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


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: History

I’ve found one of the most daunting tasks for my world building has been the history. Figuring out character’s personal histories is easy, but when preparing the history of an entire world, figuring out how the countries formed, who the political leaders were and what wars have been fought is a lot more intensive, and it seems an awful lot like an endless puzzle.

Thankfully there are multiple techniques to use when crafting a history. Before getting into those however, one of the best tools to use for everything is to ask why. Why helps you figure out details that can open up new lanes of exploration for your world and your history: why do These People disagree with Those People? Why do These live here? Why do Those revere that resource?

Apply liberal amounts of ‘why’ when you find yourself stuck.

Ages and Timelines 
The two best ways of organizing history are both based on chronological order. Timelines tend to be a little more specific with X happening in Year Y. Ages however, cover a range of years without getting too terribly specific about the years each event happened.

That also means it may help to start with figuring out your ages first–are you following the age of stone, bronze, steel, etc? Or, are your ages and eras named for the major advancements in civilization like the move from caves into tribes and villages?

Timelines are especially useful for organizing big events leading up to your story. This can include things like the birth of notable figures, inventions of new technologies and major discoveries.

Ages help you see how your world has developed overtime. Thinking of them as spectrum may help–you may not know exactly when your people had fully transitioned from using magic to burning coal for example, but you can mark the edges of that era based on the transitory change from one fuel source to the other.

Devices are used all the time to explain how a character had some powerful tool or the other. Hero has a magic sword from an abandoned religion? That’s a device, one you can use to help build your history: why was the religion abandoned? Where did he find this sword? Why did they need a sword with immense powers?

Scour your drafts for devices. Find an abandoned ruin? Start asking why and how long it’s been abandoned.  Magical family bloodlines? Start asking why and how they got that way. History can be built around the answers you find in questioning the facts.

Work Backwards 
Personally, I love starting with the most recent events and building off that. Start with asking yourself what the most recent advancement is, or who the current ruler is. Who ruled before that? What needed to be discovered before they could advance medication or transport? What sort of obstacle needed to be overcome for these people to settle in that area?

Repeat this as you build your layers backwards. It’s fine if you don’t have the answers for all of it. Remember that history gets harder to prove and track the farther back we go, largely because means of recording history had to develop as time passed.

Also remember that any of these techniques can be combined. Find the devices in your story right now and work backwards from those–find out how they came to be and the events that shaped the area around them. Build everything up into a transition from one thing to another, creating your first age. Create a timeline of known events, and fill in the gaps by asking yourself questions about how they create the devices and facts in your world.