World Building – Every Character Has a Story

Characters and their interactions lend richness to story worldsAn I’ve been thinking a lot about characters and building rich, living worlds for them to live in. I have also been re-reading some old favourites. Specifically Anne McCaffrey’s Harper Hall Trilogy set in her fictional world of Pern. I have come to better understand that every character has a story within their world and approaching those various stories in different ways will enrich the world you are building.

Pern – a rich story world

Let me use Anne McCaffrey’s planet of Pern to better show what I mean.

If you ask any lover of her Pern books what elements most stand out for them, you will likely hear about dragons and dragon riders. An invasive spore, know as Thread, is falling on Pern. Thread comes from a nearby rogue planet and devours anything organic. The dragons and their riders battle thread, trying to burn it out of the skies.

Yet, her Harper Hall trilogy, which was my introduction to Pern, only peripherally deals with dragons, dragon riders and thread. They are most definitely there and flavour the stories, but they are not the key piece. Menolly, a young girl growing up in a fishing community is the focus. She is a girl who has an amazing set of talents in music; composing, playing, singing. Except, her father does not see value in those things. She is, after all, only a girl (his thinking, not mine). The story is how Menolly overcomes her own challenges to become what she is meant to be.

These were the stories that actually made me want to be a writer myself. But here is an interesting thing to note: in further series set in Pern, Menolly is a secondary character at best. After the Harper Hall trilogy is complete, you see here again, but never on the main stage. That being said, whenever you DO see a mention of her, you say to yourself, “I know who she is and why she is important.”

Her story and the telling of it makes the entire world richer. More real.

MCU is another great example

The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) also does a masterful job of building a fully-fleshed world. They tie their movies into their television and we see events from multiple angles. We better understand the characters and the impacts they have on the world around them.

Cannot forget the Discworld

While I’m talking about rich worlds with characters appearing then reappearing throughout a series, I can’t ignore one of my very favourites. That, of course, is Sir Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. Rather than writing several series within the world, he chose to write book-after-book with “themes”. Some of the more obvious ones were “The City Watch”, “The Witches”, “Death” and so on.

They all refer to common geographical features of the Discworld and the characters show up in their own and other themes on a regular basis. There is significant continuity throughout and as you read the books you quickly understand that this is a vast world the characters are living in.

Don’t tell every Character’s Story

Don’t tell every character’s story even though they clearly have one. Will your readers care about the man whose dream it is to own a clarinet and play music on the streets of Paris? That entirely depends on the stories you tell, but when your series is about elementary-aged youth who have super powers, I’m going to say probably not.

On the other hand, if the character is a librarian who gains powers of her own and moves to the big city, maybe her story is important enough to tell (hint: I intend to write that story based on a character from my first Mik Murdoch novel). That story, when it is written, will point back to Mik Murdoch and refer to him as someone my librarian knows.

It all takes time and it’s worth it

As you may guess, telling the stories of numerous characters takes time and more than one story/book. Introduce new characters where it makes sense. Include them in the original series or branch off in other books or series. As part of that exercise, you can solidify the rules of the world. For example, if magic exists, how does it work?

The reward to making the effort is you get more dedicated readers. Once they find your books and enjoy them, they will be more willing to try something that is new but related to what they already love.

There is another, more personal reward, too. The more characters you have and the richer your world is, the more stories you will discover to tell. You will also get the opportunity to see things grow and evolve. That is just part of the fun of being a story-teller.

Now, get out there and have some fun!


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