This was originally posted by Steven Savage on his blog, but has allowed me to republish it here as I think it’s useful for roleplayers! This is part of Steven’s Way With Worlds series of articles. -David
Writing your world up is one thing. You can take notes, document everything, draw up timelines, and so forth. That’s a matter of technique, imagination and, frankly, your ability to write everything down. Getting yourself to use all those notes? That’s another challenge.
How do you actually bring all this worldbuilding to life? How do you get the details to live and not sit forgotten on pieces of paper, wikis, and documents? How do you keep this information in mind? How do you avoid breaking your own carefully-crafted continuity without turning every bit of writing into a chore of review?
Perspective is my answer, though that now deserves an explanation.
I’ve found that you can do this by adopting a new perspective on your world and your writing and implementation of it. Just as viewing a work as a romance or a drama, just as viewing a character as antagonist or protagonist changes your perspective, you need to adopt the right perspective to ensure your worldbuilding suffuses your work properly.
That perspective? Simple – your world is actually your main character.
Setting As Lead
What has worked for me over the years is to treat any created setting as the main character. Your setting, in short is what matters, what is most important in your tales, your game world, or whatever medium you choose to create. It matters more than anything else.
Every story in your world, is in a way, a tale of that world, no matter who the “real” protagonist is. The events that happen affect the world, they come from the past, they manifest in the present, they define the future The events happening to your cast may be seeded days, weeks, years, centuries, or even further in your world’s timeline. The events that happen after will echo for equally long in your world, even after the main cast is dust in the setting’s timeline.
Your world comes first.
Treating your wold as the main character also keeps you grounded and helps you respect what you’re doing as a writer. It respects your world building so it’s believable (even when fantastical). It respects your writing by making a solid setting the core and not leaving you at the mercy of whim and mindless plot twists. It also reminds you constantly of the world you’ve build, inspiring you as you review the impacts of the tale you’re crafting.
In a way, this bit of anthropomorphism and focus helps short circuit potential writing flaws and lets you leverage your work.
However, it’s difficult to enjoy a book or story written from the perspective of “the universe” (not that it wouldn’t be fascinating). You’re talking about characters people can relate to. So when you focus on world-building, how do you focus on the cast that’s relatable?
That’s also a matter of perspective. Several of them.
Focus Your Lens
When writing a story in a heavily defined continuity, I think of each character as a viewpoint – a lens that focuses in on certain aspects of your world. A soldier sees enemies – even when there are not. An artificial intelligence knows the technology but can’t understand people. A detective knows mysteries that are being unraveled in your narrative – but not her own heart. Each character you write is a view on the world – and rarely do they truly know everything, which only serves to enrich the story and make them more believable in their flaws and strivings (and keep your reader guessing delightfully).
Your main character – if you have one -is just the Lens that you write from most of the time. They see the world in certain ways, see certain things happen, and relay information to your reader. You, the author, often know what is “really” going on – the challenge is writing from what they see, all the time knowing that they truly don’t know everything – yet they may “know” things in a way that truly communicates what’s going on to the reader.
I find this approach also enriches writing. Because no character is truly right nor their knowledge complete, you get into the characters deeper. Because no character has to be perfect (nor should they be) you actually get to explore them as characters. It also focuses on on writing them as part of a larger world – why are they who they are, why do they think like they do, and so forth. They are a manifestation of the setting.
If you are building a world that is used for a multicharacter game or similar media, then you can create an even more compelling experience. Each “Lens” for each character means the players or player can experience the radically different perspectives in a more interactive way.
The “Lens” approach is liberating and inspiring.
Worldbuilding Is About Perspective
Good worldbuilding is about perspective. There’s your omnipotent author view. There’s the characters in your world. There’s the main character who may relate the narrative – but is really narrating one of many narratives. There’s “the world” as it is, filled with people and perspectives.
Being able to take the right perspective frees you when you need to, focuses you when you need to, and lets you deliver a deeper story.
Steven Savage is a Geek 2.0 writer, speaker, blogger, and job coach. He blogs on careers and community at www.musehack.com, publishes books on career and culture at www.informotron.com, and does a site of creative tools at www.seventhsanctum.com. He can be reached at www.stevensavage.com.