Posted in Exercises, worldbuilding

Building the Backstory

For most stories, we don’t get to see every moment of a character’s life. We certainly don’t get to see every moment of every single character. Often the parts of a character’s life we don’t see are referred to as backstory. That is where they came from, what their home life was like, their personal biography up to the point of the story.

Backstory is a powerful thing. It informs character actions and helps us as writers figure out how, why and what makes our characters tick. It’s also rife with other smaller stories we might not consider.

Take your main characters parents. Even if they don’t know or never met their parents, they had to come from somewhere. How did their parents meet? What made them have a child together? What were their hopes and dreams for their son or daughter? Are they proud of them or dismissive? In the case of those who grew up with their families, what did they struggle with when raising your main character? For those who were orphaned or abandoned, what made their parents do it?

Those are all questions that can be answered by looking at the backstory of the parents. Even if it’s just a brief summary, having that on hand sometimes helps when trying to help develop and flesh out your characters.

It might also help to think about other people your character would have interacted with outside of the main story. Childhood friends, teachers, extended family members, neighborhood bullies—all of these are people who might have an impact on your character before they come into the story and before your readers meet them. While they most likely won’t show up in the story, it bleeds into your writing.

The nice thing about backstory is that it’s not limited to people, especially when you’re attempting to world build. Think about particular holidays or events your character would witness during their lifetime. What makes those holidays important? How did their traditions come about? If there’s a particular event such as an annual balloon race, how did that come about? How long has it been occurring? What significance does it have for participants today?

As an exercise: Take fifteen minutes and write out a biography for your character or characters from birth up to the start of the story. Then go through that bio and highlight people and events that don’t show up in the story. Work out brief biographies and histories for each item.

Posted in worldbuilding

Worldbuilding: Religion

At some point in your worldbuilding, the question probably comes up about religion. The good news is, as you build your world, you have pretty much free reign when it comes to religion. The how, why and what are entirely up to you, whether you want to borrow a template from an existing religion or create one on your own.

A huge part of creating a fictional religion is keeping in mind that there is a purpose behind religion. Most religions started to provide answers.

Explanations. A lot of religions and spiritualities have a way to explain things: why the seasons change, what created the world, why the mountains are formed. The truth behind these explanations is entirely dependent on your world. Perhaps your two warring gods really do create mountains when they fight underground. Perhaps it’s only partially true—they may have fought once and created a pile of stone somewhere.  This is often where your myths and stories are created.

Ethics and Ideals. This isn’t as simple as ‘do good things’. This also encompasses things like what their diet should contain, how marriage is viewed, what happens to those who do wrong. For instance, is someone who chooses to adopt viewed more favorably than someone who chooses only to have their own, biological children? Are certain animals and creatures considered sacred or holy? This also applies to sites that might be considered special.

Rituals and holidays. Many rituals have a basis in meaning somewhere. Wedding veils for instance, can be traced back to Roman and Greek traditions as a means of preventing ill-willed spirits from disrupting the bride’s happiness. The same thing goes for holidays. While history muddles things up, Halloween has its basis in the Celtic Samhain.

Reinforcement. Any belief system can be tested, but the key part is how it gets reinforced. Is there an offered reward after death? Does completing a specific ritual offer you protection or additional abilities?  What happens to those who don’t follow the ideals and requirements of the religion?

Organization. Consider how the clergy would organize themselves. Do they have a ranking hierarchy? Or is it much looser, with certain members being considered holy and passing on the stories and knowledge of their beliefs to the next generation?

Posted in worldbuilding, writing

Exposition

In storytelling, exposition has two meanings. The first is the opening portion of your plot arc. That is, where your story begins. The second is the one I want to touch on today.

The second use of exposition is the information needed for a story to make sense. That second part covers a lot of ground. It includes character backstories, worldbuilding, societal rules, legal definitions and a host of other things that vary from story to story. Exposition is important because it’s what makes characters, plots and settings work properly. It’s all the information going on behind the scenes that helps a story progress logically.

The big problem with exposition is that while your characters might know it, your readers might not. You don’t need to explain your own childhood to yourself, but for some stories, not knowing a character’s history causes bumps in the road. How do you get exposition out of the way?

Explain it. I know it seems obvious and you’re probably about to shout ‘INFO DUMP’ at me but hold on a second. Yes, info dumps are a way of getting information on the page. Arguably both sci-fi and fantasy are awful at this because then tend to rely heavily on worldbuilding, so there’s always a lot of information. It’s a common trope to have a prologue which details the history of the world, or of a particular set of characters, or that recounts some prophecy or the other.

However, you can reasonably explain information that’s relevant to the story by having your characters discuss it, or by having them realize what they’ve believed or known about that information is wrong. When using the dialogue option, you can offer back-and-forth questions to cover the usual who, what, why, when and how as needed. By having an internal realization, you make the exposition an active part of the story, rendering it a vital part of that character’s arc.

Imply it. Just as you’re not likely to think about your entire history without something that triggers a recollection, your characters likely won’t either. They may however, reference their personal histories when interacting with other characters.

An example of this is when dealing with a character that’s been disgraced for some reason. They may refer to a particular portion of time as ‘before’. Those characters that don’t know what happened can then ask ‘before what’ which gives you an opportunity to either relate it, or to tease it out a bit at a time. A bonus to this one: you give your readers more of a reason to invest in a character.

Similarly, when dealing with world or event information, your characters aren’t likely to have textbook perfect recollection of every single event. Could they possibly give you a good summary of what happened in the last war? Maybe, if they paid attention and had the chance and ability to learn about what happened. Or, maybe they know more about what sort of plants are likely to react with negative magical affects than they know about relations between differing duchies.

Exposition in storytelling is a necessary and vital part of understanding the story, but delivering that information shouldn’t get in the way of the story itself. When and where possible, use it to deepen a conflict: think about if your rival characters get into arguments about who’s right about the environmental risks of paper straws. Also consider your characters and their history. It may take time for your characters to open up and explain, letting you drop little hints and hooks through their actions and reactions.  

Posted in worldbuilding

Worldbuilding: Politics Intro

Anywhere civilization starts to crop up people tend to group together. The exact definitions of a group of people can be a little vague. You might have people who are grouped together in a town, or in an occupational group. And how a group is managed and how they make decisions together is where politics comes into play.

Politics sound somewhat complicated, but they don’t have to be. In essence politics is how a group makes decisions. This ties partially into how they’ve organized any governing system. Are they held by a single leader, or do they follow more democratic or oligarchical structures? It also ties into cultural beliefs. Places where politics and religion aren’t separated may have some of those choices heavily influenced by a religious group or influence. And where there is a separation, any clash between differing beliefs can cause smaller political problems, even within the same group.

To start figuring out politics, it may help to start with the large picture such as your kingdom or country. The group decisions there are often about how to keep the kingdom and country running. This covers everything from who can become a part of the governing body, to how laws are agreed upon and who can trade with who.

From there take another look at how your group can be divided up. Consider things like religion, social and economic standing, educational level, age, gender and race. Smaller groups within a larger may have different views, and some of the political issues that crop up are the result of conflicting views. How do these smaller groups make themselves heard to the larger group they’re contained within? How do they influence the choices made by their governing body?

Once you have an understanding of how the large group works, consider how it interacts with other groups of the same size. This is where your different countries and varying types of government come into play. Even between groups with the same type of government system, their politics may change; one place may allow certain things where the other bars them.

Posted in worldbuilding

Worldbuilding: Flora

I covered creating and managing fictional animals in another post, but today we’re discussing plants. There’s a huge amount to cover when it comes to plants, but this is just a basic overview if you’re looking too add in some foliage to your world. The good news is, plants bring in a whole world of information on their own.

It’s likely you’ve heard that there’s a flower language. This doesn’t just apply to which flowers are appropriate to send your sister for her birthday however, this covers almost every plant known to man. Four leaf clovers bring luck, oregano symbolizes joy and of course, roses indicate love.

Plants also exist in every environment. Before you scream there’s no plants in Antarctica, there are in fact Antarctic hair grasses, many mosses and lichens and even fungi. Plants are everywhere, so consider what sort of environment they exist in. Desert plants need to conserve water. Fruit-bearing plants need a way to either protect their seeds, or to aid in seed dispersal.

Like with animals, when creating a plant, consider a few things:

  • Where does it grow?
  • How does it spread new plants?
  • How would it defend itself from being eaten?

These three things make it easy to start on plants, and help cover the basics. When covering where it grows, consider threats to its water supply such as drought, or even over saturation. Nutrient poor soil choices will also tend to make for more stubborn plants who grow slower. And plants that need to protect their roots from things like burrowing animals might have poisonous roots, but edible berries and leaves.

Keep in mind that some plants are well known for helping with common ailments. Medicinal herbs are easy to find, but unless you know what you’re doing, that can same herb can turn from on-hand remedy to poisonous with little warning.

You don’t need to look hard for plants with magical properties either. Dandelions are supposed to grant wishes when you blow on them, and St. John’s Wort will fend off evil spirits. Superstitions can show you where common plants might have an additional property.