The Art Of World and Character-building
If you’re writing a fiction book based in a fictional place, you’re probably going to have to do some worldbuilding. This can be fun – really fun, if you do it right – but what if you’re setting your story in a real place, but one you’ve never visited? Or somewhere you visited once, got swept off your feet by, and simply had to set your novel there, but with no idea about the particular geography of the place? If you’ve got the money, you can visit that place – and if you’re really serious about being a writer, you can justify it to yourself as an investment in your future – but of course this isn’t feasible to most of us. So, you can do the next best thing: research. This can be almost as much fun, and you have the added bonus of being able to do it in bed in your pyjamas with a nice cup of tea.
The old-fashioned way to do this would be to order a load of guidebooks and maps of your chosen location, and some people may still prefer to do this. In which case, you can pin the map up on a pinboard and mark out the main locations where things ‘go down’ in your story. This red pin is where the murder victim was found, that gold sticker is where the two main characters kissed for the first time… you get the idea. You can even come up with some kind of elaborate code so the scenes are noted in their chronological order too, but I imagine most people wouldn’t have the time (or the desire) to do this!
This technique would work particularly well if you’re writing a crime story, or a series based on a detective – just the act of pinning up maps, images, and notes could help you get into the detective mindset… you never know. Just make sure you don’t start covering every wall of your house with pictures and scribbles – your family probably won’t thank you for it, and you might have to sit through an intervention from your well-meaning friends.
The more modern way of scoping out a place is, of course, to use the internet. Check out Google Maps for your scene setting, and then switch to satellite view or street view for a different perspective – street view is particularly useful for getting a feel of a city or place you’ve never visited. Then there’s Google Earth and other sites/apps that can let you explore a location from the comfort of your own home. Use estate agent sites and rental searches to get a feel of the properties in a said town or city, and even hotels and B&B finder sites can help get a feel for a place. For example, check out the places available on Air B&B – you’ll not only get a sense of the types of houses people live in, but also the types of people who live there.
Of course, if you’re creating a fictional location for your story, all of these things still apply; you can just use the sites and apps as inspiration instead of solid research. Want a city like London but with its own fictional quirks? Take some aspects of the real London and then shape the rest of the city however you want. After all, in your own story, there are no right or wrong answers – it’s all up to you.
Worldbuilding for your novel or series of novels can be a long and complicated task, but it can also be really fun. How often do you get to create entire worlds? You can choose what your city or town or village is like, you can choose who lives where, where your main characters hang out, and a million other little details that will really make your book come to life. For sci-fi and fantasy genres, you can pretty much do whatever you want in the world you’re creating, turning everything upside down if you wish to. What I’m going to focus on in these articles is simpler – this is for if your story is based mainly in the ‘real’ world, but you need to create believable people and places to populate your novel with.
Here are just a few ideas and questions to get you thinking about your own world, from the locations to the characters and other bits and bobs it can be worth planning before you start writing your novel.
I created several locations for my Little Forest series of novels, mainly:
Little Forest – the village where most of the main characters live and where most of the action takes place, at least in the first book, The Former World.
Renfield – the next village along. The gang start spending more time here from Memento Mori onwards.
Durwich – the third of the three villages in their little cluster. Beth starts attending group meetings here in Carnival Masquerade.
Upper Runville – a smaller village than Little Forest that Beth discovers she has a strong link to.
Willowton – the nearest town, with more shops and opportunities in terms of work.
Birston – the nearest big city, where Beth and her friends go for proper shopping trips and visits to the theatre.
Ballycave – the village in Ireland that Connor and the gang visit in The Gloaming.
Covershire – this is the county that covers all of the above English cities, towns, and villages.
Once you start designing one fictional place, you’ll no doubt find that you need to keep on creating more and more, especially if you’re writing a series and need to keep things fresh and interesting by having your characters visit new towns and cities. If you have one main location, however, it’s worth spending more time on that than anything else. I spent a long time thinking about the layout of Little Forest for the first novel, but I also thought ahead about how I’d need to use the village in the upcoming books, especially with characters moving house and making friends with new characters in different villages. I also drew a rather detailed map for Little Forest village that I referred back to when writing The Former World.
Here are some location questions to get you thinking. Let’s start with the simple stuff:
What is the name of your location?
What is the type of setting (village/town/city/other)?
What country is it set in?
Whereabouts (roughly) in the country is the location supposed to be? E.g. Is it landlocked or by the coast?
What is the rough population?
Are all of your locations fictional or will you be using/referring to real places too?
Where does your main character live?
Where do your secondary characters live in relation to your main character?
How would you describe the place in basic terms – rural/urban? Posh/rough? Desirable/cheap to live in?
How would you describe the location if it were on a postcard?
What is the terrain like?
Are there any tourist attractions, and if so, what are they?
Are there any pubs/bars/clubs, and if so, what are they?
Are there any restaurants, and if so, what are they?
Are there any town hall type places? Any council or government buildings?
Are there any libraries/theatres?
Are there any historical sites – castles, stately homes, or similar places of interest?
Are there police stations/fire stations/hospitals/doctors?
What kinds of shops and services are available there?
Is there a prison?
What fun things are there to do there?
Is there any countryside/are there places to walk around the area?
Are there lakes, rivers, or other bodies of water?
OK, now let’s get down to the nitty gritty (this will depend heavily on your chosen genre, but as an example, I’m thinking of crime/murder mystery type books):
Are there any dark secrets in your location’s past?
Have there been any murders in the area? If so, what are the details and when did they occur?
Who runs the location? Local council, local members of parliament, mayor, police?
Who runs it unofficially? Is there a rich businessman who oversees the place? Are there any illegal gangs or people with dodgy connections pulling the strings?
Describe your character’s house – the number of rooms, the layout, the exterior, the garden. Is it a council house? Is it an old building? Is it an expensive new build with all the best quality furnishings? What does it say about your character (and their family, if necessary)?
Are the other houses in the area similar or do they differ? Describe a few different houses.
Describe the main population in terms of age, social class, race, and so on.
Describe the location in great detail (and/or draw a map). Include road names, locations of houses and businesses, pathways that your main character usually takes, where they work, and other places of interest. Make sure they all work together for the purposes of your plot, and if you’re planning a series, think ahead to what else you need to include in the area.
If you’re writing sci-fi or fantasy, the questions you need to ask yourself will obviously be different to these, and they’ll probably go deeper into the hierarchy of your characters, how the place is run and by whom, and the general government/ruling party and how things work on a daily basis. If you’re setting your novel in the normal world, it will be more basic, but don’t make the mistake of keeping it too basic; your readers need to feel that this place – this world – exists, and the settings you use are just as important as your characters and your story.
Creating characters for your novel can be fun, but it can be harder than you think, especially once you’ve got past your protagonist, your antagonist, and your other main characters. As you get into the minor characters, how do you make sure they’re different enough from each other? How can you make sure your readers won’t get confused? How can you make sure that you, the writer, won’t get confused?
It’s a simple thing, but I find that creating a thorough character profile for each person – no matter how minor or how little they are involved in the plot – can really help. You can do this in a variety of ways, from typing it into Word, writing it in a notepad so you can have easy access to it when you’re writing, or even using computer programs that give you space to write down character information (think Scrivener, for example). Some people also find it useful to add images to their character profiles, whether from drawings they’ve done themselves, people they’ve found on Google Images, or photos they’ve found on one of the stock photos sites. You can even use images of celebrities for guidance, but this doesn’t always work for everyone – once you’ve pictured Johnny Depp or Matt Damon in your lead role, you’ll find it hard to picture anyone else.
So, what to put in the actual character profile? You can add in any amount of detail that you want, but I’ve come up with a few questions for you to answer so you can really get a feel for your character, and so you can understand their actions and motivations. It’s not just about what they look like, or what job they do, or who they live with – you’ve really got to get to the bottom of the characters’ pasts, feelings, and personalities. You’ve got to think of them as real people, because to your readers, they will be (well, hopefully, anyway!)
Here are some character profile questions to get you thinking. Let’s start with the simple stuff:
Any scars or tattoos?
Style – what kind of clothes do they like wearing?
What is their job?
What qualifications do they have?
Where is their place of residence?
Who do they live with?
Who is in their close and extended family?
Who are their main friends?
Where did they go to school?
Do they own any pets?
Favourite band, TV show, film?
OK, now let’s get down to the nitty gritty:
Have they ever been in love? If so, describe their partner and how they fell for each other.
What is their biggest regret in life?
What are their biggest fears?
What activities and places to visit are on their bucket list?
How would they react if they found themselves in a fight?
What would they say are their best features / personality traits?
What would they say are their worst features / personality traits?
What three celebrities – dead or alive – would they have at their fantasy dinner party?
What is their most secret desire?
What is their dream occupation?
Name something they’ve never told anyone about.
What is their most embarrassing moment?
What qualities do they most admire in the opposite sex/whoever they’re attracted to?
What qualities do they look for in their friends?
How do they relate to their family members?
Describe a past event that had a big impact on their life.
What is their favourite quote (funny, inspirational, motivational etc.)?
Who do they most admire in the whole world and why?
What is the worst thing they’ve ever done in their life?
What is the craziest thing they’ve ever done in their life?
What are their goals and ambitions?
Well, you get the idea. You need to get inside your characters’ heads, and make sure you know everything about them. Of course, you don’t need to go into quite as much detail for the really minor characters, but just thinking about this will help you when you need to write a difficult scene, or when you don’t know how they’d react under certain circumstances, or if you’re not sure what they’d say when confronted by someone they didn’t like. Just look at what you’ve written down about their personality and their past, and apply that to the scene. The more you do this, the easier it will become.
So, why not try filling in a character profile for your protagonist right now? It will help you with your book, and more than anything else, it can be a pretty fun task to do! Your characters will thank you for it.
My Little Forest series is set in the ‘real’ world, but with fictional towns and cities as well as paranormal elements. The characters mention real life places – such as Manchester, Edinburgh, and London – but I also make use of a lot of fictional places in both England and Ireland. The characters are aware of real life pop culture and events, but they also have their own ‘celebrities’ in their own world – bands, entertainers, well-known local businessmen and so on. You’ll need to decide how much of the real world you want to allude to, and how much of your made-up world your characters will be dealing with. For certain genres you may need to ignore the ‘real’ world completely, and for others you might come up with your own characters but use the places and events of the real world, without needing to make up a whole lot of stuff. Take a while to consider what extras you’ll need to include in your worldbuilding.