September 2021: Characterisation and Worldbuilding

Individuals are the result of their own decisions, but the decisions they are presented with are determined by the characteristics of the society they live in. Needless to say, the same is true for fictional characters living in fictional societies.

What this means to a creator is that the characterisations of the figures which populate their narrative do not appear from thin air. They are, at their core, shaped by the prejudices of the societies which they grew up in, either because those prejudices have become their own, or because they have defined themselves in opposition or in contrast to those same prejudices. Ultimately, this means that the way characters speak, act, and carry themselves serve as a reflection of the world they inhabit. This is an important thing to get right, for two reasons. First of all, it makes characters exist as believable inhabitants in the setting they live in. Secondly, and just as importantly, when a character acts as a representative of their setting, they are also conveying to the audience details about that setting which would otherwise have to be delivered less elegantly through direct exposition. To have characters act in a way which reflects and compliments the setting their inhabit doesn’t just serve characterisation, but it serves the purpose of expositing worldbuilding as well. 

So how does a creator “get it right”? How does a creator build a character which believably inhabits the world they live in?

The key to this, I think, is to remember that all human beings (and any non-human, but human-like beings) are possessed of a subjective worldview. They only know what they’ve experienced and what they’ve learned and what they’ve intuited from what they’ve experienced and learned – which means their view of how the world works, and how it’s supposed to work are determined by the world they live in. To someone without knowledge of aircraft or cars, a horse at gallop is ‘extremely fast’. To someone who’s used to thinking in terms of furlongs and paces, a hundred kilometres is an massively long distance. People build their understanding of the world and the society they live in based on their own limited understanding. They can only act on what they know, and what they think they know, and fictional characters are the same.

This is an important point because people are not born knowing things. Everything we know and every method we use to come to conclusions based on what we know is taught to us by someone else. “Common sense” is a great rhetorical term, but it doesn’t actually exist – it’s a set of beliefs and prejudices which are so accepted in a given society that they are treated as universal, even if they aren’t. Likewise, it’s this set of consensus beliefs which are often first taught to be a person. After all, “common” sense can hardly be seen as common unless almost everyone around shares the same definition of it. People grow up absorbing these “common”, or hegemonic beliefs from those around them: their family, their friends, their teachers. This is what ultimately shapes their worldview – and what they believe to be the “correct” ways of speaking, thinking, and acting – because these individuals – as representatives of their society – are the primary sources of information a person has.

But what are these common beliefs? This is where worldbuilding becomes a factor. In a stable society, the majority of its members believe that the status-quo is good, or at least bearable. This isn’t because they’ve necessarily been brainwashed to think so, but because their society itself is a compromise between different interest groups, who have come to believe that their needs are best met by remaining members of that society. This is where “common sense” often springs from: the idea that the continuation of society is good, and therefore the beliefs which perpetuate the power relations and social constructs which keep that society intact are also good: this is where we get the idea of societal norms, of what people are “supposed” to do – and it is these concepts which normally serve as the foundation of how a person within a given society thinks and acts.

What does this mean in practise? Take for example (once again), the European military aristocracy. Here, we have a group of people whose role in society was to protect the interests of others through military force. As a result, they claimed the right to support themselves as professional soldiers by maintaining landed estates worked by serfs. The result of this power dynamic was a set of expected behaviours and prejudices, a codex of “common sense” which that society perpetuated for the sake of its own stability. Aristocrats were expected to behave with ‘honour’ towards their social inferiors to justify their role as protectors, and towards each other, to prevent the class from dying out as a whole. They were expected to rule over the tenants of their estates for “their own good”, again, in their role as protectors. In return, they were expected to be professional soldiers first and foremost – with skill at arms and the perpetuation of the bloodline (therefore creating more “protectors” for the estate) were prized over formal education; or even in many cases, what we might consider basic compassion. This system of behaviours was seen to justify the power and wealth which the aristocracy possessed as a “good thing”, and in turn, social pressure was imposed on the aristocracy (often by other aristocrats) to behave in such a manner to maintain the continued existence of a society where the aristocracy enjoyed such privileges. The society which these individuals inhabited encouraged them to behave a certain way, to hold certain prejudices, and follow certain beliefs – and likewise punished them for doing otherwise, which meant that it was no surprise that as a class, the majority of this group acted in a way which reflected the role which their society had reserved for them.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that every individual is nothing more than a deterministic product of their society. Being raised for a certain role within society does not ensure that someone will necessarily turn out the way their society intends them to. Even in the most tightly controlled and rigidly policed societies, there are ways for individuals to grow to question the assumptions which are supposed to form the basis of their behaviour: whether through the tutelage of other dissenters, or through a first-hand understanding of the hypocrisies and contradictions of their own position. However, their dissent still rests on the assumptions which form their worldview. The “liberal nobles” of the French Revolution turned against the ancien regime because they believed that the old system had failed to fulfil the obligations which they still believed was the duty of the aristocracy. Likewise, Most good-faith socialists dissent from the orthodoxy of liberalism not because they reject its premises wholesale, but because they see a capitalist system as incapable of providing the maximised personal freedom which liberalism is supposed to strive towards. Rebellious princesses are still rebellious in context to their expected social role. An outlaw operates against the law, but the law must still exist for the outlaw to exist.

This is all to say that even when individuals dissent from the assumptions and prejudices of their society, they still tend to do so in a way which reflect that society, even if it is only to define themselves as an enemy of that society’s abuses. Even an individual in rebellion is in many ways defined by the assumptions and prejudices of the world they are rebelling against, and the essence of their acts and words of rebellion are informed by their subjective view of their own society, rather than formed out of whole cloth. Even acts of rebellion need to be against something, and that “something” will determine a rebel’s methods, beliefs, and goals just as readily as it determines that of the loyalists who fight against them.

Ultimately, what this means is that for a character to be believable in the context of the setting they inhabit, their thoughts and actions have to be consistent in one way or another with the way that the setting has made them. By doing so, a creator not only allows their audience to understand a character’s motivations and the origins of their virtues and flaws through understanding the setting, but it also reinforces the assumption that characters also serve as a reflection of the society they are from. If the audience can reliably believe that characters reflect the societies they come from, and the societies they come from are represented by those characters, then audiences will be able to gain a deeper appreciation for both setting and character: the former by seeing how an individual’s actions are affected by a given society’s beliefs and practises – and the latter by providing believable motivations for their actions, even if those actions may not seem fair or rational by the standards of the audience.

That’s why it’s important to ensure that characters introduced to an existing setting behave in a way consistent to that setting. When worldbuilding defines characters, then characterisation becomes worldbuilding: the character becomes more believable because the audience can understand their motivations through their understanding of the setting – and the setting becomes more believable because they can see how individuals might inhabit the fictional societies which populate it.

So far, I’ve been writing with the assumption that the creator is writing a new character into an existing setting. This is generally how I do things – but it doesn’t have to be the only way to do things. Creators looking to write more character-driven narrative may consider doing the opposite: writing a story around the actions of the characters, or even a character concept and then building a setting around it to help justify those actions. While it’s not how I personally prefer to do things, it is a perfectly valid approach to take, and can create just as believable a fictional setting when done right – because ultimately, that believability isn’t necessarily about the world itself, but its relationship to the characters that inhabit it.

It’s important to remember that “setting” and “character” are intertwined concepts. While it’s possible to prioritise one over the other to suit a particular form of storytelling, a creator cannot ignore one of the two entirely if they mean to tell an impactful story in a fictional world. A creator who masters the ability to work with both – and more importantly, the ability to make one interact with the other in interesting ways – will find their works the better for it.

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