Writing Excuses 14.05: Viewpoint As Worldbuilding
Key Points: Worldbuilding using character viewpoint? How do you integrate setting into your characters? Start with the way the character interacts with the world, both physically and emotionally. Use actions and dialogue to show us assumptions and attitudes, how things work, without lengthy info dumps. Use two or more characters with different backgrounds or opinions, different viewpoints, to give the reader information about the thing, about the characters, and about the unreliable viewpoint. One way to use viewpoint to intersect with worldbuilding is in the way characters describe other characters. The same character seen through the eyes of two different characters can be very different. Think about how the character’s voice directs the narrative versus keeping the narrative safe and trustworthy. First person, the character runs everything. Third person, you need to balance. Some voice, some straight narration. To make your worldbuilding richer, think about what people swear by, who makes what jokes, and how your character interacts with the environment. A room with marble floors comes to life when heels clack across it.
[Mary Robinette] Season 14, Episode Five.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Viewpoint As Worldbuilding.
[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Brandon] One of my personal favorite topics… Perhaps even hobby horses, is to talk about how to worldbuild by using character viewpoint. I love it when books do this. In fact, it is one of the things that when I pick up a book, if the first chapter does, the first page does, I know I’m going to have a good time, at least with that character. I really like it. I want to talk about how we do it. So, how do you make setting an integrated part of your characters?
[Mary Robinette] I think a lot of it is the way the character interacts with it, not just physically, but also emotionally. That… the weight that things carry. So, using Jane Austen as an example, someone can… Like, two characters can look at each other, and that’s no big deal. But when Austen handles it, she gives you that emotional weight. It’s like she… And I’m thinking specifically in Persuasion, there’s this scene when Capt. Wentworth pulls a small child off of Anne Elliott’s back, and there’s a moment where he’s touching her. The emotional weight of that tells you, as a modern reader, that oh, there is no touching. This is… There is a lot going on between these two. It is… It gives you all of these layers of detail, while just being a physical interaction in the world. So that’s the kind of thing that I find very interesting.
[Dan] One, very similar to that, is in Age of Innocence, when he takes her glove off. It is so steamy, and it’s just a glove. But it tells you so much about the world and what it’s like and the rules they have to follow.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Yeah, you do that. It’s actually one of the things I enjoy in the Stormlight, is the safe hand.
[Brandon] Right. Right. The safe hand came from… So, for those who aren’t familiar. Society has eroticized the bare left hand of women. This has all kinds of social implications, and all kinds of… People always want to ask me, they want to say, “Why?” They often come to me, “Why, why is this?” I can answer. From, like, I… In the worldbuilding, the past, well, there were these events and these influential writings that happened, and then there was some institutionalized sexism that insp… But really, the answer is, “Why? Because that’s how their culture is.”
[Brandon] That’s how they see things. It’s not why because they are like, “Well, when my great…” No. They’re just like, “This is how my culture is.” Then that culture becoming a big part of how people see the world is the sort of thing that I just love.
[Dan] You just look at all the different cultures on Earth today and the cultural assumptions that we carry and assume are common to the entire human race. Then you go to another country, and it’s… They’ve never even heard of it before. You realize that we do this all the time.
[Howard] Last season, we had an episode on confronting the default, in which we talked about exactly that. When I wrote, I think it was Scrap Ante for Privateer Press, they wanted me to develop a character for them… Develop an existing character. They wanted me to give a POV to a character who was a mechanic… And this, they’ve got game fic… They’ve got game stuff surrounding this guy already. Who is a mechanic, and he needed to sound like a mechanic, and they wanted to talk a little bit about how these things work. Then it needed to not be boring. So I created a mystery in which someone is sabotaging a Warjack, and in as lean writing as I could, I have this mechanic digging in and finding out that somebody has swapped a part that looks like another part, and he has names for all of these, and he’s rattling them off the way a mechanic would. In the course of writing this, I started lifting names and altering them a little bit from actual steam engines and diesel engines and whatever else. When I sent it into the Privateer Press guys, Doug, who’s the chief worldbuilder, read it and said, “you have done something that I have been terrified to do forever.” Which is explain how these things work.
[Howard] They loved it. It read like a fun story, and it was all POV. It was not, “Oh, this is how the magic flows through the whatever.” It’s just a guy fixing a thing and looking for a problem, and then determining that somebody had sabotaged this to kill him.
[Dan] So. An example from one of my books. In the Partials series, one of the things that I wanted to play with for the worldbuilding was the generational divide. People who remember life before the apocalypse and the kids who have grown up in a post-apocalyptic world. So I had the chance then to start with two or three chapters entirely from this teenage point of view, just describing a normal world. She didn’t think it was scary, she wasn’t constantly concerned with the things that they had lost. Then, we finally get to a meeting with adults, and they spend their whole time bemoaning how rustic everything is. Just the difference between their attitudes immediately tells you a lot about the world and the society.
[Brandon] Yeah. That’s one of the things I like the most is when you can take two different characters and describe the same thing, the same event, or the same cultural mores, and then, with those two contrasting opinions, the reader is given a bunch of information. They are, number one, told about the thing. Right? You’re getting the worldbuilding. But you’re, number two, told about the characters. You’re told what they find important and valuable, or what they notice. But, number three, you’re also told viewpoint is untrustworthy.
[Brandon] Which is a really important thing with these sorts of stories.
[Dan] That can make it very difficult. If you want to do that, that’s something that you might need to refine and polish quite a bit, because your readers of the first or second draft might say, “Oh, you’ve got an inconsistency here.” No, I don’t. You need to look at who is saying it, and maybe I need to finesse this a little bit so that that is more clear.
[Howard] The number of times I have taken an inconvenient fact about the Schlock Mercenary universe and backtracked it to determine who said it…
[Howard] And then ascertained, “Oh. That person is actually allowed to be wrong about this.” Did the narrator ever… Nope! Narrator didn’t… Did a footnote ever… Nope! Oh, this is awesome.
[Howard] This is awesome. I am off the hook.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. I have… There’s a timeline problem in the Lady Astronaut universe. Because when I wrote the novelette, I was just like, “Eh, it’s a one-off.” I wrote it. I didn’t do a lot of worldbuilding. Basically, when I got into doing the actual hard-core how long does it take to get people into space when you’re kickstarting a space program… I’m like, “Oh. Elma’s just wrong.”
[Mary Robinette] About some of her memories. She’s just conflating them.
[Dan] Just misremembering.
[Mary Robinette] Just misremembering.
[Brandon] I run into this a lot. But it is nice to establish viewpoints that are untrustworthy for this sort of reason.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. So a book that I’m reading right now that’s doing a really interesting job of this shifting viewpoint is Semiosis by Sue Burke. It’s a multigenerational novel. So you will move forward like an entire generation, and it’s a colony world. So the first generation are the first people on the planet. Then the next generation are kids who’ve grown up there. The way they view their parents versus… The worldbuilding is fascinating, because… They’re… You see how they’re shifting and how the culture is shifting to adapt to the place that they’re living. It’s really, really interesting. It’s all POV that’s doing it.
[Brandon] Now, that is not our book of the week, but it would be a good book for people to read.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah.
[Brandon] Dan actually has our book of the week.
[Dan] Yeah. The book of the week actually hits this topic perfectly. It is Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi. Which is a YA fantasy. Big secondary world fantasy set in a world inspired by Africa. What’s fascinating about it… Many things are fascinating about it. But pertinent to this discussion, there are three viewpoint characters. It’s a world where magic has been stolen. No one can do it anymore. The people who used to be able to do it are an oppressed class. So one of our viewpoints is one of these kind of former mage people. Then we have a princess who has been sheltered her entire life and runs away from home. Then we have her brother who is struggling with the King’s policies. So they all have completely different ideas about what the world should look like and what it does look like and how they want to change it. It’s really fascinating to see the interplay of those viewpoints as you go through.
[Brandon] Excellent. That is Children of Blood and Bone. I was on a panel with her, and she was really interesting. Had some really cool things to say about magic. So I anticipate it being a great book. Emily really liked it.
[Dan] Yes. She describes the book as Black Panther but with magic.
[Brandon] She does.
[Brandon] Now, one of my favorite ways to use viewpoint in worldbuilding, to intersect them, is by the way the characters describe other characters.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah.
[Brandon] I first picked up on this as a young person reading The Wheel of Time, where… And I’m not going to be able to quote these exactly. I’m sorry, Wheel of Time fans, but you have one character who would describe someone and say, “Wow. They look like they spend most of their day at the forge.” Then another character describes the same person and says something along the lines of “Wow. If you beat that person at cards, leave early. Because otherwise, they’ll jump you in the back alley.” Those two descriptions are both “This is a tough, intimidating person.” But seen through the eyes of two very different characters. I love this sort of thing. Description. Now, my question for you guys is, do you ever worry about the blend of… When you’re in narrative, how much you’re going to let the character’s voice direct the narrative and how much you’re not?
[Mary Robinette] It does depend on whether… Which voice you’re using. Are you using first person, or are you using tight third? Because first person, all over the place. It’s no problem. But with tight third… With third person, it is a tricky line. Because what I find is that the… Unless it is very obviously voice-y, that the reader will interpret that as being safe and trustworthy. So I tend to try to be fairly honest when I’m doing narration that is less flavored than when I’m doing something that… If I’m doing free indirect speech, I try to… That’s… I try to reserve the perceptions for those.
[Brandon] Yeah. I always kind of go back and forth on this, because, of course, Robert Jordan did very much a lot of tight thirds. There would be these moments where it felt like it was right in their head, and other times when the narrator was speaking. He balanced it really well. I’m always a little scared about that. Because you do want the narrator, the non-present narrative, to be trustworthy. But you want the viewpoint of the character to maybe not be.
[Mary Robinette] Sometimes it’s a thing that you can do… I was just reading The Killing of Kings by Howard Andrew Jones. It’s not… At the time of recording, it is not yet out. But one of the things that he does is there is this character who’s constantly… Male character who’s constantly looking at women with a very male gaze. Like, constantly looking at boobs and ass. Just all the time. Then will say things like, “I don’t understand why this woman doesn’t like me.”
[Brandon] Right. Right.
[Mary Robinette] “It’s like she’s always so cold and distant. There’s always a piece of furniture between us.” I’m like, “Yep. Yes, there is. Absolutely, yes, there is.” But it is… It’s deftly handled, because he is staying absolutely true to the character’s point of view. But by giving us very obvious physicality and recognizable body language from the other character, he’s telling us how this behavior is actually perceived in the world.
[Brandon] Later in the year, we’re going to do an entire week on writing imperfect worlds. Or imperfect characters. With… Using topics like this, not validating but acknowledging that some people are like this. We will cover that. It’s going to be in a few months, but we are going to get to that. That is one of the… That’s like Using Viewpoint and Character Level 501.
[Brandon] Being able to pull off some of this stuff.
[Brandon] Before we go out, any tips for writers on making their sentences, particularly their worldbuilding sentences, do more than one thing at once?
[Howard] What do these people swear by? I love that. My favorite examples of this currently are from the various different NPCs in the ESO world, where they swear by different gods. They are consistent in the way this works. It adds a measure of depth. Because some of them will swear by those gods, and somebody who is from the same culture will never utter those words. You can now tell that those two people are actually different. That’s not the sort of thing that you expect to see… Well, if you grew up with video games. It’s not the sort of thing that you expect to see in a videogame. But videogame writing has progressed to the point that we are expecting that level of worldbuilding, especially in dialogue that has to be read by an actor in a way that sounds conversational and believable.
[Dan] Very similar to that, and I’m starting to notice this more as I read… In the current science fiction that I’m reading, is what our people allowed to make jokes about. Which jokes can come from which species in the space station? And things like that.
[Mary Robinette] I would say, for me, the tip that I would hand to our listeners is to make sure that your character is interacting with their environment. Which is where I started us, but I’m going to give a really concrete example. Like, I can describe a room and say, “The room had marble floors, tall vaulted ceilings, and green velvet curtains.” That tells you what the room looks like. But if I say, “My character’s heels clacked across the marble floor as she strode to the window. The velvet was soft against her skin as she pushed the curtains back.” You know so much more about the character and the world. So you’re getting both things at the same time. I think that’s going to make it feel richer to the reader, as well.
[Brandon] Awesome. Howard, you’ve got some homework for us.
[Howard] I do. This is the from-within, from-without episode, the Buck Rogers, Wilma Deering, the Twoflower, Rincewind. Take a character who is alien to the culture or the setting that you are writing within. But obviously has a reason to be there. Describe things from their point of view. Now describe those same things from the point of view of a native. Somebody who’s grown up there, who’s been there, who is familiar with it.
[Brandon] Excellent. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.