World-Building From The Inside Out

advice, drama, screenwriting, storytelling, T.V. writing

Your story’s world is a reflection — a result — of what’s happening inside your characters.

The world doesn’t create the character. The character creates the world around her. You create the world around you.

Like a prism refracting colors or a digital projector — the image starts with the emotional footprint inside your main characters. You project this inner image outside them. That becomes their world.

Here’s how it works: I believe I can be successful, that I deserve success — so I act in ways that confirm that belief. I filter what I see for stories that confirm that belief and fail to see those that don’t. I set up my world in ways that support this belief. I gradually adhere to a system of rules that affirm this belief. Rules like if you don’t hold on to what you’ve got, it may be taken away from you and you don’t deserve success, you earn it. These rules build out and become my world. I don’t even recognize parts of the world that don’t agree. I know I’m in Julie-world because Julie-world is defined by these rules — rules that started inside me and served me at one time, and then, because I gave them power-of-attorney over my life, grew strong like a sentient computer program and jumped outside my head and started governing the world around me. Now, not only do I walk around following these rules in my head — but I insist on seeing the world as if this is how the world operates too. Because Julie-world starts inside me and is projected, reflected out. Julie-world is something I inflict on the world.

Many storytellers will start world-building by asking themselves tons of questions — how does this place work? what are the physical laws, political laws, cultural rules of this period — what does this place look like? —

Start by asking how these characters work — what are their internal physical laws, political laws, cultural rules — these answers will tell you what this place looks like. If your characters are haunted by past lives they can’t shake, their environs will be haunted. They may even have established an elaborate system of rules, laws, customs, moral strictures disallowing the past from sticking around — this started inside them. If your characters are liars, they will inhabit a world of false fronts. If your characters love, they inhabit a world that loves.

Worlds aren’t built top-down (what galaxy is this?), bottom-up (what does a wedding ring look like?) — worlds are built inside out. What don’t you know about yourself, that we can see all around you? What rules are you following unconsciously? These rules limn your world.

You build their world by establishing the rules that govern them.

The world IS the rules. And the rules are a by-product of the emotional life of your main characters — a structure organizing their hopes and fears. Because deep down they think that by following these rules they’ll get what they want.

Worlds are anchored, buoyed inside our main characters’ guts. The more the characters’ guts direct their outer world, the more we feel the piece. The bigger emotional impact. Bigger experience. The more we feel like we live in this world. These are people in our world.

A given character could walk into my house and her world would still be different from my world. Because her world isn’t bound by geography, it’s bound by the rules she feels she’s bound by. They feel they’re bound by.

The world is symptoms helping us diagnose what’s going on inside the character. Eczema doesn’t just exist and then a person finds himself inside it: he produces it. We see the skin rash, and that’s how we know what’s going on inside him. This strange place exists because they do, because they are the way they are and their world can’t be any other way. When they change, their world changes. Often, that’s how we know a character has changed — we see their world change.

107 thoughts on “World-Building From The Inside Out

  1. Excellent post. I started reading assuming it was going to be about fantasy world-building, and then realized that even the “real” world is full of our individual fantasies. The same principles apply — thanks for the cool spin on characterization! Hope you don't mind if we include this in our Friday round-up of best posts for writers.


  2. I really liked this post. I've noticed when we're working on scenes in class, the comments people make have not that much to do with what the actors are doing, and much more to do with what's going on inside the commenters. True of every day conversations, too.

    And funny, your image is by friends of mine at EMSL! When worlds collide . . .

  3. That's so cool that you know the creators of that image. I love it and am glad to be able to use beautiful images that people have allowed to be shared (with credit).
    Thanks for liking the post. Yeah, your observation is exactly what I mean — we're always talking about ourselves I think, no matter what we're talking about. I'm glad I managed to communicate that in my abstract way.
    Thanks so much for commenting…
    X Julie

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