Characters Create Worlds

(that title should be read in the voice of someone going ‘ohh!’ in a manner of great realisation)

When I’m writing, I think I’m far better at, and certainly gain more enjoyment from, creating worlds than populating them with characters and stories. This is why I’m interested in sci-fi, fantasy and apocalypse genres, because they basically let you play around with whole little universes – species, fictional histories, social conventions – in a rather convenient way; but writing the Twelve Stories Of Christmas, particularly day one which doesn’t really fit into any of those genres, made me realise that world-building can be done without stepping completely away from the real world, that convincing societies can be constructed as much through a subtle change to our current world as it can be through a complete separation from that world, and building something from scratch on a spaceship or whatever.

But now, in finally getting around to writing up an idea I’ve had for like three years, I’m seeing another way to create worlds, one through character. My current project is a military sci-fi one, heavily influenced by Mass Effect and, in turn, Battlestar Galactica; and while there are a load of complex political situations and relationships involved in this idea, the piece I’m currently writing is intended to serve as a short, almost introductory, preface to this universe (because I think of all my half-baked ideas as if they’ll be made into twelve-volume epics).

As a result, I don’t want to overload the reader with facts about this fictional universe when the action of this first part takes place exclusively on one planet; and ‘action’ is an important word, because this preface type-thing is mostly action and combat, with political stuff only being hinted at. I tried to mention these political concerns early on, but found it clunky and unnatural, I was basically dumping some political facts into the middle of a battle scene, which distracted from the action and meant that it was the narrator, not the characters, who spoke the most, which isn’t a good idea when it’s the start of a thing and you’re trying to introduce take establish those characters.

But now I’ve found a solution (admittedly one I’ve been too busy to actually write, but what the Hell), which is to make individual characters representative of those wider political ideas; I have an aggressive, blunt character, and a splinter group of humanity known for their violence and independence – wouldn’t it be helpful if I were to introduce this character in all their obnoxiousness, then explain it through the introduction of that splinter group and their history? I think that’s a way better approach than political statements made in a vacuum; I know that part of reading involves the reader making associations and interpretations for themselves, but it might be asking too much to not link this character with this theme like this, because there are literally no other indicators the two things are linked.

It’s like the endless array of characters you interact with in Mass Effect (apologies if the upcoming references mean nothing to you): Grunt, and Wrex, are representative of the entire krogan race, their ideas, beliefs and actions; Garrus represents the turians, with the race’s history explored through anecdotes from his battles; Mordin reflects the steadily changing views, yet uncompromising demeanour, of the salarians; and Liara, Samara and Morinth show the two extents of asari society – modern and politically influential on one end, and deeply spiritual on the other. It helps to make a world real and believable if lore is based on character in this way, as it creates a world in which people are living (present tense) instead of whole swathes of people being represented with the same interesting, yet broad and impersonal, brushstrokes that I’m used to painting with.

So there’s something else I’ve learned by writing things; a writer may create a world, but it’s characters both make it real, and introducing that world through them makes it believable and worthwhile. Now if only I could fix my complete inability to write dialogue, this writing thing may not be such a hopeless failure.


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