Characterization in World Building

Developing great characters is one of the most important challenges for a writer of speculative fiction. Whether your characters are superheroes or space pilots or mages, you definitely want to develop interesting, complex characters, just as you would in any other kind of great fiction. Today’s post provides tips on how to do exactly that!

  • Who are the main intelligent inhabitants of your world? Humans? dwarves, fairies, elves? Species you have made up? What do they look like? How do they live (in detail)? Make sure they fit into the world you’ve constructed.
  • Decide how your world’s inhabitants will speak. Their language and wording need to be consistent with the time and place you’ve created and with the values of the world (power and wealth? honour and loyalty? or?). Also, while you may invent a language, don’t overuse it to the point where you lose your readers. And consider the tone: does the language and wording of the whole manuscript recall the commonly accepted “language” of similar tales, such as fairy tales or legends?
  • Your characters and settings will need names. Some ideas: Scramble the letters of a real person or place name. Use mythological character names and settings. Mix other languages together to create a new language and names that fit that language. Create your own alphabet and use it for the new language and names.
  • What about relationships? Between the ruling elites and the common people? between the people and nature? between magic and the people who use it? between the local people and those who may attack? Remember to include societal relationships and differences your readers will relate to. Where do the characters get food? How do they celebrate birth, marriage, death? How are they related? How are families established? Who teaches the children? What are the festivals and arts? How does the culture deal with family, kinship, sex, raising children, conflict, crime, death? As you plan your world, think like an anthropologist!
  • It’s often easy enough to develop the elite, ruling people and groups–but don’t forget the common people, and don’t forget to work out how differences between the elites and commoners affect standards of living, education, and other aspects of inter-relationships. Assuming there are different classes (and almost always there are!), how does that function? Is it racial? gender-based? species-based? or? Does it lead to oppression by one group over another? How does that look? What creates and sustains divisions between classes? How do the elites preserve their wealth and power and prevent insurrection? How can “lower” classes gain power? Within the elites, how do new leaders step in and push out current leaders? How does the security of the society fit into all this? If you are drawing from a time in real-life history, don’t just research historical information from the dominant culture or ruling class; try to also find out what ordinary people and marginalised groups were doing in that era.
  • Remember to make important “commoners” to be as interesting characters as”elite” characters.
  • Characters should dress appropriately for the period, as well as use appropriate weapons and other technologies.
  • When you are imagining groups for your world, you should assume that no two members will agree about everything…and that no two people in the group are going to recall an event or place in exactly the same way. (This can make your plot much more interesting, too!).
  • How much migration is there? How integrated are the migrants? How do the locals and the migrants regard each other? How are they different and similar? (This is very relevant to our current world situations–study up on current news and views to get some really interesting perspectives).

Some specific thoughts on characterization:

An important part of world-building for sci-fi, fantasy and other similar genres is developing unique characters. The folks at  provide this list of questions to use when developing your characters:

  1. What’s the character’s name? 2. How old is he/she? 3. What does he/she look like?     4. How does he/she dress?     5. Where does he/she live?     6. What does his/her home look like?     7. Who lives with him/her?     8. Is he/she in a relationship?     9. Who are the people closest to him/her?     10. What are his/her hobbies and interests?     11. What are some of his/her positive personality traits?     12. What are some of his/her negative personality traits?     13. What’s something he/she wants badly?     14. What’s something he/she is afraid of?

Characters, especially the important ones, must have needs and desires. They must be fully developed, with both positive points characteristics and flaws. They must have strengths and weaknesses. Give them a back-story and think of their goals, their values, and how they fit into the conflict at the heart of the story. Think of each individual’s own perspectives and viewpoints, and how those differences affect their interactions. Your main characters, protagonists and antagonists, and those who support and/or interact with them should be well-rounded, not “flat.” And remember: the world-building is the backdrop and the props; the story close-ups should always be on your characters.

What tips can you add about developing characters in works of speculative fiction? Please share your ideas in the comments!

Check out all the posts in this series on writing speculative fiction:
Mapping and World Creation (with a focus on Science Fiction and Fantasy)
The Hero’s Journey
Utopian or Dystopian Story Writing
World Building Through Mapping
More Aspects of World Building–Part 1 (conflict, political systems, technology, magic, values, small details, economic system, cultural groups)
More Aspects of World Building–Part 2 (realistic hangouts, world naming, food, alternate realities, time/era, transportation, morality, architecture, overall considerations)
Characterization in World Building
Links to Some Great Posts on World Building
Tips for Writing Super-Hero Stories

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