Writing Exercise: Worldbuilding as Motivation


Some Background

People spend a lot of time talking about building character. People create character sheets, elaborate motive charts, all sorts of ridiculous writerly bric-a-brac detailing the motive and inner turmoil of imaginary people.

This is all great, of course. Everything other people do is great. I have to say this, because being polite is, for some reason, important.

One thing that often gets ignored in our attempts to chart out our characters is, unfortunately, motivation. Not just what motivates a character–that gets talked about plenty–but why it motivates them, and how it happened. People don’t just start wanting things out of the blue–they want them because the necessity of societal obligations has, in some way, pressured them to want them.

So. Out of the places a character occupies in a society, which ones are important to that character? Which ones have caused them to want the things they want?

This is a more important question than it sounds. It is, in its own way, the basic building block on which individual personalities are built. It combines simple physical things (your character is a woman, your character is single, etc.) observable from a distance, with the deepest core of your character’s inner makeup.

And there needs to be more of that. Because who you are–who other people observe you as being–does have a deep inner impact on what kind of person you are. Sorry, nineties feel-gooders. It does.

Take a woman who has been fifty pounds overweight for most of her life. On the outside, this fact doesn’t seem like it would make much of a difference–doesn’t change whether or not she was born with money, whether or not she’s an aristocrat, etc. But people do judge you based on your weight, and if she’s been overweight for most of her life, you can bet she’s felt it.

Unless–unless the society she lives in considers obesity beautiful.

In which case, maybe she’s spent her whole life cramming one more helping than she can really stand down her throat at dinner, just hoping she can gain that extra five pounds to impress Prince Chargrill. Maybe she’s irritated at the dressmakers in her town, because it’s so difficult to find something small enough to fit her. You could write a whole story where the most important thing to this character isn’t her sex, or skin color, or social standing–it’s her weight. Maybe the story could end with her defiantly allowing her weight to drop at last, finally understanding it doesn’t matter.
And obesity is just one of the things which you notice about someone without any explanation, which might have to do with their inner workings too.

The Exercise

Take your character. Take a list of ten broad characteristics that might determine the place in society this character inhabits. This list of traits should include things you might know about this character just from observation, and not from conversation–for instance, you know if someone’s married by seeing them with a spouse, if someone’s a mother by seeing them with their children, where they’re from by an accent, etc. We’ll use Jin from Aurian and Jin for mine, since, you know, Jin. Jin is, in her fantasy world:

A soldier
A woman
From the Empire
A wife
A mother (by book two)
Of common birth
Fairly famous

Now, place those attributes in order. Which of these things matters most to your character? Which matters least? Why?

Now, this list might change, depending on what part of the story you’re talking about. For instance, Jin wasn’t a mother until the end of book one, and soldiery falls farther down her list of important things based on the peacefulness of the current time.

Jin’s list, from most to least important, at the beginning of Little Bird:

A mother
A citizen of the Empire
A wife
A soldier
Of common birth
A woman
Fairly famous

Like most people who have a spouse and kids, her spouse and kids are pretty high on her list of priorities. But Jin puts her people, and the welfare of said people, before her husband (or says she does, at least. In practice, the two would probably be better put side by side). Little Birdy, however, comes before the Empire: this relationship trivium actually creates most of the plot arcs in Little Bird.

The Empire, being a combination of tiny countries composed mostly of pale people, borders the North Darklands and the kingdom of Karakul, where people have darker skin. Therefore, being white (or black, or green, or pick your Crayola color here) hasn’t had much impact on Jin’s life, as the Empire regularly sees visitors and immigrants of different skin tones, and doesn’t make much of a fuss about it (believe me, you don’t make a fuss about the Darklands. It’s…unwise). Being a woman, while a notable disability in the Empire, hasn’t influenced Jin much–largely because, well, you have to get pretty close to tell she’s a woman at all. These facts haven’t caused her any problems, so they aren’t parts of her identity she thinks about much.

On the other hand, her birth (low) and her profession (soldiery) have shaped and changed who Jin is. They are not, however, something she fights for–they are simply influences, not something she protects or cherishes or talks about. (The fact that she doesn’t go to temple has, on rare occasion, bothered her. But it’s more for the social value of the thing than any deep religious belief, and she has other stuff to think about).

You get where I’m going with this?

These are the things that shape who Jin is, and they’re all external things, visible from a week’s close observation. What motivates Jin isn’t some aspect of her temper or personal being, it’s external stuff–what her husband and child need, what her people need, what her fighting skills enable her to do, whether or not folk in the poor quarters have enough to eat. In a different society–one where having pale skin, or being a woman, came with serious drawbacks–those things might be more important to Jin. But she’s fortunate enough to exist in a world where her profession is more important in her personal makeup than these two arbitrary attributes, so.

Jin is clever, quick-tempered, physical, and crude, yes. She’s all of these things. But they aren’t why she is like she is–she’s become that way, in fact, because of the way she’s had to act to get things she wants in her society. Women aren’t considered as valuable under Imperial law as men, so Jin’s not very traditionally feminine, and her hair-trigger temper has kept people from questioning whether a woman should do the things she does. Her low birth is a stigma, and she doesn’t think it should be, so she’s become (sometimes unnecessarily) crude in her expression, especially when talking to people of ‘better’ pedigree. A life’s worth of soldiery has left her apt to solve conflicts by throwing somebody through a wall. And her intelligence–well. That’s the thing that’s allowed her to survive in the first place.

When you look for character motivation, and believable character traits, don’t start plotting out adjectives. Knowing your character is afraid of snakes isn’t going to do you a lick of good, unless you know why. And the whys of your character are, often, buried deep in the rules of your character’s society–because people, regardless of time and place, grow where you let them, and falter where they have no support. Even the most self-sufficient person is dependent on the rules of the culture they live in, and the opinions of the people around them.

So don’t world build and then character build, or vice-versa. The two things are one in the same. And an exercise like this one can help you lay bare, not only your character’s motivation, but also the laws of the society he or she lives in.

I’ve shown you mine. If you want to show me yours, by golly, I’d say it’s only fair.

11 thoughts on “Writing Exercise: Worldbuilding as Motivation

  1. James N Frey always preached that a writer had to know a character’s physical, psychological, and social background in order to really know who a character was and how they’d react to anything in the story. Psychological studies seem to indicate that our personalities are pretty much made by the time we hit three or four, shaped by the people around us (who have been shaped by their early caregivers, their personal experiences, and the society they live in). So yeah, I would agree that the motivation has to fit with the history and personality of the character. Plucking a want out of the air will ring false because it will lack internal consistency, and people are pretty sharp at picking up that kind of inconsistency.


    1. Oh, James Frey. I liked A Million Little Pieces. I don’t care what Oprah has to say and then not say.

      And I think he’s spot-on, too. People have a background, starting from birth, and that background extends far past the actual character, into their society and family. For good character depth, it’s important to remember that person’s starting point is far in the past!

      1. No way! I was wondering if he was publishing with his middle initial now…never occurred to me there could be two writers with the same name. I guess ‘Frey’ isn’t that uncommon, though.

      2. Yeah, James N Frey was pretty steamed when the whole Frey flap was going on. I happened to do a workshop with him around that time. He knew more swear words than you, and he wasn’t afraid to use them on his students.

  2. I hope this answer isn’t too long for a WordPress comment…

    Difficult one to answer, this. I’m not a ‘seat of the pants writer,’ prefer to do some basic plotting and mapping. But as far as the entire TotenSeries of five books goes, I have not established the motivation of Rob Wallet, the British journalist who found the band and persuaded them to make a comeback.

    People ask who are Toten Herzen, but few ask what’s Rob Wallet up to? In Rotterdam he told Susan Bekker he wanted to be part of something, not a spectator watching, but part of the act performing. He found the band, but when he’s asked, he can’t find Peter Miles, the missing ‘fifth member,’ and that discrepancy is what tells me Rob Wallet is up to something.

    But I don’t know what that something is. Seat of the pants series planning! Writing the two Toten books and the spin off Malandanti and Reflections stories have surprised me in the way they remain consistent without any preplanning or character building. Anyway, to answer your ten qualities rule here goes for Rob Wallet:

    1 British
    2 Author of Clowns Don’t Cry, a History of Glam Rock
    3 Journalism career on the slide prior to discovering Toten Herzen
    4 Nostalgic
    5 A vampire turned by Susan Bekker
    6 Huge lust for Susan Bekker
    7 Inept when it comes to publicity
    8 Adept when it comes to investigative journalism
    9 Sees flaws in Toten Herzen’s plans and schemes
    10 Son of Bob Wallet

    And in order, as it would seem to be in the first two novels:

    1 Nostalgic
    2 Inept
    3 Lust for Susan Bekker
    4 Adept
    5 Sees flaws in Toten’s plans
    6 Journalism career on the slide
    7 Vampire
    8 Author of Clowns Don’t Cry
    9 British
    10 Son of Bob Wallet

    (1) His nostalgia for the seventies fired his curiosity into finding the dead band. (2) He hangs onto them by suggesting he can steer their comeback, but he’s a journalist not a publicist. (Call’s into question Toten’s reasons for putting up with him.) (3) Now he’s met her, and been bitten by her, he can’t stop thinking about Bekker and will do anything for her (to her face), but in spite of his ability to investigate, he can’t or won’t find Peter Miles when Bekker asks Wallet to look for him.(4)* (5) He’s able to keep the band’s feet on the ground to some extent, because they’re instinctive and hot headed. He’s not a ‘total vampire’ yet, so isn’t guided by build-ups of anger like they are. He always said being part of the Toten juggernaut would rescue his career, but Bekker warned him about being part of the band’s set-up if that was his only reason.(6)* (7) He finds the vampirism useful and a curse. When the band record their album in the English Lake District, he’s upset because he can only be there when it’s dark and it’s a place that played a formative role in his childhood. (8) His past achievements mean nothing to him, but others in the media know his name and can’t figure out his motives for being mixed up with this ‘hoax.’ (9) His nationality means nothing to him unless it’s related to 70s football, Jeux Sans Frontieres or Eurovison trivia; and waffling on about old British tv programmes. (10) And he’s yet to mention his dodgy wheeler-dealer dad, Bob Wallet.

    * These issues I’m sure will reveal themselves over the series, but I don’t know what they are yet.

    Like the band, he enjoys portraying an image of clumsiness, but in private he’s sharp and up to something… probably fueled by his ultimate desire to go back in time to childhood!

    1. I figured Rob got into it for the childhood remembrance and stayed involved because, well, vampires. I totally buy him wanting a way into the exciting Toten Herzen life. But that’s just me. 😛

      When I first saw this, I thought you meant he was British first and foremost, and was floored. I thought, as an American, there was something essential to British nature (something that, apparently, involved Deep Purple influences and vampirism) I wasn’t getting. Heh. Heheh. Whoops. Scroll down, Emily, scroll down.

      1. That’s what happens when comments are like 5000 words long! I’ll try to be more succinct next time!

        And you’re about as close as you can get when you pick up on Wallet’s childhood fixation; it will ultimately devour him. (I think.)

  3. Ok, so I don’t have a specific example here, but I totally agree. The story is a hell of a lot easier to write and develops better if these two things come at the same time. I’ve got 2 ‘side projects’ going at the moment and they’re both going fairly easily because I’m building the world with the character. Makes sense though right? The reader is going to see the world through the characters eyes, and it’ll be colored by that imaginary person’s perspective.

  4. Thanks for this! I’m guilty of “feelings things out” a bit too much with my characters. Some strategic reflection is certainly in order, and this exercise seems like a great place to start!

    1. Hey, I’m totally a pantser too. :p This is one of the few exercises I’d recommend–it really helps you get an idea of the ‘big picture’ your character exists in.

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