world building workshop

writerproblem193  asked:

In reading your part of the anatomy of curiosity, I think that I learned the most about writing that I've learned from anywhere. I'd never before considered building the world and the characters to make a moment (the story) POP. Everything about the characters and the world you built came together to make an impact. How do you balance trying to make characters organic and yet deliberately constructed? Looking for seeds/souls of characters is the hardest thing for me.

Thank you! I’m so glad to hear it. Making THE ANATOMY OF CURIOSITY was so much fun and it even helped me figure out in better detail how I do what I do.

So this is a great question, and I’ve taught a 2 hour class on it alone and am doing a three day workshop on it in February, but I’m going to try and sum it up. Let’s start with a picture:

This is my story pyramid. When a story is finished this is how world, character, and plot should relate to each other. World is the base, it is the largest part of the story pyramid, and character arises from it. In turn, plot, the smallest tip, arises from world-character.

World is everything outside an individual (and a few things that create individuals): it is all of the environment and culture, from weather and landscape to religion and architecture and technology. Characters cannot be removed from their world, because people are shaped by the world in which they live, whether that world is a small town in Texas or Tattooine. Plot is only conflict between characters, a character and their world, or a character and herself. So plot cannot exist separate from world and character, either.

I usually begin with world when I’m working on a fantasy novel (sometimes years before I write the first word of the draft), but nobody has to do that in order to end up with a pyramid. You can start wherever you start, so long as you keep this shape in mind, and where everything points. When you have a finished product, make sure the plot feels and appears to have grown out of your characters and your characters feel and appear to have grown from the world. To do this, ask yourself plenty of WHY questions. Everything word you put down should be pointing at this shape, even if it’s contemporary. (The only difference between world in contemporary and fantasy is that you don’t have to/get to make up as much in contemporary. Your job is still to reveal your character’s world of weather, religion, cityscape, naming conventions, etc, as those revelations are important to the development of the story.)

This is how I work on what you’re calling “organic.” Organic doesn’t mean the character is born fully formed a la Athena. Even if sometiems that seems to happen, your brain has been working on the patterns of why and who for a while, because that’s what our brains do. “Organic” characters are ALWAYS a construct from the author’s mind. I think in reality and on-the-page, “organic” just means a reader recognizes the answers to WHY without those answers being spelled out. In other words, if a character makes a particular choice, the reader understands her motivation because of how you’ve written the character arising from her world so far.

“Organic” is the clear relationship between character and world.

When it comes to the seeds of a character, to be honest sometimes you just have to choose. You’re the author, so you decide who your character is, either overtly or because you know on some level what you want for your story. You know the kind of story you’re telling, or the kind of emotional arc you want for your character. Pick the best core characteristic for your character to get you there.

There are countless tools for helping discover a character’s seed/core, but I’ve found a few questions to be the most helpful when I’m having trouble:

  1. What does my character want most?
  2. What is she willing to do to get it?
  3. Why does she desire this?
  4. How does/might her desire hurt herself?
  5. How does/might her desire hurt others?

The answers should relate to the character’s unique place in her world, and especially to her over-arching emotional arc.

And finally, remember, while a lot of this is helpful for drafting and the initial stages, 100% of story can be retrofitted during revisions. You can draft freely, with these things in mind, and then go back when you have all the material you need to pull the story and characters and world apart and put them back together in the best shape to tell your story.



IF YOU WANT MORE INSIGHT, I’M TEACHING A 3 DAY WORLD BUILDING WORKSHOP THROUGH MADCAP RETREATS IN MID-FEBRUARY 2017. It will be three glorious days on a perfect winter beach with me and Roshani Chokshi digging in deep to the art and science of world and world revealing, with some hands on exercises and feedback to your personal work if you like. The info will go life on Madcap site very soon. If you want the first chance, sign up for the Madcap newsletter.