Who’s Who in World-Building
I’ve often said that, when creating a storyworld, you should focus on character archetypes rather than unique, specific characters. Don’t worry about “Doris Black, Bounty Hunter” when you can work up “the bounty hunters of House Black.” After all, one character will get you one story, but a character archetype can unleash a horde of stories.
That being said…
Storyworlds don’t exist for their own sake.
They exist for the sake of the stories they contain.
And those stories require unique, specific characters.
Archetypes are great for when you’re doing broad-stroke worldbuilding. (“The bounty hunters of House Black are respected and feared throughout the Empire of New Jersey.”) But when it’s time to actually tell a story, you need to lock in on specific characters. (“Doris Black is a wise-cracking skull-cracker from Castle Trenton with daddy issues and black belts in six different martial arts.”)
If those characters don’t exist outside the story, well… this post doesn’t really apply to them. You don’t need to worry about how they fit into the storyworld as a whole.
But some characters are pillars. They help support not only the stories they appear in, but the storyworld itself. In addition to whatever narrative role they play (hero, villain, supporting cast), they also play a structural role as part of the storyworld. As such, you might want to put some additional thought into them before dropping them into your story.
Now, a pillar character doesn’t have to be important to the storyworld, or even the stories in which he or she appears. For example, maybe there’s a bartender that everyone talks to, or a traveling salesman who shows up just when he’s needed most. Or even the High Holy Wizard of Harrowood, who isn’t the hero of any story, but is often the one issues the actual heroes their calls to adventure. (Okay, the HHWoH is important to the world, but isn’t isn’t important to the story.)
“Okay, I get it,” you say. “Pillar characters can show up in multiple stories, and serve ‘structural roles’ within the storyworld. But what are these ‘structural roles’ of which you speak?”
I’m glad you asked!
Unique characters should serve at least one role, such as:
The Face of Conflict: The character represents one side of the setting’s core conflict. She could be the queen of a country at war, the leader of a political faction, or the spokesperson for a criminal organization. Or maybe she represents multiple sides of the conflict, and we get to see different perspectives as she struggles to choose which side is right.
An Archetypal Character: The character represents a unique example of one of the storyworld’s character archetypes. This could be your “Doris Black, bounty hunter” or “Sir Sebastian, knight of the Blood Thorn.”
A Representative of the Unique Setting: The character demonstrates a feature unique to your storyworld. For example, if your storyworld features houses that periodically rise up on giant legs and stride across the landscape, your pillar character might be a professional “house pilot” who walks her boss’s homes to the south for winter. Or if your storyworld features dogs who talk (but only in rhyme), then your pillar character might be a talking, rhyming dog.
A Mascot: I’ll be honest. This has more to do with marketing than world-building. But when you’re putting together a list of awesome, unique characters, think of which one you would want to be the “face” of your storyworld. It doesn’t have to be a hero: Darth Vader is an iconic “face” for Star Wars, and he’s a villain.
Would you like to see some examples of what I’m talking about? I hope so, because I’ll be sharing some in the days to come — and I think they’re pretty cool.
This post was made possible through the support of the heroic patrons of my Patreon page, who got to read it weeks ago. If you like getting content early, and having a chance to offer your own suggestions on it, I’d encourage you to swing by the Patreon page and see what we’re up to.