The Champion: A character focused world build

In the last world building article I covered my three main types of world builds, Character Centered, Conflict Centered and World Centric. Each was similar in some ways but differed in what its nexus or seed was. Much as a plant grows from a seed in the wild, a world build also has a seed.

Today’s seed is a character or a cast of characters. To illustrate how to do a Character Centered build, I will quickly present a cast. This cast may not be fully realized, but the more understanding of this cast we have the better. It is important to note though, that being too rigid with a cast when building around them can have unintended negative consequences. If you are not familiar with “its what my guy would do” syndrome, simply put, it is when someone has a character who they refuse to compromise on at all. They refuse to change the character’s behavior or actions in any way even if the situation changes and makes the prior idea they may have had about what the character might to, seem out of place. You cannot do a character focused build while suffering from “its what my guy would do” syndrome.

If you have not read the first article in this series, I highly recommend checking it out here. Not only is it a good read, but it covers a lot of things we will reference later in the series.

Our Champion

So, on with the character focused building.

I want to create a new world. I have a character I have prepared ahead of the publishing of this article that I will reference here.

Remember, a character focused build needs a reasonably well understood concept. I had to make a character for this article to work. If you do not have a character idea yet, you can keep reading along with us anyway as the prototypes will guide you through the process this time.

My character for this world build is one I may re-use for later articles, as is the world. In-fact I may do a more in depth fleshing out of this character for use in other article series for example. For now I will give my description of our new hero.

Meet Phlyn and Poff

Everyone seems to like an underdog, and I am no exception, so I proudly present to you Phlyn.

Phlyn is an elf with a leg deformity that makes it so he has to walk with a crutch or cane. He makes up for his disability by being very smart. His bad genes did not stop with a bum leg, he has severe far-sightedness and has to wear some heavy glasses to compensate. He uses his intellect to tinker and make machines, but people around him dont really understand his genius and sometimes they think he is nuts. He is sometimes shy but has a good heart when he exposes it. Phlyn is an analytical person who enjoys spending time reading and tinkering more than with other people. He wears cloth shirts and slacks, usually with a vest on in the sort of 1800s businessman style.

Phlyn’s best friend is a small robotic companion he created years ago when he put a strange stone that he found at a street market into one of his mechanical contraptions. For some reason, that stone caused what was planned to be a mechanized replacement for carrier pigeons into an object with which Phlyn was able to communicate somehow. No one else can hear the thing, and it does not speak words but rather in impressions and emotions. Phlyn named the machine “Poff” after the sound it makes when it starts up. Poff seems to be more mischievous than Phlyn but appears loyal to him. Sometimes Phlyn wonders if Poff is really alive or cursed.

The simple character design above is one that I came up with reasonably fast. Someday we will take a look at some character design techniques and how I do that too.

The outset

Now that you have met Phlyn and Poff I want to introduce you to the process of really starting a character centered build.Remember, this build style builds the world by focusing directly on a cast.

You have read a bit about both of my main cast so far, but to you, there may be some vital information left out of the description. Think of things that the description left unanswered by re-reading it. For me the first question that came up was the following

What sort of genre is this taking place in?

My answer to that comes as a result of my character design. I imagined Phlyn wearing a vest of some kind, with thick Steampunk style glasses. Poff was more of a golden orb hanging from a counter rotating set of helicopter blades and a giant “eye” style lens on one end with a grabber claw on the bottom. Phlyn is not unkempt but has shabby hair because he does not find hair a very interesting topic.

I am essentially just starting out with the visual image I have of Phlyn and his companion.

Because of this my first question is already answered. I know because of character design that the world I am creating is going to be exploring this sort of steam tech and has magic in it. Poff was brought to life by a magic stone after all.

Thanks to my character design, I know that one of my worlds foundations is this sort of steam punk, magitek world. Using my character, I described my world.

This is the style of thinking that Character Centered builds thrive on; using aspects of your character design to provide answers to your questions wherever possible.

Getting a basic setting

For my next couple of design choices, I will use clues all of which are sourced from the character. At first you want all of your questions to have answers directly from the design of your cast, this makes sure they fit and ensures you do not get too off topic while starting.

Because of design, I know Phlyn is:

  • Living with a deformity that limits his mobility
  • Tries to learn a lot and will need access to some specialized kinds of workers in order to tinker. (After all, Phlyn is not a farmer, he is not a smith or a miner.)
  • He is no outdoorsman and he is not a survivalist, he has a bum leg after all.

Therefore I am going to say that Phlyn lives in a city, a reasonably large one where we could expect to find trade, import and export of goods, but perhaps most important for someone like Phlyn, specialization. Since Phlyn cannot do all of the things to live on his own, he relies on others, and there are plenty of others in a large city. It also gives him a place where he has a chance to showcase or sell his wares or talents for tinkering without having to go too far from home to do it.

Because of Phlyn’s design, we know that at least part of our world is built around the idea of having a reasonably large city. Because I am going with a Magitek / steampunk design on my characters, I think I want to couple it with a Victorian Europe style of architecture and scenery in the city. My mental image of the character and resulting environs makes this fit well I think.

Since I know Phlyn to be a bit obsessive, I am going to say he spends a lot of his time tinkering, even free time. He probably works only to get money enough to live, or maybe lives off of his inventions but does not hold down a normal job, that’s just is not his style. As a result of his young age and his obsessive personality, he is not someone I envision having a large residence. He probably rents a room from a larger building in the city, filled with books and tinkering supplies.

Notice how as we build around Phlyn we are following him as a character. We design a world into which he is fitting. By doing character focused builds, we steadily expand that circle and there comes a point when we have built this sort of small foundation. To summarize thus far about our world:

Our world so far is the one in which Phlyn and Poff live. There is a large Victorian era city there and steam punk / magitek is a part of daily life in this world, it’s what Phlyn does at least. The city is going to generate trade and the surrounding countryside probably interacts with a city like that, supplying it with food and crops. There are probably miners and smiths in the city, Phlyn needs their help after all sometimes to make the metal parts of his machines.

Questioning Reality

We have this basic premise, but here is where we begin a process that is more or less similar through all types of builds. The difference though is of course that we are asking questions about our cast, about how they interact, work, live and breath in this world. Questions lead to answers which, can imply details of our world or set up more questions that we need to answer.

When I was considering Phlyn as a character, I sort-of had to think:

Is he the only person who messes with machines like this in the world?

My answer is:

No, he is not the only one

By asking the question, we now know that the world has at least a few people who tinker. Whenever we have this sort of group, we can imagine there are some more and less talented people involved in the job or hobby. Some probably do it for money, some may do it for the love of messing around. Some might do it at the point of a sword. All we know for now, is that there are a number of them. Lets keep the questions flowing, following and focusing on Phlyn some more.

How did Phlyn learn to do this?

Notice how some questions you ask yourself about your build may have instant answers while some require thought. For me this was an instant answer. Some of these are as much answers about the character itself, as they are about the world. This is important to remember. Here is the answer that came to mind for Phlyn’s case

Phlyn learned to tinker because he could not go out and get into mischief when he was a kid thanks to his bum leg. While he was in school with some of the other kids, he read books instead of playing at times. He liked the pictures in the books he read but eventually started learning about what they were. The school had only a few of these books so he became very well acquainted with them.

This answers some key questions for us, one, we now know more about Phlyn, but also, we can gather some details from this answer.

Firstly, we know that there is schooling in the world, our answer implies it. We also know Phlyn went to school with some of the other people that would inhabit this world. We also know that when Phlyn was a kid, there were some books about these subjects already written, but that there were only a few available in the school. We can utilize this detail.

Next, lets capitalize on school. We can say that Phlyn’s city has a few schools to which most of the normal people go when they are children.

Now lets exploit the detail about few books. I am going to decide that there were few books for learning from on the subject because its a relatively new science in the world. This sort of tinkering is “taking the world by storm” right now, and was really new when Phlyn was younger, that’s why the books he read from were so few and far between.

Now, if we updated our summary of the world it has expanded. Lets improvise a bit as we describe the world once more. I am going to add a “Tinker’s Guild” to the build because I sort-of like the idea personally. Maybe it would look more like this:

Our world so far is the one in which Phlyn and Poff live. There is a large Victorian era city there and steam punk / magitek is a part of daily life in this world, it’s what Phlyn does at least. The city is going to generate trade and the surrounding countryside probably interacts with a city like that, supplying it with food and crops. There are probably miners and smiths in the city, Phlyn needs their help after all sometimes to make the metal parts of his machines.

The city has a number of tinkerers in it and therefore, a variety of inventions. Some of them do it for fame and fortune, some for money and some for fun. As a result Phlyn’s city has a huge variety of the type of machines and inventions being used. There is enough interest in this kind of technology that someone like Phlyn can learn about it, but it is still not something everyone studies.

Because of how new the science is and how people are all trying to learn about it, there is at least one organization of “tinkers” that helps act as a sort of social circle for those who engage in the practice. Due to the disparity in talent of the tinkerers, some of the best are well off, employed by he city guard or rich people in the city to design security or guard systems.

There are some schools in the city for average people like Phlyn to get some basic learning done as children, but most of them don’t come out as “smart” as he did

Recursive question and Answer

Now that we have seen this process again, we recurse and do it over and over, our circle of questions grows as our circle of answers describes more.Every time we ask a question, we touch on a new answer. When we create that answer, we provide hooks for many new questions. This is how I view all world building at its core, a process of an expanding “circle of questions”

For example, based on the updated description, I caught myself asking the following among other questions:

  • What is the city’s name?

  • What is the tinker’s organization called?

  • Does Phlyn know any of the other inventors?

  • Is this city a hub of knowledge for this science?

  • What sort of government exists here?

  • What sort of inventions have other people or Phlyn come up with and why?

Remember, these are all questions that affect our main cast. These questions affect Phlyn’s character and daily life. While it might be tempting to think about dragons or something else, unless it ties to our cast, we should avoid asking about it. Focus on things that affect the characters and you will find that, if you are practiced enough you can ask that dragon question after all, and have it still tied to your cast. It does take practice and patience however.

I am not going to go through answering each of the abovequestions in this article, but suffice it to say that you can see the details are starting to expand, growing beyond just Phlyn himself, but always centered on what affects his life and his actions. While the circle of questions around Phlyn has expanded, they are all centered on the way it impacts him.

Don’t forget, I did not even start asking all about Poff yet, there are whole sections of a world that could be built due to Poff existing at all, but we won’t go through them all here. The important part is to be creative.

Round holes and round pegs

We already discussed how sometimes, building our world, also builds our character.

As I started thinking even more about Phlyn and his world, there were times when I had to decide if I wanted to have the world be a certain way, or whether I needed to adjust him to fit the world or plot I began to craft.

As the world took shape around my cast, I always had to re-evaluate where they stood within it. At times I felt the need to expand Phlyn’s character, perhaps to make room for a potential storytelling opportunity.

Perhaps to move a plot forward in a way that made sense, I had to give Phlyn a character flaw, like making him more selfish than I anticipated at first. I could use this as a growth opportunity if I wanted him to not be so selfish but can still use this failing at first, it satisfied both my needs. This is one reason it is important to approach your characters with an open mind, especially when using them to build a world.

It is always possible that your world will shape your character in unforeseen ways. This is natural and you should understand and embrace it. When your world and character conflict, try to find a way to be true to your character vision, while also bringing your character into the world.

As your world gets more fleshed out, it gets easier to see where these conflicts are and the ideas for resolving them pop up more readily. The important thing to remember though is that if your character feels out of place in the world, it will be noticed by those who experience your story.

You can suffer from it or exploit it, but most of the time, especially when inexperienced in storytelling, your better bet is to soften those conflicts enough that they do not destroy the suspension of disbelief.

Overall, Character centered building comes back to your cast. Always involve them in each step of the process, ask if they relate to a question you have about the world. By doing so you will start on your way to strong, Character Centered world builds in no time, with your favorite original characters.

Moving Forward

In the first world building basics article, we talked about the three methods

We have managed to take a slice at Character Centered world building today, but there are more techniques for world building that we can explore.

The next article in the world building basics series will cover the practice of Conflict Centered world building. In it, we will create a conflict and then, use that conflict as a base to branch out. When we do so, we will be able to see how the types of builds we have thus far explore, differ in their approach but have similiar goals. Stay tuned for the next article, and dont forget to check out the Codex for more applied world building goodness!