Start With a Human, Let the World Build Itself

Written on July 21, 2015 Tagged in: , , , , , Categorised in: , ,

A woman holding a sword and shield

I know a lot of people who love to world-build, and that’s awesome. Some of them can get so far in-depth with their created world that they struggle to start a story. There’s just so much depth in the world that it almost holds this untouchability. But for me, while I love world-building, I’d rather over-create a character.

As humans, we gravitate toward things we understand. That’s not a mountain range, but a personal quality, a tick, a feature we admire. I find that if I start with a person, or a character with human tendencies, the world creates itself.

The way I go about it is something like this.

First, I have the general idea of a character in mind.

That’s easy enough, right? It can be as broad or as immediately complex as you like. You can say “Oh, she’s a knight!” or “He’s a Goblin chef who wears tons of makeup to blend in with the human kitchen staff.” Both directions are fine, but get as much detail down as you have at this point.

Second, start telling their story from where they are right now.

You don’t have to know every last detail about the character’s life. You can say “well, that goblin hasn’t always been a chef, how did that happen?” and the same question would be applicable to the woman who is a knight.

Third, answer the obvious questions that come to mind.

Neither of those two examples are straightforward. Women typically aren’t knights, and goblins aren’t usually cast in that kind of light. (There’s zero implied connection here, I swear.) So imagine you’re reading about this character, what would you want to know?

  1. Why did the goblin take up culinary arts?
  2. How did the woman get past the squire system?

Fourth, drop them in a setting

Now, the obvious thing here is to throw a castle at either character. But you can also get farther ahead by not doing that. What if you were to toss a spaceship at the knight, or the goblin? What does that change? Well, you’d have a goblin chef aboard a space freighter, or a knight on a war ship. That’s an entirely different plot direction than I had in mind four paragraphs above.

Fifth, add a broad conflict

There’s going to be a larger plot going on around them, start there. Maybe you want to talk about how there’s this intergalactic war, or the ship on which they travel is in search of a rogue pirate.

Sixth, add a more finite conflict

So while the ship is on its way to hunt down a dreadful pirate, you’re going to have something that hits the character more directly. Maybe they find out that the dead ship they picked up belonged to the pirate who is now a stowaway aboard their ship.

Both of those proposed characters would react to that knowledge in a different way. At least you’d hope so. How does that impact them as a character? How does it impact their interaction with their shipmates?

Seventh, chart a course

So with the main and minor conflicts out of the way, it’s time to add a longer thread. What I tend to do here is take what I have and just spread it out across each other. So we have a galactic war, a wanted pirate, and the goblin chef found the pirate. The goblin has to keep the pirate’s secret or the pirate will tell everyone that he’s a goblin, and that would mean he dies. See, there’s a multi-level conflict that took me about 2 whole seconds to write.

With that summary in place, I start with events.

  1. The goblin is happily cooking
  2. The crew of bounty hunters finds a dead ship
  3. They bring the dead ship aboard to salvage the parts
  4. The goblin stumbles upon the pirate, hiding in storage
  5. There’s the whole “you tell anyone and I’ll tell everyone” scene
  6. The pirate is almost found out in the goblin’s presence
  7. Crisis avoided, ship takes fire
  8. There’s a war thing going on
  9. The pirate tries to escape but the goblin stops him
  10. The pirate knocks the goblin out and stashes him in the closet

You get the idea.

Eighth, write the larger world as you have need

Do I need to know that the pirate is a rare species of alien? Maybe. Would it change the plot at any given point? If you come up with a great idea, like the pirate is the last of his kind and he just so happens to travel in a blue box, that’d be helpful to know. But don’t spend a boatload of time trying to write details about the galaxy that don’t matter. Often the best insights aren’t randomly written, they’re the result of a question you ask about a character or a scene.

Why were they hunting the pirate? He’s been terrorizing the merchant fleet around Earth. Oh, so Earth is still in play? How is it changed from what we know? Does that even matter to this story?

Wait, the main character is a goblin? A goblin from Earth, or some other planet? Oh, he’s an actual Martian? How did the martians hide from all those NASA rovers?

See, by asking yourself random questions you can flesh out your story in natural ways. Give yourself the freedom in the writing process to follow a mental rabbit trail. Sometimes you’ll surprise yourself with a plot or a scene that you didn’t expect.

By all means make the world amazing, but let it write itself. But if you’re more proactive about your characters, your story will take hold quicker. Humans recognize humanity, even if it comes in the form of a goblin chef from Mars.

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