Characters as World Building Tools

“DON’T INFO DUMP,” said every writing-advice-giver ever.

And that advice is so annoying, isn’t it? You’re going along, writing your first draft…or maybe you’re revising your old draft…whatever stage your in, if you’re trying to build a world in a well-paced, interesting story, then it can be difficult to find places for brief bouts of exposition and backstory.

It would be so much simpler to just have a paragraph or seven where you spout out all of the relative information in one go so you can get to the meat of the scene. Or maybe you could find a way to use your powerful brain waves to transfer all that information to your reader. Or…can information be absorbed intravenously?

Stop worrying! There are more options for your in-narrative worldbuilding than info dumping or even exposition-sprinkling.

Did you know that there’s huge chunks of worldbuilding that can simultaneously be character development?

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Yeah. I know. In the process of character development, you can give the reader any and all information they might need about your world.

Example time!

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So, what do we see here? There’s nothing inherently wrong with this set up, and it might be fun (and necessary) to write this as your first draft. But what are the potential problems?

  • A prologue exists – Now, I personally really like prologues, but you know who doesn’t? Agents. Publishers. And lots of readers. It’s often safer to just jump into the action of chapter one.  The purpose of this prologue, at a glance, is likely:
    • to introduce the world, or a specific aspect of the culture
    • to introduce backstory of an important, but not primary character
    • to introduce the backstory of the situation that our MC will find herself in.
  • The prologue isn’t narrated or focused on our POV character, Donna. One of the biggest complaints about prologues is that they so frequently don’t introduce the main character or the main conflict (and why should they? They’re prologues). But many readers feel cheated by starting with one narrator and then getting a new one once the main story starts.

So, instead of letting these issues remain, we have an alternative. Cut the prologue. It’s fun backstory, but it’s not needed in-narrative. It’s good that you, the author, now have it as a reference, though, so don’t feel like you’ve wasted time. Open with Chapter One and our main narrator.

“But…but…how will the reader understand Bill and where she’s coming from!? It’s so important for understanding the state of the world!!! ARGHHH.”

Don’t worry. All of this will be revealed in due course.

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Okay, so here we have a tiny snippet of dialogue. This doesn’t encompass everything, but it’s a start. We’ve skipped Bill’s backstory, right? So what does that give us? Well, simple. If Donna’s our POV character, then it lets us readers get to know Bill through her eyes. This can go on. As Donna watches Bill interact with others, watches her lead, watches her flinch and close-off and open up…all of these actions will reveal her backstory.

What other benefits does this method of world and character introduction offer?

  • More organic feel of dropped details.
  • Information is given through dialogue and so we get to hear that information, but we’re simultaneously getting character voice
  • It’s easy to “show” how Bill feels about her past because we aren’t in her head, so there’s no chance for telling. Donna–and the readers–will only get the information that Bill gives plus all of her physical and tonal cues.
  • The omittance of details can speak as much or more about Bill as the details she gives. And since this story is being filtered to us through Donna, those details might be questioned or pondered. She talked all about ___, but I’ve heard so many people talking about ____, and she didn’t bring that up at all…I wonder why.

Here’s another example, only focused on the narrator this time. A picture of the world, and a whole lot about the character.

You could easily do one or the other–character or world, plot or world, backstory or plot–but when you take the chance to combine them, then you save on unneeded exposition, word count, and it helps keep things saturated and interesting.

It comes down to this: In many ways, our world is what we perceive it as, especially in the story we tell. So objective worldbuilding within a character and story-driven novel doesn’t quit grip the interest of the reader to the same extent. Worldbuilding becomes especially interesting when it’s revealed in relation to story and character. A lot of your note-taking worldbuilding (the stuff in the background) will be objective, matter-of-fact. But within the story, what matters most is what relates to the people and the matter at hand. Compiling your world building onto your character development is easy, because what a character reveals about their own world also reveals a lot about them.

A post from me wouldn’t be complete without some prompts/brainstorming ideas for this subject, so here you go.

Things to consider when worldbuilding in-narrative through your characters:

  • How they interact with the environment
  • How “normal” any given situation or place seems to them
  • How people around them are treating them and their reaction to it
  • How they and others are dressed, their thoughts on “fashion”
  • How their home-life is seen by others, how others’ home-lives are viewed by character
  • How character handles money or trade
  • How well-educated your character is and how that is viewed by others
  • How your character views the education of other people.
  • How your character deals with the political climate
  • The kind of foods that they like, the kinds they eat regularly
  • How strangers talk to them on the street
  • The kinds of people they’re friends with
  • How they view, treat, and are treated by other social classes
  • The environment of their workplace, how others treat them on a professional level

Happy writing!

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