Characters – Part 4: World-building.

So far, we’ve looked at the following aspects of character-building:

  • the character’s name and how it defines them.
  • the way they look and how you introduce description into your narrative.
  • the psychology and motivation of what drives your characters.

In this last instalment, we’re going to look at filling out the details of the character’s world.  Many of these details might seem irrelevant, but when writing – particularly if working on a novel – it’s amazing how these details can influence the evolution of your story.

For example, consider diagramming your characters’ (or at least your protagonist’s) family tree.  Who are his parents?  How long have they been married?  Are they still alive?  If not, how did they die?  Do they have siblings?  Are they married?  Do they have kids?  (This would make your protagonist an uncle or aunt.)  There’s lots of fascinating minutiae which can come just from a simple tree.

What about your character’s environment?  Where do they live?  Who are their neighbours?  Consider blueprinting their residence, so you can always know where they are at any given time, or where they have to go to get from Point A to Point B, e.g. if they’re in the bedroom and somebody knocks at the front door, what does it take to get there?  It mighn’t factor in the story at all.  But there are times your story might demand an awareness of space and how your character moves through it.

Another consideration is your character’s everyday routine and whether they have any hobbies.  When they wake up, what’s the first thing they do?  What do they do in their spare time?  How about their job?  Where do they work?  Who do they work with?  What are their hours?

There are lots of these little details, seemingly meaningless in isolation, but which comprise your character’s world.  Think of yourself as a person and a day in your life.  Think about how these things influence your day.  It could be as major as waking up and going to the gym first thing in the morning, or as small a cup of coffee to kick off the day.

Let’s say, for example, we’re writing a relationship story.  We’ve decided the woman is going to be conscientious (if not obsessive) about her weight, so she goes to the gym every weekday morning, whereas the man must have his morning cup of coffee to function.

So, this man and woman have been dating.  They have a romantic dinner, go back to her place, and sleep together.  Morning dawns.  Where does each character go from here?  Their patterns are now compromised.  Because the woman is a gym junkie, does she shoo the guy out?  If she’s conscientious of her weight, does she even let him see her naked in daylight?  Maybe she shoos him out right after sex the night before?  Is the man surly in the morning?  Does he rifle the woman’s kitchen looking for coffee?  Perhaps she’s a health nut and has only decaffeinated, or nothing at all.

There are a lot of possibilities and, as you can see, those little details we’ve attached to each character are now directly influencing the story’s evolution, whereas previously we might’ve just let the story blandly run its course.  At the very best, these little details help stimulate new ideas and outcomes we might not have previously considered.  These can be far more authentic than anything contrived.  What’s more, they can help propel your story when writer’s block threatens.  Unsure what comes next?  Well, what does your character usually do at this given time?

Ultimately, it’s up to you to determine just how many details you need for your character(s).  If you’re writing a short piece – a story of only two thousand words, for instance – you mightn’t need such exhaustive details.  If you’re planning a novel, you might want to get into your character’s world and truly plan it out.

It’s worth considering, as knowing as much about your characters as possible can help layer your story, provide consistency for the way your characters act (and react), and influence what happens next.