World Building Through Character Building

This weekend I presented my first panel at Salt City Steamfest. People came and participated and it was great. I had a couple requests to put my notes up so here you go. The panel was orientated around Steampunk, but world building exists in every genre. Every story takes place somewhere, and here are a few ways you can enhance that somewhere.

1. See the world through your characters’ eyes A teenaged boy sees the world differently than an adult man would, and an architect would see things that a cashier wouldn’t. What would your particular character notice? Use those details to add more to the world around them.

2. Use all of the characters’ emotions and a variety of senses Similar to the above, what would you particular character feel or notice? Are there laws that influence the way they act? Would one sense be stronger? For example, a thief would likely notice every little sound, and think about the potential consequences for whatever crime they’re committing. This is an opportunity to showcase some of the ambient noises in the world, and some of the governing practices.

3. Don’t be afraid to describe the little things Little details can really bring a world – and your characters – to life. Do they have a favorite crossbow with every nick and scratch memorized? What’s important to them? Of all the things in the world around them, what do they choose to keep close by?

4. Multi-task with setting and tone Is your alley dark and menacing, or the place you character used to feed stray cats as a child? Are demon attacks common in alleys like this or are they where kids hang out after school to swap forbidden candy? While setting the stage, you have the opportunity to throw in those little details that give a character backstory, and as a result, details to what living in this world entailed.

5. Trust your readers A little mystery can go a long way, and readers are smart. Challenge yourself to describe items without simply calling them by name. This works especially well in fantasy, steampunk, or alternative history genres. Calling a coffee maker an automated bean juicer is not only more interesting, but tells you something about the world it exists in.

All of these should, of course, be done in moderation. You don’t want to go overboard and confuse the reader or stop the story. Every detail should move the story forward or round out your characters.

Good Luck!

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