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Creating Great Characters: Developing their relationship with the world around them

Over the past few months I've shown you how to take your character development beyond the superficial. We've focused entirely on your character's internal world, tackling the importance of formative memories and your character's self perception. Today I'd like to zoom out a bit and focus on your character's relationship with their external world.

Why your character's relationship with the world matters

Your character's relationship with the world around them influences everything they do, at least as much as their relationship with themselves. It might even have a bigger influence. For example, if they think they're amazing but society is out to get them, they may never even try to reach their full potential.

This is shown in my novella, Keeper of the Dawn. Lai, the main character, believes there is only one path to happiness in her society, becoming a priestess. When she fails, she runs away because she doesn't see a future for herself there. It's about more than her failure: it's about not seeing any other options.

Which brings me to the next fun point!

The difference between perception and reality

How we see the world isn't necessarily how the world actually is. Remember when you were a kid and you thought $100 was all the money in the world? Then you became an adult and realized $100 is a drop in the bucket, money that can easily disappear with a single purchase.

Many of the best characters have their own misconceptions about the world, ranging from minor things (like kids thinking "$100 is a lot of money") to major beliefs that influence every layer of their lives (like "women belong in the kitchen").

Playing with—and tearing down—these misconceptions can create powerful character arcs for both protagonists and antagonists.

A great example of a protagonist whose misconceptions around the world are torn down to create a stronger character is Sansa from A Song of Ice and Fire. At first she's a girl who dreams about being a princess. She believes royalty will bring her happiness.

When Sansa gets to King's Landing, however, she discovers that reality is different. Joffrey is an intolerable prick, and the game of thrones is a vicious one. Her old misconceptions are torn away in the most violent way possible. She walks away deeply traumatized, but also stronger. By season seven she knows how the game works, and how to survive it.

Many protagonists' stories follow similar arcs. They haven't experienced the full horrors of the world at the beginning of the story. When they do, one of two things happens: they either are forced to survive by any means necessary, or they decide to fight the world's injustices and make it a better place. They might even do both, usually starting with pure survival and progressing to change the world (think Katniss Everdeen from the Hunger Games trilogy).

An antagonist's misconceptions are often used to explain their willingness to do terrible things. In turn they can create two character arcs: one where they escalate into full villain status, or a redemptive arc. If a series goes on long enough, they might even do both. Probably the most well known example of an antagonist who becomes a true villain and still gets a redemption arc is Anakin Skywalker. He escalates all the way to destroying planets, but at the end he gives his own life to destroy the empire he created—and save Luke's life.

All of these character arcs can be incredibly powerful, but you can't create one of them until you understand what your character's misconceptions are. So today I'm going to give you two exercises. The first exercise focuses on your character's perception of their world. The second focuses on your character's reality.

Exercise: How I see the world

For this exercise you'll need something to write with/on, a timer, and roughly half an hour.

STEP ONE: Set a timer for 15 minutes.

STEP TWO: Free write about the topic "How I see my surroundings", in your character's first person point of view. Focus on your character's daily world and life. What is their town like? Their house? Their family? Friends? How do they feel about those things?

Try to give each of these questions at least a couple sentences. Keep everything in this exercises close and personal. Your goal here is to explore your character's immediate relationships and how those affect their view of the world.

STEP THREE: Take a five minute break.

STEP FOUR: Set your timer for 15 minutes again.

STEP FIVE: Free write about the topic "How I see the wider world", in your character's first person point of view. What do they think of their country? About its politicians? Its religion? Its law enforcement? What about neighboring nations? How are those beliefs shaped by the people and places in their everyday life? If you're writing in a relatively modern setting, you'll want to expand this even further and think about the world at large.

Try to give each of these questions at least a couple sentences, and focus on how those things relate to their personal life. Do they feel optimistic or pessimistic about the world? Do they want to change things? If they do, do they actually believe they have the power to change the world?

STEP SIX: Write up everything you've learned about how your character sees the world in point form notes. You can keep this information in the same file as your character profile.

Exercise: How the world really is

Now that you understand how your character sees the world, it's time to explore their reality and discover just how different it is from their perceptions. Unlike the other exercises we've done so far, this one won't be from your character's perspective. It will be from your perspective, as the author. This will help you compare how you see their world with the character's own internal beliefs.

You'll need another half hour, a timer, and something to write with/on for this exercise.

STEP ONE: Set your timer for 20 minutes.

STEP TWO: Free write to the prompt "My character's place in the world", this time from your own authorial perspective. Write about both their immediate position—their job, class, etc.—and how that fits into the world at large. Focus on the facts, keeping your personal opinion out of it as much as possible.

STEP THREE: Take a five minute break.

STEP FOUR: Set a timer for 10 minutes.

STEP FIVE: Comb through all three of your free writes and pull the most useful information out as point form notes. This can also go in the same document as your character profile.

Final Advice

At this point you're probably staring at this article and wondering if all of this pre-work is really worth it. Once upon a time I wondered the same thing, and I learned the hard way by skipping most of it. Then I went back to my first drafts and realized I had only scratched the surface of my characters. I understood their goals, but not why they had those goals. I had only a loose understanding of why they acted in certain ways.

So I did all of this pre-work after the fact, and spent ten years revising my first book. Now I do the exercises first, and my first drafts are stronger, cleaner manuscripts. Books that will take a year or two to edit, not ten.

I promise you one thing: doing all of this pre-work before you start the novel will mean less editing when the book is done.

Dianna Gunn is author of YA fantasy novella Keeper of the Dawn and columnist at Writer's Corner, writing both Creating Great Characters and Professional Interaction for Authors. She also blogs about creativity, life and books at The Dabbler.


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