16.44: World and Character Part 1: All Your Characters Are Biased
Your Hosts: Dan Wells, Fonda Lee, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Howard Tayler
The world of your book is most often shown to us through the eyes of the characters who live in that world. In this episode we discuss the fact that those characters have biases which will distort the reader’s perception of the world. Knowing this, we can use it to our advantage.
Credits: This episode was recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson.
Homework: Take a favorite story and re-imagine it from a different POV (e.g. Harry Potter as told from the POV of the Minister of Magic.) What are the different worldbuilding needs?
Thing of the week: Craft in the Real World: Rethinking Fiction Writing and Workshopping, by Matthew Salesses.
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Key Points: You only need to create the world your characters live in. Point of view is the great determiner of worldbuilding. Focus on what the character cares about. You may do it in layers, working out plot specific ones ahead of time, but decorative ones when a scene needs them.
[Season 16, Episode 44]
[Dan] This is Writing Excuses. World and Character Part One: All Your Characters Are Biased.
[Fonda] 15 minutes long.
[Mary Robinette] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Fonda] I’m Fonda.
[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.
[Howard] And I’m Howard.
[Dan] I am… This is quite a bold statement in our title. All your characters are biased. Fonda, what do you mean by that?
[Fonda] Well, often times, writers have to do… When they’re doing worldbuilding, they get asked the question, “How do you do it all, like, how do you create a whole ‘nother world?” That just seems like such an overwhelming, daunting, gargantuan task. My answer to that question is it is less daunting than you think. Because you don’t actually need to create the entire world. You only need to create the world that your characters live in. Because none of us have a complete view of the world. We all live in our different worlds, and those worlds are determined by everything from our family background, our class, race, gender, culture, occupation, our position in our family, all these different factors create the world that we live in. Someone else may be inhabiting a world that is entirely foreign to us. So I like to think of the world and your character’s view of the world like the analogy of the blind men and the elephant. Probably everyone has heard of this analogy, but if you have not, it’s the idea that there’s blind men feeling an elephant, and the one who standing near the trunk is like, “The elephant is like a tree,” and someone else near the… No, the person standing near the leg thinks the elephant is like a tree. The person holding the trunk is like, “The elephant is like a snake.” Everyone has a different mental image of what the elephant is because they are only experiencing their section of the elephant. This applies to characters in a world as well. That is why point of view is truly the great determiner of worldbuilding. You first need to understand who your character is and what their place in the world is and what the story is around them. That determines your worldbuilding needs.
[Howard] I just realized that I want to retell that story from the point of view of the elephant who has now decided human beings are all ignorant.
[Dan] And they grope me all the time.
[Howard] And stop touching me!
[Dan] I think this is a really fascinating way to look at worldbuilding. Honestly, one of the things that I really love about the Green Bone saga as a great example of worldbuilding is the way that you were able to show the different cultures. There are the people who live in Jade City, and then there are the other people, the Kekonese who live in Espenia who are the same but also fundamentally different at the same time, because they see the world in different ways. Knowing then that point of view is, as you said, the great determiner of worldbuilding, how do you bring that across in your writing?
[Fonda] Yeah. So, a good example of this is actually my debut novel, Zero Boxer. So it takes place in the future in which the inner solar system has been colonized. There is a political conflict that is occurring between Earth and Mars. There are issues involving genetic engineering and whether or not that should be legal or illegal. But that doesn’t actually matter all that much to the protagonist, because he is an athlete, and he’s competing in the sport of zero gravity prize fighting. So the world, for him, revolves around athletic competition. So as a worldbuilding, as a world builder, what I needed to focus on were all the details of his life as an athlete. That included things like his supplement routine, his exercise routine, is training, all the, like, details of how those fights happen in zero gravity. All the stuff involving like Earth and Mars and like the tech in the future and how spaceships work, like we didn’t need to know how the drive of the spaceship worked. Because that is not something that he cared about, he just needed to get from one competition to the next. So, of course, he gets on a spaceship and he moves through time, but for him, what was most important to the story were those details of his day-to-day life. So a lot of the other stuff is kind of just sort of hinted at, or implied in the background. It is… Still feels like it supports and it exists, but I didn’t need to go deep into all that stuff. Where I needed to go deep was in the areas the character cared about. One of the benefits… That was a single point of view story, but one of the benefits of having a multi point of view story, which I had in the Green Bone saga, was each of the different characters then has their own priorities and their own experiences and circumstances, so you get a more fully fleshed out and developed world because you are seeing characters who have different views of it. It’s like putting all those blind men who are touching the elephant into a room and they’re all drawing out their own little section and slowly the whole elephant comes into view.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. The way I think of this is about the decisions that I’m making about the things that my character interacts with. Which are the things that you’re talking about. The supplement routine… In Green Bone saga, we learn a lot when we go to the school. We learn a lot more things because we’re in the POV of someone who inhabits that… That’s a good way… Like, when you’re trying to figure out, “Well, what do I have to do when I’m trying to…” How do I… When you’re facing decision paralysis. It’s like, “What is your character going to interact with?” So when I’m doing my worldbuilding, I’ll do like… You’ve heard me talk about doing this in layers. Well, I’ll think about the sort of broad layers that my… That I know that my character is going to interact with. But a lot of the specific details, like the supplement routine, I don’t think about that until I get to… I mean, I don’t have a character with a supplement routine, but were I writing it, I would not work that supplement routine out until I hit a scene where I was like, “Oh, my character absolutely is going to have supplements here and I need to know what they are.” But otherwise, I don’t sit down and work it out. I tend to think of it as sort of there are… The ones that I need to work out ahead of time are the plot specific ones, the ones that are going to shape the way the plot works. Then there are other ones that are kind of what I think of as the decorative ones that are the ones that affect the way maybe my character interacts with the plot. But doesn’t necessarily shift the course of the plot.
[Dan] Let’s pause here for our book of the week. Which is, actually, you, Mary Robinette. You were going to tell us about Craft in the Real World.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Craft in the Real World by Matthew Salesses is a craft book. Normally we’re giving you fiction to read, but I actually think that every writer should read this book. It’s looking at the biases that we bring to fiction based on the ways that we… The fiction that we have read and the societies that we move through. You think, “Really? Biases? Do we have them?” One of the examples that he gives in this book is how we’ve all been taught not to… When we do dialogue tags, to do like said or asked, and not to do things like inquired or queried. He says the problem is if someone grows up in another culture and they are taught to write… That queried is the invisible one. So they are always like, “my character queried, queried my character.” If they come to a writing workshop in a culture that is an ask culture, and they write queried, everybody in that workshop is going to be like, “Why do you keep using this word? Go with the invisible word.” One of the things he talks about is how ESL writers will often read something like written by a native English speaker and be like, “Why do they keep reusing the same word? Why do they keep reusing said? Don’t they know any other words?” It’s about the inherent worldview that they’re approaching their writing with. So this is, I think, a great book to read in general, and specifically a good book to read when you’re thinking about the biases that your character is carrying, because a lot of those biases are biases that they’re inheriting from you as the writer.
[Dan] That’s awesome. So that is Craft in the Real World by Matthew Salesses.
[Dan] A lot of what we’ve been talking about reminds me of a funny thing that a creative writing professor showed us one time where someone had taken a story set in the modern day, but written in the style of Isaac Asimov. Where he is explaining the technology behind everything that he encounters…
[Dan] Including wooden doors and door knobs…
[Dan] And automobiles and all of this stuff. Which, in a science fiction book, we kind of accept as well, yes, you need to explain to us how this door opened by itself, but putting it into the real world really gave it that context of, “Well, duh, we don’t need to know this. Why does this character feel it important to tell us about how a car turns on when you turn the key?” That’s a lot of what you’re talking about here, where the point of view that we’re getting the world through is going to change what details about the world we get. I find that a really valuable perspective.
[Fonda] Yeah. I think that if you think about the genre of dystopian fiction, dystopia is a point of view. So if you rewrote the Hunger Games from the point of view of a middle class to upper class person living in the capitol, it would be a completely different story. I mean, they would be, “Who are these district 12 rebels? Insurgents, insurrectionists, who are here to destroy society?” So if you take that perspective of, like, everyone is living in their own world and there are people in our world who are living in very dystopian situations, every… If you decide you’re going to tell a story about a… let’s say a fictional city that you have made up. Is that story being told from the point of view of someone who has power and is privileged or somebody who is living in the sewer system? Those lead you to completely different stories. Neither one is correct. There’s no right or wrong in terms of which perspective that you decide to write about. But that choice is going to fundamentally drive your world building needs. There is a minor character in the Green Bone saga who’s the most hated character in that trilogy. But he plays a really valuable role from the perspective of the narrative because he is outside of the system that all the other main characters inhabit. Now, 90% of the time, you are spending time with the characters in this one family that they are very entrenched in their world and their culture. There is this one minor character who is not. Every time you step out into his point of view, you get a very different view of the world.
[Dan] Is that Bero?
[Fonda] It is.
[Dan] I actually love that character.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah, I do too.
[Dan] This is, I think, a super important thing to bring up. Because I worry that some of our listeners are hearing us talk about this perspective driven world building, and finding it limiting. Really, this is an opportunity for you to expand your world in whatever direction you need it to go. One of the problems world builders have, we call this world building disease, where fantasy writers and science fiction writers, we just craft this enormous gargantuan world, and most of it, we don’t actually need to put into the book. This is how you can put some of that into the book. If there’s a part of your world building you find especially compelling or interesting, but your main plot doesn’t necessarily focus on it, you can add in a side character who does or a subplot of some kind that will interact with it. That is how you can get that cool thing you’re excited about into the book.
[Mary Robinette] Or you can write a short story that is set in the same world if you don’t want to have story bloat.
[Dan] Yeah. [Garbled]
[Howard] One of the things that I fall back on all the time is the unreliable narrator. This is not the unreliable narrator of literary fiction where do I believe what this person is… No. This is the person who just says something in order to fill us in about some world details and I, the author, do not know whether they are right or wrong. I only know that they think they’re right, and I might be wrong when I first wrote that dialogue for them. I’ll find out later. This principle, the unreliable narrator, the… Oh, I forget his name, he was the story bible guy for Elder Scrolls Online from 2014 through I think almost 2020. He looked at the old Elder Scrolls games and was like, “Oh, no. Your stories are so inconsistent. You contradict your… Well, I have a solution. The solution is nobody says anything about the world except through the eyes of a character who might be wrong, might be right. Tada! Everything has now resolved itself. How old is the city? Eh, the city’s about 500 years old. No, the city is 750 years old. No, the city is 2000 years old. It’s built on another city that was built on another city that was… They’re all right or they’re all wrong.” It doesn’t matter, and it makes the world building so much easier when I let go of that and just allow myself to make mistakes, but my characters take the blame.
[Dan] Well, that is going to lead us right into our homework. Fonda, what homework do we have today?
[Fonda] I would like your listeners to take a favorite story of yours and reimagine it from a different point of view. Take a side character, a non-POV character, and imagine how your world building needs would be different if it was told from someone else’s point of view. So, as an example, let’s say you wanted to tell the story of Harry Potter from the point of view of the Minister of Magic. So what different world building needs would you need, would you have as a result of that story being told from a completely different perspective?
[Dan] Sounds great. Well, this is Writing Excuses. You are out of excuses. Now go write.