Worldbuilding Workshop, Part III

Viewpoint Characters
Background: a character should be a product of the sum of his cultural and personal experiences. There should be elements of both nature and nurture. For example, werewolves (or vampires or even humans) will likely have certain behaviors in common because of their biology and biochemistry. Werewolves, for example might have a need to change, particularly at certain times, or for rarer meat or any number of things depending on the rules you establish for your world. How your particular character deals with these urges or with others inside or outside the group or life in general will largely be informed by their personal and familial history.

Because urban fantasy is so hot and snarky, sassy characters are in, I see far too many submissions in which the heroine, say, is all punchy and prickly for no particular reason. What makes your character the way she is?

Uniqueness: while your main character or characters should be identifiable and sympathetic to the reader, he or she should also be unique. Even if you’ve chosen something that’s fairly common…let’s use a vampire here…it should not be your standard vampire. While I don’t necessarily want my vampires to sparkle in the sunlight, Stephenie Meyer took the idea of vampires as the ultimate preditors with everything meant to draw prey to them and ran with it. Try to give your hero or heroine a different twist.

Strength, Weaknesses and Quirks: a real character, like a real person, will have all these things. They’ll have fears, loves, dislikes, passions, quirks, etc. No character should be a type. No person is entirely consistent or sweet or evil or any one single thing. Everybody has something about themselves that it would surprise others to know.

Relatable: No matter how unusual a main character you choose, the reader should find him or her relatable and sympathetic. You may lose some readers if you choose a main character with whom they have nothing in common or who they feel is too immoral, although this can sometimes make a novel stand out. I’m thinking here of Jaye Wells’ assassin heroine in Red-Headed Stepchild, in which the voice carries you through. Example, an excerpt from the opening:

Digging graves is hell on a manicure, but I was taught good vampires clean up after every meal. So I ignored the chipped onyx polish. I ignored the dirt caked under my nails. I ignored my palms, rubbed raw and blistering. And when a snapping twig announced David’s arrival, I ignored him too.

He said nothing, just stood off behind a thicket of trees waiting for me to acknowledge him. Despite his silence, I could feel hot waves of disapproval flying in my direction.

At last, the final scoop of earth fell onto the grave. Stalling, I leaned on the shovel handle and restored order to my hair. Next I brushed flecks of dirt from my cashmere sweater. Not the first choice of digging attire for some, but I always believed manual labor was no excuse for sloppiness. Besides, the sweater was black, so it went well with the haphazard funerary rites.

Choosing a POV Character
I’ve avoided saying “hero” or “heroine” here because sometimes, like in the movie Despicable Me, the terms don’t really apply…at least not at first. Here are some things to consider:

Is your character an Insider or Outsider: are they already fully immersed in the world & or is the reader becoming aware along with them? Sometimes the best way to introduce a reader to the world of the weird is to introduce the protagonist to it, so that they begin at the same level of knowledge, basically, as the reader. Take Chloe Neill’s Chicagoland Vampires series. Her main character is more or less an everyman. Everywoman anyway. She’s a graduate student. Exams, roommate, jeans, t-shirts, junk-food addiction, particularly under stress…until she’s attacked by one vampire and rescued by another, though the only way to accomplish that is to complete the change. In the world Chloe has created, becoming a vampire isn’t as simple as waking from the dead. It’s political and practically feudal in its code…learnable in a multi-volume Canon to which she does not subject her readers…only her poor character. However, it’s also intriguing simply to launch your reader into the world, as Kalayna Price does in Grave Witch, right from the first line, “The first time I encountered Death, I hurled my mother’s medical chart at him. As far as impressions went, I blew it, but I was five at the time, so he eventually forgave me. Some days I wished he hadn’t – particularly when we crossed paths on the job.” Here, the heroine has grown up with her abilities, and the reader accepts them just as the protagonist does, taking them in stride.

Reliable or Unreliable Narrator: a reliable narrator is most traditional. This is someone whose observations we trust. An unreliable narrator is often an anti-hero, someone who may have a reason to twist the facts presented. The best example I can provide of the latter is Sir Apropos of Nothing by Peter David. It’s fascinating, because you’re constantly analyzing what’s said to try to get at the true person behind the narrative. In fact, to me the true brilliance of the book is the psychology behind it.

Is this someone you can torture: I know, this sounds crazy, but this is one I learned from experience. Part of the reason that you have to give your characters flaws, aside from the fact that we all have them, and it makes your characters more realistic, is that it gives you something less than noble about them that you can hang onto when you’re putting them through the meatgrinder that is fate. I’m completely serious here. If your character is too much like you or too beloved, you’re going to have a very difficult time carrying through with the conflict. You’ll want to protect them, and therefore demolish any tension almost before it’s begun to build. I’ve seen it time and again, along with overuse of adjectives and exposition. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the first character I wrote who really spoke to people was a teen fashionista I took from chic to eek by vamping her out and taking away all her tanning options. No reflection, now way to fix her hair and make up…her own personal version of hell. Yes, she was fun to torture…for me and for the reader as well. But she also had to be capable of, as she says, putting on her big-girl panties to deal with it, which brings me to my next comment….

Hidden strengths: In Joss Whedon’s Firefly, very bad man Adelai Niska says that during torture you meet the true person. In a novel, your action tends to be a bit larger than life, unless your lives are much more exciting than mine, so characters tend to be pushed beyond normal endurance. They’ll either break or find hidden strengths that allow them to survive and win the day. Breaking is obviously the less heroic choice.

What POV will best suit your character’s voice. There are really only two acceptable options, since omniscient narration doesn’t tend to appeal to modern readers. That’s narration where events are relayed from some external perspective, as if it’s being watched and not lived. It’s very distancing and doesn’t provide any lens through which we can view the world or emotional impact, because nothing is at stake for the teller of the tale.

The first person, or the “I” perspective, is popular, especially in urban fantasy these days. It can be very intimate, but it can also be limiting, since it’s best (though not exclusively) used in single point of view narratives. Caveat here: be careful that it doesn’t sound like your character is speaking directly to the reader. A reader wants to disappear into a book and live vicariously alongside the characters, which isn’t possible when we’re aware of ourselves. Also, one person can’t ever truly know what another is thinking, so while you can give us cues in dialogue, expression and body language, you don’t get to put us into someone else’s head.

Third person is perhaps the most commonly used. This is the “he” or “she” perspective, where we’re still in a particular character’s head at any given moment, but which character may change with a chapter or section break. There are caveats here too. If you choose to write from more than one perspective, it’s important for each voice to sound truly distinctive so that the reader doesn’t forget even for a second who they’re following. Also, even with the ability to tell a tale from multiple viewpoints, you’ll probably want to limit the number of characters, lest the book become too unwieldy and a reader lose the thread of one character’s story while we’re tied up with another.
Populating your world
Antagonists: Peter Watts’s Blindsight, which I referenced earlier, proves that there doesn’t necessarily have to be an antagonist, although there does have to be a threat. In his novel, it’s our own complete inability to even conceive of the alien species we encounter and discover how to safely interact. However, most novels need an antagonist, a visible, fightable enemy and someone who’s more than a match for the hero or heroine so that we truly believe the danger and are kept on the edge of our seats over the outcome of all conflicts. The antagonist should not be a cartoon personification of evil, but should have real motivations, whether they be selfish, sociopathic, misguided, vengeful or whathaveyou. Often, the most intriguing characters are those who are at war with themselves and the most interesting novels are those that make the reader really think about their perceptions and preconceived notions. Carol Berg plays around quite a bit with the perceptions of good and evil in her worlds.

Secondary characters: Your secondary characters should have personas and voices all their own, not just live and breathe to ask questions that allow exposition to be delivered in dialogue. But be careful that they don’t run away with the story, which is especially likely when it comes to the comic relief. Secondary characters come in all shapes and sizes from love interests, to friends to family and pint-sized piskies. Whatever shape they come in should not resemble cardboard.

Creatures: Be certain to make your creatures your own, even if you draw on an established mythos. If an elf, a human and a dwarf walk into a bar, chances are you have a D&D adventure and not a truly unique novel on your hands…unless you’ve done something particularly tricky with your world. For example, Rob Thurman’s “elves” are so far from our conception of the Fair Folk that there’s no recognizing them. In fact, Cal Leandros, the hero of her bestselling series, is half auphe or, as he’s labeled himself, “half-human, half-monster, all attitude” and while she has trolls and vampires and one unabashedly Pan-sexual Robin Goodfellow, she’s fleshed them out to the point where they’re truly original.

Something else to think about: you obviously can’t use all creatures from all traditions or gods from each pantheon…what a crowded novel that would be! How do you explain those you bring in without seeming to shun all the others? I can’t answer that for each author, but in my upcoming novel, Bad Blood, I used my knowledge of comparative religion to add in little things here and there letting readers know that my Greek gods have also been other things to other people. For example, Hermes correlates not only to Mercury in the Roman pantheon, but to Iemisch from South America, Loki of Norse mythology, Coyote and Spider from Native American cultures and all the other trickster gods.

I enjoy using myth and legend, but it’s often tricky, because readers will have certain expectations based on the versions of stories that they’ve read. For the old myths, which weren’t written down until long after the ancient world had played its version of telephone with them, there are multiple variations. The good news is that you can choose the one which works best for your purposes. The bad news is that not everyone will like your interpretation.

Now, I’ve harped on unique and original, and you can, of course, create your own creatures out of whole cloth. The trick will then be in building the image without making reference to any known animal living or dead and still making it as vivid for the reader as something they can readily envision.
The balance of your conflict will vary depending on your genre, but all novels need both internal and external conflict.

Internal: what makes it personal for your protagonists? What invests the characters invest the reader. Maybe it’s danger to themselves or a loved one or the need to clear someone’s name. Maybe there’s a new drug on the market and they know what addiction is like, because it’s struck them close to home. Whatever it is, it’s something that makes the hero or heroine, and thus the reader, who’s approaching things from that perspective, care very deeply.

Edmund R. Schubert in Writing Magical Words writes about the importance of having your character want something. He says “the difference between good, publishable fiction, and pretty, wandering words that no one cares about is determined by whether or not the writer can create a sense of expectations in the reader and then meet those expectations. “Wanting” is just the simplest way of setting that sense of expectation in motion. Part of your conflict in a story, at the personal level, is that something is standing in the way of your protagonist achieving what it is that he or she wants.

External: what is the broader conflict? What’s at stake? Every chapter/scene should have conflict of some kind. No chapter or scene should simply be informative or something that moves the characters from one place to another. Take every chance you can to up the tension, but remember there also need to be quiet moments for the readers and characters to catch a breath.

As you can all see, I’ve gone a bit beyond worldbuilding with this whole workshop, but everything ties together like a tightly woven tapestry to give you a beautiful finished product.

Published by luciennediver

Author of books on myth, murder and mayhem, fangs and fashion.

2 thoughts on “Worldbuilding Workshop, Part III

  1. I learn something new from you and about every time I visit here.
    I love these posts. I Gives me new ways to think about the worlds I make.


  2. Love this workshop. I did have a seconday character in one of my novels totally steal the show! And when I realized what was happening, I killed him off. But then I felt bad and brought him back and toned him down by bringing in a secondary love interest for my MC. 🙂

    Thanks again for sharing all this awesome info.


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