When I first started writing, I had a problem. My characters didn’t quite fit into their worlds. And I wasn’t alone, this is a fairly common problem among new writers of many genres, but especially those who write Speculative Fiction such as Fantasy, Horror, and Science Fiction. The worlds being written about are made up, created by the writer themselves.
This can, for new Speculative Fiction writers, create a false sense that we know our worlds inside and out already and, therefore anything goes. We can drop a character from our world into a Fantasy world with no clash; our SciFi explorer onto an alien planet without thinking about how the experience will change that character and the world we created; magical worlds within our own can be exactly the same because the characters in those worlds have to have had the same experiences as us, and a lot of other little mistakes.
But characters are not separate from their worlds, worlds being where they come from, any more than we are able to be separated from the world in which we were born. It’s part of them, shaped their lives and who they are. Whether that world is a rural Massachusetts town in 1850, some Tolkienesque Fantasy world, or a modern town full of mythical beings.
Imagine for a moment that you have a woman who is falling in love with another woman in some part of a Fantasy world. She wouldn’t call herself Bisexual or a Lesbian because those terms either don’t exist or have a different meaning in this world. But does she come from an accepting culture or one that doesn’t accept that form of romantic and sexual attraction as valid? Do the people that matter to her accept her or don’t they? What would she call herself instead and what would her understanding of sexual orientation be compared to our own?
Maybe this world or culture has a goddess that took a female lover and women who are romantically inclined towards other women call themselves children of (insert goddesse’s name here). Maybe being called a child of this particular goddess is a matter of simple facts or perhaps it is used a slur because the goddess is somehow viewed as less than the other deities or flawed. Maybe she is coming from another culture in this world that isn’t accepting to one that is as an escape because she wants to be with the person she loves or just wasn’t comfortable there. Maybe she is stepping outside of her accepting culture for the first time and is really shocked by what she finds. Or maybe she comes from one of the few families in an accepting culture that holds the opposite belief.
I know that is a lot of maybes, but you don’t have to know them when you start writing. It’s enough to keep them in mind while editing or, even better, keep them in mind while writing the story so there is less needed editing in this area of storytelling later. After all, changing a plot point that makes the story drag on for too long is easier than trying to fix an entire culture that doesn’t have any internal consistency and, as a result, doesn’t make sense to others reading the story.
I won’t pretend to be the ultimate authority on integrating characters into their worlds. In a lot of ways I’m still learning about writing myself, and to do so would be dishonest even if I was a world famous novelist. But aside from giving you what seems like a ton of maybes to consider, I can give you tips that I’ve found helpful in my own work and that I use.
- Consider how the little bits of a culture and/or your world impact your character by asking the following questions: what does this culture think about…? How do these things influence the lives of the characters?
- Study history. It’s much easier to augment a part of our world to fit your own if you understand how that is thought to have played out in the past. A fully functioning matriarchal society of Orc-like beings is more believable than a poorly thought out society that mimics our own made of Elves and Humans.
- Reread your favorite books to see how authors you enjoy are handling this part of writing.
- Read books aimed at teaching the craft of writing, whether in your genre or in general. Having a working knowledge of the theory behind certain aspects of writing won’t make things like this easier, but it will mean you see flaws in your own writing more easily and can at least make a note to look at a part that may snap your readers out of the story at a later date. I’m currently reading Writing Monsters by Philip Athans (Amazon link.) for this exact reason, and I have to say that I’m enjoying it. Think of reading craft books as a fun form of professional development.
Writing is fun. Definitely one of my favorite things to do. But it takes work, even if it is something as seemingly simple as making sure characters fit into the worlds we’re writing them in. I hope that this post has given anyone reading it some useful tips and food for thought.
Join me on Friday when I will be talking about an offshoot of this topic, creating consistent and realistic cultures. And don’t forget to follow me on Instagram and Twitter.
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