GeGi wrote beautifully last week about the importance of developing a clear vision of the world you’re building in your fiction, even if all the details don’t directly end up in your finished piece. Today I’d like to share some of my techniques for worldbuilding as well as characterbuilding – that is, all the ways I novel when I’m not actually writing. The idea is to develop a clear vision of your characters, including their backstory, and of the universe they occupy and its history. The better you know your characters and the situation you’ve placed them in, the easier it’s going to be to let them make decisions that make sense (rather than jerking them around in service of your plot).
I recommend creating a subfolder amidst your project’s drafts/research files on your hard drive for holding any of the following ingredients – or if, like me, you’re a fan of the writing software Scrivener, import this stuff directly into your project so that it’s just a couple clicks away as you write and revise. If you’re a hard copy kind of person, a three-ring binder is a great way to go – that’s what I used before I had Scrivener. Keep it next to you as you write – part of the idea with a lot of these activities is that you can prevent continuity errors in your initial drafts by having all your worldbuilding/characterbuilding work easy to doublecheck as you go. You’re essentially building a small encyclopedia of creativity you can use for reference throughout the writing process, something you can edit and update as your visions morph and shift. (Back up this material as often as you back up your writing itself, but pick a specific version that is always going to be the most up-to-date so that you don’t cross-edit yourself into confusion!)
So what can you include in this encyclopedia-type collection of visioning and inspiration? First, here’s some extracurricular worldbuilding ideas:
- Try drawing maps and floor plans for the most frequent settings in your story. I like doing this by hand, but I’m sure there are great computer programs out there if that’s more your thing. For me, graph paper, rulers, and a big eraser helped immensely. Colored pencils also made it easier to differentiate between types of lines once I hit the stage where I was adding topography and it got too visually busy to track easily what was what. If your kinesthetic abilities are better than visual, you could meet the same ends by using clay or Legos. Having this kind of thing laid out can help you solve logistic/directional quandaries when your plot points require your characters to travel between relative locations in your world.
- Collect and/or create pictures of the setting that aren’t just bird’s eye view (like the maps and floor plans), but on-the-ground imagery of rooms and scenes – as if you’re trying to convey your intentions for a movie set. You can sketch out your own art if you want, or try mining Google images and stock photography websites for photographs or other people’s illustrations. Once I have a small collection of these borrowed images, I like to edit them into a single collage so that I can see my favorite ideas at a glance. Pull out these images when you want to drop details about a certain setting and can’t quite hold the idea in your head when trying to decide what bits to include. If visual imagery isn’t what you need, consider collecting fabric swatches for the furniture you’re imagining, sound clips of bird life native to your location, or anything else that can help you build the scene sensorily.
- Next up is your chance to create location profile worksheets. I don’t keep tons of these, but do find them useful for the settings my characters frequent the most – some worksheets for single rooms, others for entire countries. Each profile contains a description of the location relative to other places in my novels, a physical description of it, a list of which characters “belong” there and who else visits it, a list of what it contains (furniture, landscape features, art on the walls), notes on its amenities or lack thereof (plumbing, heating, electricity, phone, internet, appliances), a summary statement on how the space is used in terms of sheer function, any relevant maps/floor plans I’ve drawn, and any of the other imagery/sensory information I’ve gathered that portrays the location. Try out combinations of these elements and/or anything else you think would be helpful for keeping your setting descriptions eloquent and consistent.
Now, for some of the extracurricular activities I use for character development! (Creating characters is my personal favorite thing about writing fiction thus far, so apologies if I get a little overenthusiastic.)
- One of the first things I like to do is collect pictures of characters themselves – you can use your own art, if you’re into that kind of thing, or illustrations/photographs of random people acquired from stock image sites – whatever source you can find that provides pictures that approximate your internal visions of your character. Again, pick your favorites and edit them into a single collage so that you have something to stare at the next time you need to plant a visual description of your character.
- One of my more impressionistic assignments for you: character concept art! This is where I sit around tearing random imagery and words out of magazines – the more abstract, the better – that remind me of my creations. I sort these into piles for each character (but you could, theoretically, do this for each location or subplot instead) and then get out old-fashioned cardstock and gluestick to create artsy collages out of each. You’ll be surprised at what you come up with! Some of the connections will be obvious – maybe you’ll find an image of your protagonist’s favorite food, or a phrase that describes your antagonist’s core motivations – but you’ll probably also end up with some random imagery you hadn’t realized your brain already conceptually connects to your characters. Use this to help flesh out their backstory and draw on it as metaphor-fodder when you return to the page.
- Do you love music? Time to pull up iTunes! Again, I make playlists per character, but you can do this activity per subplot or whatever other element you need to develop. Themed playlists come in especially handy when I need to go for a walk (my first line of defense when I get stuck); they help keep my mind on the writing and the problem I’m trying to brainstorm solutions to. Plus, the songs that happen to pop up on any given playlist’s shuffle setting sometimes serve as perfect reminders of some existing element that can actually solve whatever problem I’m currently freaking out about.
- Next up is character profiles (analogous to location profiles above – the most important stuff to know about your character condensed in one place). You can find all manner of blank character worksheets online, but I learn towards creating my own since some of the elements I want to include are specific to my story/setting. Besides including the imagery and playlists I’ve already mentioned, each character profile contains tons of information which I constantly reference back to as I write in order to keep everyone’s backstories and character traits continuous. Obviously, these sheets can be edited, since you’ll learn more about your characters as your story develops. Some ideas for contents: names, pronouns, gender identity, gender expression, assigned sex, age, educational background, physical descriptions, quirks of speech/body language, handwriting samples (you can create these or google them), medical history, work/volunteering, hobbies, family, friends, sexuality/romance, likes, dislikes, strengths, weaknesses, and values. And, probably because I’m ridiculous, I include: Meyers-Briggs type, Enneagram type, Dungeons and Dragons alignment, and Hogwarts house. (Yes, I do recommend actually taking sorting quizzes as your characters, if you’re interested – it makes you think through all sorts of things about them you otherwise might have ignored.)
- Okay, for another completely dorky author thing I do along these lines: it’s not as tangible as the ideas listed above, but it’s fun and I think it helps. I suppose it’s just… well, daydreaming, to be honest (although often it’s what I do while waiting to fall asleep at night). It’s not necessarily about thinking up things that will actually end up writing, or even things that will be canon-that-the-reader-never-sees. Rather, it’s often sheerly invented scenarios that give me insight into my characters and help me flesh out who they are as people and how I want them to come across on the page. For example, I’ll sit each main character down in my favorite coffee shop and ask them, one by one, the same hypothetical question. For example, “if the inside of your head was a room or some other physical place, what would it be like?” I realize this is super abstract and weird, but I love it. Because to go on this daydream, I’m getting myself to imagine what it’s like just to interact with this being I’ve developed – what are they even like, in person? Outside of the storyline-thus-far? For that matter, I also get to imagine what the hell they’d do if I DID plop them into my favorite coffeeshop (they’re not exactly from this world). Lastly, I have to just get inside their head in order to answer the questions I’m posing them.
Is this all getting a little too psychological for you? Well, that’s my thing. I like character- and relationship-focused stories, so these daydreams feel super useful. If you’re looking for less abstract ideas along these lines, try out GeGi‘s thoughts on this:
“When I’m busy doing something that involves not writing (chores, walking, shower, driving, etc) I play out scenes and conversations between characters that aren’t part of the story. Dialogue is one of my things, so doing this helps in a number of ways: 1) I get to practice crafting how they talk and react to each other, 2) I get to test-run scenarios, 3) I get to keep my headspace in my world and with my people during times I might not otherwise, 4) if I’m lucky, I end up with something I can use later — not a bit of scene or dialogue necessarily, but maybe an emotion or characteristic that hadn’t come up yet with someone, or the seed of an interaction that would service the story, which I hadn’t thought of yet.”
Thanks, GeGi! My final recommendation, dear readers, is this:
- Design a cover for your book/short story/collection of poetry. No, this will not be the cover that actually gets used should you someday publish, especially if (like me) you know nothing about graphic design and bookselling. But the process can help you figure out more about what you want your reader’s first impressions to be, and what the core themes of your story are. Plus, it forces you to draft a title if you haven’t already got one.
Now, obviously the risk with all these activities is that you’ll get so very much into this extracurricular development work that you never actually… ahem… finish your piece of writing. If that concerns you, then definitely give yourself some limits on your “bonus-media-fun to actual-writing” ratio. But if you’re like me, when it comes down to it, this kind of worldbuilding and character development is really just as fun as writing/revising/having a complete novel – so I indulge myself. As established, the most clearcut argument in favor of at least doing rudimentary profiles and location profiles is the amount of consistency errors it can prevent. But truly, friends, part of the point of all this is to fall head-over-heels in love with the thing you’re creating. In any and every medium you can muster. So onward, octopi! Go be creative!
Do you have a link to a favorite character worksheet, or a picture of your own characters? Post in the comments below or tweet at us @OctopusSEA! We’d love to hear about all your creative augmentations for whatever piece of writing you’ve got going.