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Worldbuilding Through Characterization

When somebody mentions worldbuilding the first thing you’ll think of is probably a lavishly detailed map, something filled with interesting geography, the locations of important cities, and maybe a dragon in the far corner. Or perhaps what springs to mind is a family tree of noble houses that lists their connections and feuds. Maybe you’ll conjure up a table of runic symbols and sets of laws governing a magic system? Something that probably won’t be at the top of your mental list is characterisation.

Thorin's Map

It’s an integral part of any novel, but it can often be overlooked during worldbuilding in favour of choosing exactly where to place that mountain on your painstakingly hand drawn map. While it might seem that characterisation is focused on an individual level, it can actually be used to great effect in how you construct and portray the world of the story. Sure you might have told the reader about the harsh wasteland of your secondary world, described in great detail the hazards of the fire pits and pitiless stretches of barren soil, but it’s not until the reader can see its effects on the characters, until they see what kind of people this land breeds, that it can become truly real to them.

Bastard Daughter by Magali VilleneuveSeeing a family take care to recycle every useable item, or how a parent gets so angry when something is wasted can impress the scarcity of resources of a world. A tribe that’s always watchful and serious might have to be so because they live in an area filled with dangerous predators. Even a child might be subject to an upbringing of challenges and competition, instilling a belief that only the best and strongest can endure in a ruined world, and shaping their personality into that of a ruthless survivor. Characterisation can have links to many parts of a writer’s worldbuilding, many parts of the story. Drawing on different aspects of world construction and weaving it together with things like society and culture to blend seamlessly into the narrative. Clever use of characterisation can give your world a lot more authenticity, interrelating with certain aspects and enhancing others to create a more coherent and believable story.

Half the World (cover)In an interview on his Shattered Sea books, Joe Abercrombie talks about how characters need to grow out of the setting, that you can’t simply make it all up and drop characters with modern western ways of thinking into a medieval sandbox. His trilogy feels very grounded and realistic because of his research and the work he puts in when making sure his characters fit the world as a product of its culture and circumstances. A strong Norse theme pervades the books and can be seen in his characters’ thoughts, like how the raiding culture of Gettland holds the key to Brand’s desire to advance himself. Abercrombie also uses subtler methods to show the reader aspects of the Shattered Sea, like the characters’ reactions to slavery, a practice the reader would deem abhorrent, but taken in stride by the protagonists because it’s the accepted way of the world. Revealing things in this manner via the characters, with no fanfare, helps communicate the nature of the world through the way characters think and act, delivering concrete worldbuilding without the need for exposition.

To use characterisation as an effective tool for worldbuilding requires research and careful thought in application. Always be thinking about how the choices you make for your world could affect the people living there, what potential consequences it might create, how it would come across in the characters, and if there’s any way for it to make the narrative more interesting. Carry out thought experiments, look at the potential opportunities they provoke. If you’re world is a collection of floating islands, how does that affect people’s view of travel? Is it a perilous trip only undertaken when necessary, or has it bred a people with a love of freedom and exploration who soar the skies in homemade contraptions? Which idea sounds like more fun for the story?

Nocturnal Assault by JakeMurrayLook to history as a great resource for inspiration, helping to build a picture of people’s lives, learning how mannerisms and traditions evolved and why. Such research can form the basis of a character’s personality, which in turn will feed back on itself, with the reader learning why they are how they are and where they fit into the world. It might be essential in your Japanese inspired setting that the main character be a man of honour and track down a killer for the sake of the plot, but if you research into the culture and history of Japan then you can work to design a world and culture that would create such a personality and the writing will have more authority as a result.

Of course, in fantasy there is far greater scope to play with, created worlds and races, magical influences and other elements can provide endless possibilities to interact with the characters in your novels. Still, the principles are the same no matter what strange quirk you’re dealing with, for example in Paolini’s Eldest,Eragon is taught about the elves of the world, how their focus on courtesy and proper form to avoid offence is so stringent, because of their long lives and the potential for century long grudges to accrue. This is an example of taking a fantasy idea like immortality and following through a logical possibility, which works to help cement the world and flesh out the characters.

The Colour of Magic (cover)Know that it doesn’t require an on the spot explanation for this to work. With a suitable lead, the reader can be drawn to find out more. Think of Twoflower’s naivety over the relative value of gold and the trouble it causes in The Colour of Magic, how it leads the reader to learn about the counterweight continent being rich in gold.

Characterisation is a product of much more than a character’s personality, it is influenced by a hundred things that make up the world around them, therefore it can reveal those things to the reader and help develop their understanding of your world. Their languages, customs and other nuances, all are fair game to help you explore the setting of the story.

So, while your organising your table of maps and records, put a little thought into the people that populate the pages, and let them express your world too.

Title image by Mac.

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5 Comments

  1. Very informative article with great insight!

  2. Avatar Pedro says:

    Nice perspective! Thx for the article

  3. Avatar Swiff says:

    One underrated example of a book that excels in world-building throught characterization is Steve Rodgers’ CITY OF SHARDS, which I chose as a semi-finalist in last year’s SPFBO. Rodgers has created so many original races, cultures, religions, flora, fauna, animals, foods, and weaves them all through natural interactions among his characters to breathe life into his world. It’s quite incredible, and one of the best examples of this kind of world-building I’ve ever read.

  4. Avatar Sam F. says:

    Great article, really useful and informative.

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