. But, if you want something unique, place two almost opposite things into a spectrum. Then, either place a character about halfway on the scale, or figure out a way to make both things true.
Your elf, who was from the city, spent most of his childhood helping his grandfather with the city gardens. Or, that elf who lived his entire life in a small farming community now as a reason to visit or live in an urban center. Dragon Age did a bit of this, when they presented some of the elves as living in slums, unable to make wages and bullied by the humans in power. Sometimes there’s desperation, sometimes there isn’t. But that’s up to you.
If you do happen to have a world that needs a character and a plot, just start asking questions about the world. Ask the right questions and the characters will usually start to make sense.