This is topic World Building and Character Development in forum Open Discussions About Writing at Hatrack River Writers Workshop.

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Posted by MattLeo (Member # 9331) on :
Kathleen Dalton Woodbury suggested I repost a response I made in the character interviews section here under the title "Character Development vs. World Building". I've reworked those remarks here to clarify my points and to make it clear that the issues I'm raising aren't specific to rjgraff's story; they're practically universal in the early fantasy novel drafts I've seen. That includes one that went on to win a multi-book contract for its author from a major publisher. That result didn't surprise me, because that was one of those rare instances where the author made every successive draft stronger and more creatively balanced.


World building is obviously very important to fantasy; arguably it's the defining characteristic of fantasy. Certainly one of the things that keeps us readers of fantasy returning to the genre is the charm of visiting worlds whose rules are different from ours but whose history is a counterpoint to our own.

So naturally when we set out to write a fantasy, most of us start with world building. We work out the rules, logic, history even in some cases politics and natural history of the story world. The result is a narrative imbalance that often leaves an early draft sounding like a dry treatise rather than an exciting adventure. To gain and hold our interest, a story needs to strike a creative balance between world building, character development and plot. Achieving that balance is especially challenging in opening chapters.

How is it that the very thing we as readers look for in a fantasy story is so often what makes us want to put that story down? I think that happens because at the outset of a story we value world building details for their usefulness, not for their own sake.

The equation works like this: the world's details are crucial to the protagonist; we are interested in the protagonist and his problems; therefore we are interested in the details of the world. Later on that interest in the world itself may take on a life of its own. A small minority of world building aficionados and gamers might be interested right from the start in the mechanics of spell casting or the trade relations between the Empire and the tin miners of Ultima Thule. Those people are a minority.

Most fantasy stories can be summarized roughly as follows: the world is broken in some way, but through the action of a hero the world is repaired. Characterization is a kind of hinge by which world building and plot are articulated. If you weld the plot directly to world building in a way that doesn't hinge on character, the details of the world are uninteresting and the movement of the plot seems forced. All the coincidences of the plot stand out without a credible protagonist to move the action forward.

Consider two versions of the same turning point in a story. In one, the hero is conveniently out in the woods when the forces of evil kill everyone in his village. In the other, the hero is defying the order of the village elders not to visit the magic forest pool; when he returns to the village it has been wiped out by the forces of evil. Either way it's the same coincidence, but in the latter case it is not only masked by the character's actions, we get a bonus action motivator. This is an essential element of heroism: heroes have *moral agency*. They make things happen, or at the very least are doing something when things happen, something that shapes the rest of the story.

A fantasy hero often receives crucial magical assistance or advice. If you know your fairy tales, you know that the hero isn't singled out by mere coincidence; the help is offered to others (canonically there will be two failed predecessors), but the hero *chooses differently*. This gets to the very heart of what it means for a fantasy hero to be "credible". Fantasy credibility isn't about the hero falling into the plausible range established by the mass of humanity, but rather the opposite. The hero thinks, chooses, acts and reacts in ways that *set him apart*, and those differences mark him for his special role. The sooner that is established, the faster the story really takes off, and with it our need for more information.

Let's look at a well known example to see how this works. The following questions arose in discussions here about some preliminary characterization work, but applying them to the Harry Potter stories demonstrates how Rowling uses characterization to draw us into her elaborate wizarding universe.

1) What are the imitations on the protagonist's knowledge, and how do they set him apart?

Harry doesn't understand the wizarding world initially; he doesn't learn Dumbledore's plan for him until near the end of the last book. Harry must operate largely on faith and hope.

2) How do the differences in a character's background make him present himself differently from his peers?

Harry has great notoriety in the wizarding world, but although he is talented, his sheer magical prowess cannot possibly hope to match the magnitude his fame; not on a day to day basis. He is also is one of the least informed of his peers about the facts of the magical world (giving JKR an excuse to explain them). Harry handles this by being modest. He is consistently self-effacing, *unless challenged*.

3) How do the character's motivations and attitudes set him apart from his peers?

Harry starts out longing for a place where he truly belongs, but when he finds it, he is forced again and again prove he deserves his position there. His status is constantly wobbling toward "outsider". The response of *evil* characters to such insecurity is to toady up to the powerful and throw the outsiders under the bus, but Harry's problems only reinforce his sympathy for the downtrodden. Harry is therefor the most anti-authoritarian of his peers by far. His stance toward authority runs from indifference to its commands (e.g., toward the well-meaning Professor McGonagall) to open contempt and hostility.

4) How does the protagonist's decision making style set his choices apart from those of his peers?

While generally modest, Harry is always eager to prove himself. He never turns down a challenge, never backs down, never turns aside in the face of danger, and never compromises where the welfare of the expendable people is concerned. His stubbornness in these matters often leads him into trouble.

This is all tangential to the choices of world-building details in the Harry Potter universe, yet at the same time crucial to making those details significant to readers. Millions of people around the world somehow know exactly what Quidditch match looks like. It obviously would have made no difference had Rowling chosen to have two goal rings rather than three, but if the movie makers had left one of the goal rings out it would have been instantly noticed. How is that possible?

I've made a particular study of the scene where Rowling explains Quidditch to the reader, and it would be the stuff of readers' nightmares, but for a simple equation. Harry needs to know this stuff in order to prove himself; we identify with Harry; therefore this stuff really matters to us. Because we identify with Harry, we soak in the details just as attentively has he does. This leaves the author free to construct her castles in the air knowing she'll have an appreciative audience.

But ... it's simplistic to say "build the character first and the world second." We're interested in Harry Potter precisely *because* he's trying to win his place in the wizarding world, but we really can't understand what that means until we absorb a little bit of world building. Kindling interest is a delicate operation.

I wish I could say that Rowling provides a superb model for doing this, but that's questionable. *Philosopher's Stone* is probably her weakest effort. Rowling opens her story with two chapters amount to about eight thousand words of prologue. That's an interesting decision that flies in the face conventional wisdom, which says get to the meat of the story as early as possible, dispensing with backstories and prologues. *The Philosopher's Stone*'s early pacing clearly suffers from this digression, but in it's favor, this approach leaves the reader who makes it to chapter three well primed to study anything bearing on Harry's fate.

What lesson should we take away from that? Gosh I wish I could boil it down to a formula for success, but I don't think I can. The only lesson I can draw from it is that opening chapters are hard, require taking a few risks, and sometimes work despite their imperfections.

The one thing I can say from critiquing more fantasy manuscripts than I can remember is that their weakest part is invariably the first chapter. The most common culprit in weak first chapters is having too much world building to process before we have any reason to care about those details. Action-packed openings tend to fare a bit better, but even those can also founder because we don't know enough about the world to understand what's going on, or fail to tie in with the rest of the story. It's a Catch-22: you need world building to understand the importance of the hero and the significance of his actions.

I'd say that successful openings almost always engage us with the character or characters, often by giving them something to do that is understandable without an extensive background briefing. They tend to be spare with explanatory detail, except where it might engage us with the POV character. This might be another area where first person narration is a tiny bit easier, because it is natural for the narrator to introduce himself, making a bid for reader attention and sympathy with any means at his disposal. He can do many things that an omniscient narrator can't, like dropping melodramatic hints, mentioning scraps of backstory that may or may not be relevant, or making humorous observations.

Posted by Kathleen Dalton Woodbury (Member # 59) on :
Thank you, MattLeo.
Posted by Robert Nowall (Member # 2764) on :
I can't discuss Harry Potter authoritavely, what with only having read the first book. (One of these days I really ought to read the others...they come so highly recommended.) But even with the first book, I thought the first chapter didn't belong. Maybe it set up things in the other books...but every book should stand alone, and, on that basis, I thought the first chapter should have been cut.

On world-building vs. character development...I've come to the conclusion that the created world in a fantasy (or science fiction) story is important, but it should be deployed only in service of the characters who inhabit it.

You do say, in our SF / fantasy circles, that, for example, "this story is about this school where you go to learn magic," but in the great beyond of our genre, you would say, "this story is about this boy wizard who holds the fate and future of the world in his hands."

Posted by Lyrajean (Member # 7664) on :
Marvelous explanation of how the different elements of fiction crafting fit together, or how you can't have one thing without the other. The characters support the world development and visa versa.

I like how you apply it to a book a lot of contemprary people have read to make your point. But you could apply it to many other works and it still holds true. I'm right now thinking about how this applies to another favorite of mine, Zelazny's Chronicles of Amber.

I'm also thinking of how this falls apart. Ultimately in good fiction if the world is evolved to support the main character (s) this may be why so many sequels fall apart after a while. If the rules for one's world are developed to support a plot and a main character (both to hinder and help) then if the story changes or a new story with new characters is developed using the same world it is a challenge, to say the least, to make it fit together.

Posted by MattLeo (Member # 9331) on :
Lyrajean -- I'd be very interested in your analysis of the Amber series.

Your hypothesis about the world building failing to keep up with the needs of the characters is an interesting one, but I'm not sure I buy it entirely. I think a well designed world *seems* a lot more constrained than it really is. There are certain features that make setting one consistent, coherent story after another in a world very difficult. Time travel, for one. If the kind of time travel where you can shoot your own grandfather is possible, then sooner or later you are going to be caught in an inconsistency.

For that reason developing a detailed, logically consistent system for things like spell-casting is not only unnecessary, it's probably a bad idea. I don't think that the specific details of a world are really all that important. It's a bad idea to get hung up on details. Your job is to get the *reader* hung up on details, and then to imagine you've told them a lot more about how the world works than you really have. Then you can contradict them later, and they'll be delighted because you've given them another scrap of "fact" to chew upon.

Without a doubt, the single most impressive piece of world building ever done was Tolkien's Middle Earth. Yet despite pondering extensive maps and appendices, despite searching unpublished notes and unfinished stories, much of what fans want to know about Middle Earth remains a mystery. What kinds of magic can wizards do? What happened to the other wizards of Gandalf's "order"? Fans would be delighted to get a few more details on the dealings of wizards in Middle Earth, but Tolkien wisely declines to satisfy that curiosity. Why spoil the speculative fun with the unwelcome weight of authorial authority? Instead he enlightens us on such trivial matters as the proverbial cats of Queen Beruthiel, and the fans lap it up.

World building details are like props in a play. They help the audience believe what is going on up on the stage. The audience never gets a close enough look to notice that the fabulous diamond is really just an old glass doorknob.

Quidditch illustrates my point nicely. It is a tour-de-force of world building, yet at the same time a masterpiece in the art of the shaggy dog story. Rowling foists the minutiae of Quidditch on us by making those details matter to Harry, but there's really only one, absurdly implausible detail in the whole pot of rigmarole that has any narrative significance: if the playing teams are even remotely close to evenly matched, victory will always come down to the actions of a single player, the Seeker. That's Harry of course. Everything else we know about Quidditch is mere set decoration which distracts us from how ridiculous that is. Once she's persuaded us to swallow *that* whopper, she can trot Harry out for one set-piece after another in which the whole school hangs upon the outcome of his broomstick derring-do.

It's notable that Quidditch is about the only thing that is described by Rowlings in such systematic detail, and none of that detail matters. Where things *might* matter, she is artfully vague. She hints that there is a consistent theory of magic which governs and limits its operation. There'd have to be. But Rowlings plays her cards close to the vest, never laying out much in the way of specifics. She pretends she is constrained by the rules of magic, but in fact she has a mostly free hand to conform magic to the needs of her plot.

So I certainly think it is possible to over constrain yourself in world building and run into a wall. I think most unpublished fantasy manuscripts I've seen are heading that way by the end of page 1. I think that's because most aspiring fantasy writers are intelligent, imaginative people and feel buoyed by a task that they're confident they can do as well as anyone. But virtuoso world building is like a magic trick. What I often see in aspirants manuscripts is more like an actual mechanism for secreting an living rabbit in an honest-to-goodness hat. It's impressive in its way as a feat of engineering, yet somehow it's less convincing than the illusion.

[This message has been edited by MattLeo (edited December 15, 2010).]

[This message has been edited by MattLeo (edited December 15, 2010).]

Posted by walexander (Member # 9151) on :
I would concur with Matt on this though I'm still young on experience.

The fact of Rowlings magic is a good example. Though the characters attend several years of classes on magic. Their abilities really only come down to a few spells. The same as in tolkien no clear system of magic is ever defined. And I would also add that when Lucus added the explanation of the force it was more of a wet blanket than a matter of interest. Over explaining something can take the mystery out of it. No one cares about what the force is - except die hard fans, most only care what it can do. Rowlings killing curse is a cool evil device -that has its own cool words to say, but do we care to know why and how it works - no - only that its the killing curse is enough to know. The people who want the finer details are people looking to find if it really exists.

Don't get me wrong I like world building so far but I've started to realize I'm over thinking things. Theirs a balance that has to be kept so the mixture neither dilutes nor boils over.

Matt thanks for the article,

Makes sense,



Posted by Reziac (Member # 9345) on :
I do things the other way round from a lot of folks. I don't build a world per se; I let my characters go on about their business, and discover the world based on what the characters do, how they behave, what concerns them, etc, etc. So I don't trot out the prop til the play calls for it, lest the stage become overwhelmed with clutter.

Of course, the truth is that until the moment arrives I don't have a clue WHAT those folks need, so the hapless stagehands are kept scrambling to find the necessary props.


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