Category Archives: wordbuilding series

Sneaky World-Building Part 6: The Who

By now, you’ve probably got this whole thing wired. You build the world of your story sneaky by knowing which information is vital to the reader’s casual eye, by limiting how much you whack them with at one time, by keeping the information in a useful, interesting, and compelling context which ideally serves a second purpose (such as adding tension or doubt) at the same time.

Piece of cake.

But if you’re all done spit-taking, I want you to think about one last thing. And if you found this series useful, I’m betting you are likely already doing it. You can’t have achieved this much precision about what to show, when and where, without also having made a decision–perhaps unconsciously–about the character delivering it.

That’s the Who.

THEY Need to Know Too!

It would be not worth mentioning if it weren’t so crucial. The true omniscient third-person voice is a rarity these days (I think it’s one of the hardest): most genre fiction writers realize the tremendous advantages inherent in selecting a more personal point of view. First and second person speak for themselves (Genius! I kill myself), but the sympathetic third person–the one so many tales  are written in today, confronts you with a choice as author. Which of your characters should be the vehicle you use to bring the world to your reader?

The main character will often be the right answer. But always? What about some part of world-building that he or she should stay unaware of, some secret plan of the enemy or a fact that reveals whodunit.  I’ve read plenty of tales where the author changed point of view too often, “head-hopping” through the entire cast as if from a sense of duty, and giving us a two-sentence flash of how everybody’s feeling. Worshiping at the altar of Tell, instead of having one person scan the room and pick up on the signs that give us the same knowledge.

“A strong voice and good storytelling fills the reader with confidence, reassures them that everything has a purpose.”

— Jami Gold

But you can also see the opposite, when one character carries you through some bit of history, thinks about a prophecy or tries to assemble the clues, etc. yet gives the reader that uncomfortable sense that we’ve overstayed our welcome. Why are we here? What sympathy or relevance do these thoughts and feelings have for us at this point? Why is this character thinking about such things right now? That’s when the reader becomes suspicious, breaks the tapestry and spots the camouflage you’ve been erecting.

In other words, picking the wrong character can wreck your attempt to world-build just as surely as putting a phone book of genealogy out there by itself between two sentences of an argument. So don’t do that.

The Ignorant Narrator

One common and effective tactic to handle the Who of world-building is to choose an ignorant narrator. When they don’t know, it can immediately forge a bond of sympathy with the reader. They have a companion now, another character in this little boat piloting the unfriendly sea of your world. They share an important need, and learn (hopefully without realizing it!) about this new place as they voyage together.

Can it be overdone? Oh hell yes. One key for using ignorant narrators is to remember that they are still characters– you need to make them admirable or sympathetic in some way, because nobody wants to be cast adrift with a milksop or a perfect Mary Sue. My favorite example of a famous ignorant narrator is Doctor Watson. He and Holmes head out to the scene of the crime and you just KNOW Watson is going to miss it. Whatever that clue is, the smudge or disarranged paper or something that Holmes stops and looks at a moment, and then declares to be “probably nothing”… ah, THAT is where the action is. But Watson almost never gets it. He sees everything you do– in fact, he sees everything Holmes does– but you can use him as a near-perfect negative barometer. Holmes, of course, says nothing about whodunit until the very end, the stuck-up prig. Watson, when asked, always gives his view and it’s just about exactly wrong. The reader can use that to help deduce what’s more likely to be right, and while you might not catch up to the great detective, feeling superior to his sidekick pushes you further into the story and engages you. Elementary, really, and brilliant. But don’t forget, you LIKE Watson– he’s brave and loyal, domesticated and decent. Nobody marries and lives with Holmes.  It’s a classic example of how to tell, whoops, show the story. With the right character.

Notice you can also flip the script by choosing a villain to narrate. The reader should hate the character, thus gaining a sense of what NOT to root for, and so on. Like Watson, but without the pipe and niceness.

In Exemplum Gratia: Nine Princes in Amber

Our hero awakens in a hospital with his limbs in casts and doesn’t even remember his own name. He feels as if his legs aren’t broken, so he shatters the casts, rather easily beats up the thugly orderlies, and leaves. Corwin is the most classic of the ignorant narrators and a brilliant example of the line between the worlds. Starting out in the ARW, he pursues shady wisps of his memory, all the while displaying clear evidence to the reader–but not to himself–that the default setting for everything is under a caution flag. He’s too strong, he unconsciously behaves in a regal fashion. As Nick Fury so famously said of Loki, “He’s… not from around here.” And we discover this before Corwin does, in a way that presents constant threat, deep uncertainty, and raises our interest in the narrator’s success. I suppose this book gets tagged as a sci-fi/fantasy classic, but like some of my other examples it has elements of several genres (in fact, ALL genres!) blended into it. You don’t have to take in the entire series but the opening book is a bible for world-building done right and the tale just whizzes past. I’m so glad Mr. Zelazny is a time-traveler and came forward to read this series before writing it…

Writing Exercise: The Who

I can’t surprise you anymore by this time. Return to the Writing Exercise- look at that roster you wrote down and try to jot next to each item a name or character type who should be the one to bring it to the reader.  Should it be the main character, or a soul-mate, an authority figure, some kind of facilitator? And should it happen through thoughts (meaning, a sympathetic voice like first person)? Or with speech, or just hinted at in the way their actions are described? Spend a couple minutes trying to populate your list. Who would have these thoughts, based on what they need or desire?

Now, look at the results. You should have a nice list of things vital to include in your tale, a sense of the order to introduce them, an idea about the origins of this information (and maybe even some “raw material” to draw from!) and now a vision of which character will be bringing the news forward. Brava!

You’ve got it now. The reader will have no chance to avoid the world you build for them, in fact, they’ll be eager to know more. Not by learning it! No, your tale was far too interesting and well crafted to have taught them anything. They just saw it, experienced and enjoyed it. They feel a part of it now, and will boast to their friends just like the tourist who went to Bangkok for three days and is now an expert on Thailand, and Buddhism, and Asian food…

All World-Building is Really a Whodunit

{Actually a Whoshowsit!}

I can only hope you’ve enjoyed reading this series as much as I did crafting it. I probably sounded way too sure of myself, but I wanted to be encouraging and give you hope about a subject that too many authors despair of. Remember: your judgment must govern the process, and all rules can be broken by those who know why. If you don’t find resonance in what I’ve said, feel free to print out the entire series, wad it up and lob it in the trash. But don’t pretend the Patience Horizon doesn’t exist; don’t light that candle with a flame-thrower. Charm the reader into your lands and they won’t just put up with the build, they’ll run to that horizon and hold it up like Atlas to learn more.

Let me know your experiences and any questions you still may have. There are countless worlds out there, and you are the ARW’s leading expert on at least one of them! Let’s hear from you in your next published tale.

Sneaky World-Building Part 5: The Where

If you’re not building a world for the reader, then you must be telling them only the facts. I can’t help you with that! This series is for those of us who need to be sneaky, to smuggle the unknowing, almost unwilling reader into another place and time without giving them too many clues about what we’re teaching. This is the second of the final three chapters in the series, all related to the nuts-and-bolts level of the job. Here, I will argue that you must make your world-building do double-duty; that the proper place to show the reader something they must know (but don’t want to learn) is the place where something else is also happening.

That’s the Where.

Camouflage Your World

This notion supplements what I said previously about an engaging context, weaving a tapestry, etc. Whatever image floats your boat, but in this case the camouflage I’m talking about is more related to stress or urgency. So many times we see a block of information about a world’s past, or the workings of magic, or the specific nature of technology or the undead– and it’s just sitting there out in the open, so to speak. Why would the reader want to take time to learn this thing now and drop the plot to do so? Never mind they need to know it. Show it. Buried in the action, in a task that carries importance for a character that you want the reader to care about.

How About… Running?

Suppose your main character is headed toward the manor, to meet three lovely suitors and choose one of them to marry. If your character thinks about each one at this time– their merits and advantages, the political situation, the social implications, parent’s wishes and dare we add, how much she likes each one (or doesn’t)– that is all appropriate to the When and the How, it’s in the proper context and relevant to the character’s thoughts. Sure- but this is going to take several paragraphs, all at once. And even if you masterfully sprinkled in all the info earlier in the story, it’s still quite relevant for her to revisit her thinking now, at crunch time. Is the reader doomed to a boring recitation, a bloc of world-building?

I suggest you have the character run.

Just adding the speed of her movement to the manor (or perhaps for a few lines, running AWAY!) will lend a sense of urgency to the plot. And after all this is an important time. Intersperse these matters you have to cover with even a small layer of action. Her speed increases as she realizes the dishonor and shame of being late, or it slows as she fights within herself to decide, or to avoid this dreadful decision. The simple action of her movement from one place to another, so often ignored, can lend that meaning the reader needs to empathize. Maybe you took it for granted. And sure, choosing between three suitors, we get the picture. But how long can you expect the reader to just hang on without a little emotional juice while you compare the dirt-poor marquis to the fabulously wealthy merchant and the rake with the enchanting musculature?

Remember, the reader is not actually marrying the dude. You just have to make them WANT to!

In Exemplum Gratia: Judgement’s Tale

Come now, you didn’t seriously believe I would run a half-dozen blog articles out here and not put in a plug for my own work! But aside from shameless self-promotion, I want to demonstrate that I’m drinking the Kool-aid here. When I started my chronicling career I was not conscious of these matters, there were just books I’d read that I liked and others not so much. Working to bring the Tales of Hope to publication has certainly taught me a lot, and I hope you find it useful too. Thus ends the non-apology.

Solemn Judgement is a stranger to the Lands of Hope, but he’s not an ignorant narrator because I never take his point of view when I write. The level of remove I chose means I can only show the reader what Judgement does or let them hear what he says. Fortunately for him (and me), Judgement meets a kindly elvish sage named Cedrith who observes the young lad’s rigid, lonely demeanor and becomes determined to be his friend. As part of his tutelage, he takes Judgement to see a theatrical performance.

This is a veritable King Solomon’s Mine of world-building. There is a metric ton of stuff the reader needs to know about the past of this world, because in classic epic fantasy fashion, Judgement is destined to be the hero tasked with saving it. Thus, the way Hope pushed back the armies of Despair, and the fight between the hero Areghel and the Earth Demon Kog that happened millennia ago, and a hundred other things all need to be presented to Judgement (and to the reader). And I’m using the equivalent of Henry V to do it.

Snoozefest Alert? I knew the risk was there. But consider:

  • When you put on a play in a world with magic, you get to use that. Actors in the play wear artefacts called Miens, and appear to be 8 feet tall and shine with their own light. When I start the chapter I don’t immediately clue the reader in to the fact that we’re in a theater, and it might appear to be a flashback or miraculous occurrence. When one of the actors gives a hero’s speech, I even made the font bigger.
  • Turns out, Judgement is deeply offended by the notion of people dressing up and playing hero. Cedrith belatedly realizes the lad has never seen a play before, and though Judgement is very polite he is clearly quite angry (since he has adopted the devotion to the Heroes of Hope very strongly). Thus, Cedrith needs to manage the youth’s emotions between acts of the play.
  • He does this by drawing Judgement’s attention to the existence and mystery of the Miens, as well as an ancient, broken-down war-vessel of Despair, called a Makine, which is being used on stage as a set prop. It’s inactive. Probably.
  • It also turns out that the script being recited beneath this struggle  comprises the most direct source of history in the Lands. The words are originally in the Ancient tongue (which only Judgement can well understand) and they appear to have been penned millennia ago by the heroes themselves.
  • Judgement becomes interested despite himself and agrees to meet with the lead actor of the company, who will be an important supporting character and help to drive the plot forward. Judgement doesn’t like him either, so Cedrith has more work to do, trying to balance that relationship.
Or perhaps… a badger? BTW, Run Away!


Did I succeed? You’d have to gauge for yourself– and now that I’ve showed you my tricks, I bet you wouldn’t be as impressed with the skill. Camouflage never works once you point it out, and your readers will probably catch up to the same old idea if you go to the well too often. Trojan Horse? Score. Trojan Rabbit, not so much. But I cannot tell you how much better this chapter became from the time I first drafted it to its published form. As you might guess, it’s one of my favorites.

{<– Special thanks to my high school friend Bill Michaels for his  fabulous article on making your own Trojan Rabbit. Yeah, camo doesn’t always work…}

Writing Exercise: The Where

Recall that list I had you scrawl back in the first chapter? Let’s pull that out again and scan the whole thing, the “Needs to Know” part as well as the “Doesn’t” part. Identify one or two of them and challenge yourself: WHERE would this kind of information be BEST found in your world? Forget the tale a  moment: if everything in your world existed what would be the most likely source to find the thing you have down on your list? Perhaps a census document, a newspaper, diary, social register. Figure out where it would most logically be found.

Then think about writing a bit of that. Not your story, but a day or two’s edition of the newspaper, or a few entries in that journal, even an encyclopedia article about these things. Put the information in its most natural order, without worrying about whether the reader will be bored by it. INFORM YOURSELF. See where it takes you for a writing session or two, or perhaps when you feel blocked and want a change of pace. Indulge yourself, write in all the patience-burning glory of detail that you like. Later, you can draw on this new “source” and go back to the rules, dribbling out just a little, putting it in the proper context, adding a sense of relevance, and you won’t feel so beholden to “the whole thing” as you might have originally. It IS already written. It’s a new source!

I discovered an important supporting character for my tales in this way. Whenever I think of the big political developments happening in the Lands of Hope, I immediately look to the Kingdom Chronicle which annually registers these developments. Chronicle style is easy for me to imitate, and as I got to know the authors better I could use their unconscious prejudices to leak into the accounts and sometimes even help the reader see where the tale was going. Don’t mistake me, it’s still epic fantasy with a large load of corrections to the default setting on its back. But in smaller excerpts it can of course be efficient. And the better you get to know the entry and the author of it, the more you can become absorbed in finding out more about the latter from the former. Which is camouflage (sshhhh…).

If this all seems somehow dishonest, you’re probably headed in the right direction. Think of it this way: why shouldn’t your writing serve double-duty? We speak of “camouflage” or a “song and dance” and we forget that these things save lives, win battles, and even entertain people. In that tremendous musical Singing in the Rain, camouflage itself is a major theme! They hit on the idea to substitute the heroine’s lovely voice over the harpy’s face. Deep!

I hope you can see that all the preceding advice is pointing in a single direction now. If you’ve mastered the size, placement and context of your world-building you really just have one decision left to make. And it’s a whopper. Next week we conclude this series with The Who.