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
You have built a world. You know it’s origins and its ecology, you know it’s people and their religion, you know technology or sorcery (or both) that they use. You have a world that is a living-breathing creation, all in your head, and your documents, and your stories.
It’s time to populate it with characters. Sure you’ve probably started early, but we are going in order here.
Most of us creating worlds have them populated with people to tell stories about or to play (in the case of the game). Characters in a way are the start and the result of worldbuilding – the result of the worldbuilding we do to have people to tell a story about. More on that later, however.
So, where do you characters fit into all of this? Well, let’s take a look.
What Is A Character
So, what is a character in all of this anyway?
I’ve said earlier that characters are lenses on your setting – and your setting in a way is the main character that people actually never read about or relate to directly. Characters provide views and interact with the setting – they’re the people that your readers relate to and see the world through. They are, in a way, expressions of the world you’ve made.
Having someone people relate and connect to is vital for good storytelling, and few authors can pull off a story without someone in it people can relate to. If you’re creating games, it’s even more important since this is essentially your connection to the world you’re influencing.
A character is:
- Someone for the reader/player/media participant to relate to, understand the world through, and even interact with or through.
- A viewpoint on the world. A character may not “get” the entire setting, but that’s the point. Indeed, this unique viewpoint makes them more relatable.
- The result of their world. Characters are a product of their environment quite literally – they act as a summary of the world in some ways. THis means they are both viewpoints, but knowing them automatically reflects the setting.
Characters are part of the world that you “get” the world through.
Each of these is important as a world creator as:
- If a character can’t be related to or provide a viewpoint, the viewer can’t get the story or the world you’ve created. If you’ve read a tale where a character seems abstractly stuck into an unrelated environment, then you know what I mean.
- If a character doesn’t have a viewpoint that is “theirs” then the experience of the world and their life is disjointed. Think about all those stories or games where a character just knew something they shouldn’t and it just felt wrong.
- If a character doesn’t seem to be a part of their world, then you know how that grates. The tale becomes almost unreliable and hard to understand. Though this can be used for humor, it can be done wrong . . . and usually is.
Characters are both the results of the world and the portals to it. But a character doesn’t just stand there (well, again probably). Characters are alive in your world. That’s where your worldbuilding comes to full fruition . . .
Characters Interact With The World
So a character, as I noted, has to be part of their world. That is where good writing/game coding comes in – and where the results of your worldbuilding come to the fore.
A character really is the result of all the processes and principles, science and sorcery, gods and science, coming together to result in some intelligent being that you can tell tales about. They are not separate from the world, they interact with it. They are the result of the world, a lens on it – and they affect and change it.
That’s where your worldbuilding comes full circle. You have built this giant setting (perhaps enormous), and in turn the characters people experience through change it. In fact, in a game that’s often the point.
If you have built your world well, it not only provides a setting for your characters to come from, it not only helps them “be” it also reacts to them. If someone violates a law in your carefully crafted culture, you know the reaction. If someone wields mighty magics to change weather, you know people it will affect an oncoming army of very unhappy dragons. If someone discovers a horrible truth, you know how their mind may warp – and what they may do (possibly involving an army of rain-hating dragons, just noting).
Now that you have these lenses, these viewpoints, these tight little spheres of “continuity” called characters, as they interact with each other and the setting, things happen. Because you know this world well, you can write the interactions.
These interactions and effects? They’re the stories you tell.
If you’ve done intense worldbuilding, you know that in many cases this is an incredible experience. The stories nearly write themselves. Events unfold. YOu kno what interactions to put into the game. Everything comes full circle and it just lives.
This is why good character development is the summary of good worldbuilding. It brings it all to life – and to a relatable life where you connect to the characters who are caught in the story and indeed creating it.
If you can master world creation, character creation, and writing then your tales can take on a life of their own.
But in the midst of the rush some caution . . .
Character Creation – Warnings
When you create your characters, there are a few things that can go wrong. I’ll cover character creation tips next column, but the warnings are important.
Here are things that can sabotage you:
Character First: Oftentimes we have character ideas without a well fleshed out setting. This happens, but you can end up making the idea of the character more important than their setting. Avoid this temptation and embrace the world you created; an ill-fitting character disrupts your world and your writing, and the disjointed experience can be jarring. Be willing to embrace the character’s evolution as their world takes shape.
The Unsouled: A flipside is to feel you “have” to make characters and look at your setting and sort of conjure up some characters to fit it an flesh out your roster. Characters should be people as well, not cardboard cutouts with a few bits of continuity tacked on. I find the best way to avoid this problem is to run with each character and get to know them, even if it’s a few things – if you figure some random annoying merchant is annoying because the day’s late and the religious festival has taken up a lot of hi time, then you’re good.
The Trope Onslaught: A sort of middle ground between the last two problems, sometimes characters can be broad archetypes that are kind of alive, but kind of inserted, and not exactly “really living.” There’s something there since they are archetypes, but it’s not quite right about them, a kind of half-life This is an easy trap to fall into, and I usually find the best bet is to start fleshing them out and see how they grow. Sometimes this is extra fun as you can make a trope surprising.
The God Character: A constant problem is the character around whom the setting bends (and one I complain about repeatedly). To create a character with certain goals or assumptions then to bend the world around them, unless that is part of the larger way the world works, is ultimately annoying. You can fool yourself too easy into thinking said character has a reason to be, but when you notice how they are more important than your setting, you’ll come to the ad realization your’e writing a god wearing a mortal costume (unless that’s your goal).
The Gap: When you design characters, flesh them out using your world knowledge. Leaving too many gaps – or leaving them as broad assumptions – can show up and often derail your writing, coding, and future worldbuilding. I find much as it is with worlds, take character design a bit farther to do more than the reader needs to see so you, as a writer know enough.
I’m sure there’s many other challenges you can face. These are the ones I’ve noticed.
A character brings the world full circle, creating a part of the setting that is alive, that people experience the story through, and that you can in turn have change the world by interacting with it. Indeed, people interacting with each other and the world is a story.
There are ways to get derailed, but being aware of them can help you avoid the problems.
Of course, building characters takes effort. In fact, everyone seems to have their own way to do it. Next column I’ll talk about some techniques I find help me.
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.
Cover image by Adam Kuczek.