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Characters in the world

As writers, we spend a lot of time thinking about our characters. It’s one of those happy requirements, something we both enjoy doing and have to do. Unless we understand our characters completely, we run the risk of sounding unauthentic or contrived.

Many writers take a questionnaire approach, writing down answers to questions about motivations and desires. How does the character feel about chocolate? What about yogurt? What motivates the character? Does the character love chocolate mixed into yogurt?

The questions, quite frankly, can go on forever.

It’s a good technique, but for me, it’s not the first step in the process.

I always start by defining the world. What is the world the character inhabits? What are its attitudes? How do people treat each other?

For example, let’s suppose we’re writing about a dangerous world where people struggle to survive. Life expectancies are short and communities huddle together to try to build something permanent.

It’s easy to imagine characters in this world building strong family connections with each other, being passionate about life and fighting every day to find joy. In contrast, they could have gone the other way. Maybe they’ve become fatalistic. They live their lives without hope. Surviving feels more like an obligation than a goal.

Once we have the world as a backdrop, the character questions have more meaning. Imagine a fearful character in each of those situations. How would the community respond to that fearfulness? What personal consequences would arise? What other choices would the character be forced to make? Are there secondary personality choices that would develop?

Characters, in isolation, are not terribly interesting. It’s their interactions that brings them alive.

When thinking about your world, here are some easy places to start:

  1. How important is honesty? Does anyone care about it?
  2. How common is death? Do people put a high value on life? Do they have to work at surviving, or is that just assumed?
  3. How judgmental are people? Is it just accepted that everyone is judging everyone (i.e., middle school), or do people feel free to act however they like?
  4. What, generally speaking, are the values of the culture? For example, what makes someone popular or unpopular?

Those are just starters. It’s more important to have questions relevant to your story. If your story deals with race issues, you need to know how the different communities feel about race.

If you’re writing a story about our world, this exercise is even more important, and it’s vital that you get it right. The culture in the cancer ward of a hospital, for example, is extremely different than what you’ll find at a beach resort or a train station. If the space your characters inhabit is unauthentic, your readers will know.

Finally, it’s vital to understand that there’s rarely a single culture involved in a story. A young single mother who works in a retirement home is constantly moving between a number of different (possibly conflicting) worlds.

What do you think? Will this idea help with your own character process? I hope so!


Posted November 7, 2019 in Writing
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