FiYoShiMo Day 23 – Worldbuilding and Characters

As we near our giftiest of holidays, let me give you a nice package with a bow on it.

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Don’t search “man with bow on package” recklessly.

Today on Day 23 of Fix Your Shit Month, our characters get put into the world. And our world gets put into our characters. It’s pretty exciting stuff.

We’re going to work today with the protagonist, but what we’re doing is going to apply to all the characters, and after you try this with the protag, run some other characters through this process and see if you like the results.

Start by taking your protagonist and putting them in their seat of power. A seat of power is the location where the character exists in the most comfort and agency. It’s where they feel their best. It’s their Batcave, their Sanctum Sanctorum. Whenever the character is in that location, then they’re at their most capable.

This is NOT the same as the character doing whatever they do best, this is about the location. So picture it. Detail the hell out of it. Even the parts or inches of it that the character doesn’t interact with. The ceiling of the Batcave, the crown molding in the Oval Office. Those non-interactive spaces help give the place a sense of realness.

If you only describe the space they use, you’re limiting yourself in terms of what development you’re broadcasting. For instance, I’m in my office. I can describe the desk I’m sitting at, the chair I’m sitting in, maybe the window and shelves next to me. It’s easy for me to take for granted the carpet under my feet, or the small box that my computer’s subwoofer is sitting on, or the stack of DVDs that need to be filed but are now stacked on the floor. I don’t talk about them because they’re just … there, and although I love sitting in this space, and no other space (in the house or otherwise) feels as good as this space does when I’m working. We take things for granted, and when our writing highlights one of those things, we’re adding an additional splash of color to our mental pictures.

Alright, protagonist, seat of power. Now consider that seat. Is it common in the world of your story? Are there similar ones elsewhere (I don’t just mean Batman has spare Batcaves, I mean does Batman have one, does Tim have one, etc)? If these seats are common, what distinguishes your protagonist’s seat from the others? Think about it in terms of the aesthetic (maybe our protag’s office is painted blue), but also in terms of functionality (maybe it has an extra window).

A caution though about functionality: Giving a protagonist a place of super capability can really reduce the threat within a plot. Something like that can verge on deus ex machina, which cheapens the strength of your story. Don’t rely on the seat of power to be your character’s solution engine. The ability to solve the problem lies within the character, not wherever they’re hanging out.

Back to the seat – where is it in relation to the locations in the world where the plot is happening? The Batcave is outside Gotham City, so we need to give Batman a way to reach the City. The offices of Nelson and Murdock are in Hell’s Kitchen, but we still need to give Daredevil a way to reach the action. If we want the character to be able to interact with the plot, we don’t need to spend much time on how they get there – just get them there. (Unless the plot IS the journey somewhere…)

Let’s switch gears. Think about locations in addition to the seat of power that your character frequents. Can you split them into a list of locations where the character has positive experiences and negative experiences? Think about this both in terms of what’s plot-specific and relevant, but also globally (because we learned early on in FiYoShiMo that characters exist as larger than the plot, remember?).

Our protagonist feels best in her living room. She has a great experience every morning at the gym with her best friend and confidante. She has a miserable experience nightly at the local bar. She has a day job where she’s often at odds with her boss or her co-workers. The plot will take us through these locations.

If our plot is a bank robbery, we’ve got a scene of the crime. We’ve got offices or a precinct or something so our protagonist has a seat of power. We’ve got locations where the suspects are found. We’ve got a location for a tense climax. All these locations should be accessible at anytime, even if we don’t need to be there until a specific time. Sure, we can have a climax on the moon, so long as we have given ourselves a way to get there before the climax happens.

In order for a character to feel lived in, their experiences in the world need to be understood by the reader. We all have the moment of frustration when we’re in the bathroom and realize there’s no toilet paper. We’ve all gone into the kitchen, opened the fridge door, and then forgotten what we were looking for. We’ve all been hurt and wanted comfort. We’ve all really enjoyed dinner and wanted to take off our pants afterward.

To do that, we’ve given our characters places in the world where these moments can happen. Something’s relatability is proportional to its description combined with its narrative development.

You might mean “sofa” but if you describe it as a “long cushioned surface”, we’ll end up thinking different things. Yes, I get it, you want your character to feel futuristic in their futuristic world, but it’s just a future-sofa. Help the reader understand. Do all you can to give the character a world that feels like the reader’s world, even if we’re hurtling through hyperspace in a giant city-ship after narrowly escaping time traveling alien cockroaches with ray guns.

When a character feels connected to the world, the reader is more accepting of details. Yeah, the idyllic suburb house sure does have a picket fence. Of course it does. That fits with our mental picture of a suburb. And yes, our protagonist does rock a pearl necklace while vacuuming. These details help get the picture across because they reinforce our accepted ideas.

When we introduce conflicting information, like maybe while our protagonist vacuums, the automated babysitting murder robot (I’ve been playing Fallout 4), is telling our infant son that it’s totally okay to murder the vicious raider gang from the other neighborhood. That info, at face value, doesn’t fit our idyllic suburban view, so we need to alter our view — if we transplant our suburb to a wasteland full of raiders, radiation, destruction, and monsters, our pictures get tinted, shaded, expanded, and become more realized.

If a character feels out of place (example: picture Elmer Fudd in an episode of the West Wing), then no amount of world description is get that character into place. When in doubt, check the character. Adjusting the world is a much larger solution, but it has too many trickle-down ramifications. Don’t reach for the bazooka when you need a fly swatter.

Take what we did here and put all your major characters through their paces. Give them seats of power, connect them to the story locations. Adjust as needed.

Tomorrow, in our last day of Worldbuilding, we’re going to look at World Tone. See you then.

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