Sunday, July 22, 2012

You Are My World: Character Development as World Building

As a historical novelist, I often get asked, "When do you know if you've done enough research?"

My apologies to the historical novelists who want to know more about doing research--that's not the topic today.  I'm actually going to talk about another aspect of my answer to this question.  I know it's time to start writing when I can see the world as my character would see it. 

It's so jarring when you start reading a historical novel and the character is more like a modern kid in a historical world than a historical figure, so it's essential that I can see the historical setting I'm writing about as if I were someone from that era which includes his/her pscyhological approach as well as his/her view of the times.  I refer to this as character's worldview. 

Character worldview is an element of character development that is quite a bit like world building from one character's perspective.  Then again,  should know the worldview of all of the characters in your story so, it would be more accurate to say it's world building one character at a time.

Let's talk about what goes into worldview.  For starters, imagine you're in an art gallery, standing with a group of folks looking at a work of art that reminds you of the days when you used to use your scissors to shave old crayons onto wax paper,* then your teacher used an iron to melt them into an elementary school version of a stain glassed window.  The guy next to you starts going on about existential expressions of color and a girl at the end is standing close enough to smell the paint, wondering if the artist mixed his own colors.  Meanwhile, a lady with three colored pencils holding her bun in place is texting a friend in Fiji to say she needs a good recipe for spiked fruit punch for a party she's hosting for a 100 close friends and one tempermental art critic.  Here, we see an example of worldview at work--each person looking (or pretending to look) at this work of art has a unique perspective on it.

It is a character's unique view of the world invoked by a work of fiction that allows us to see our own world in a new light.  For this reason, you need to develop your characters' individual view of the world which is an expression of voice, character motivation, and backstory.  We see the world the way we do because of our own life experiences-- to understand a character's perspective on the world-- we need to know how past experiences have shaped him/her, how s/he would describe things, and what motivates each character to see things in a certain way.

Take this scene from Nissa's Place (Milkweed) as an example. Look at how the differences in worldview between these two best friends shapes this scene.  Follow me to Louisiana in 1935, to go flower picking with Nissa Bergen and her best friend (maybe) Mary Carroll:

A bit later, Mary came bounding out onto the porch in a dress with her hair dangling down her back.  She even had her school shoes on.  “Hey there, Nissa!”

            “What are you wearing?”  I walked around her to take a good look.

            “Nothing fancy.”  She tried to look all modest, but she kept smiling like she’d just won a cake walk and claimed a triple decker chocolate cake with coconut frosting for her prize. 

            “You can’t go picking flowers in that.”  I pointed at her dress.  “You’ll get it all full of stickers and you could rip it.”

            “We might meet someone while we’re out picking flowers,” Mary announced.  “I don’t want to look like some crop picking boy.”  She waved at my overalls, averting her eyes like my clothes were unfit to even look at.

            “Who are we going to meet that’s going to give an owl’s hoot what we’re wearing?”

            Mary bowed her head, then did a weird kind of half turn like she’d gone soft in the hips or something. “Gary Journiette,” she whispered.

            “Gary Journiette?” I laughed.  “The boy who wears britches so full of holes you could use them as a fish net?”

            “He does no such thing.  Gary wears fine clothes.”

            “Are you blind as well as stupid?”  I shook my head.  “Just last week, I saw him walking down Quince Road wearing a shirt with the pockets flapping in the breeze like two string tied butterflies.”

            “Stop trash talking Gary!”

            “All right.”  I leaned in close so I could see the sweat on Mary’s nose well enough to count each bead.  “But in that thing your thighs will be sweating like a boiler tender in no time.  I’m not listening to you complain about prickly heat for the next three weeks.”  As I gave Mary a piece of my mind, I noticed a smell.  Not a stench really, but a nose biting odor that struck me as a cross between pine sap and baking soda.  “What is that smell?”


            “Per-what?”  My ears felt like they’d been turned inside out.  “Do you want every wing flapping bug in Tucumsett Parish to be swarming around us while we’re flower picking?”

            “It’s pretty.”

            “It stinks!  And I’m not going anywhere with anybody wearing no perfume!”

            “Fine then.  I won’t go picking with you, Nissa Bergen!  I’ll go all by myself.”

            “You do that.”  I turned and walked off.

            Stomping down Quince Road with my bucket knocking me in the knees, I thought, God, what now?  Do I have to give up my best friend too?  First Mama, now Mary Carroll.  Everybody was leaving me in one way or the other.  At the open field on the far side of Sutton’s Creek, I realized I’d cursed at God.  Shaking my head, I tried to clear out all my anger.  Just let out into the air so it could fly off somewhere.

            Dropping to the ground, I stared up into the sky.  Why do people have to be so dumb?  It was a question to God, really.  My way of apologizing for accusing Him of taking my best friend away.  He did no such thing.  It was Mary who was leaving me of her own accord.  Just like Mama.  What I didn’t understand was why Mary would be such a fool on account of Gary Journiette.  No man’s worth prickly heat and more bug bites than a toad’s got warts.  Why can’t she just be the same old Mary and do her courting with Gary?  Mary and Gary, I said their names over in my head, then rolled over to bury my face in the grass.  Their stupid names rhymed.   Darn if they weren’t doomed to be married off some day.  I hated man-to-woman love - - all that silly flirting, courting, kissing, and swapping insides.  Not to mention the fighting, leaving, and divorcing part of it all.  People called it romantic love like it was something spectacular, but for me romance was a kind of insanity you never recovered from.  I prayed right then that I’d never look at a boy and think of courting for my entire life.  Assured that I was safe from future insanity due to courting, I stood up, then set off to pick flowers all by myself.

Here, you can see how the different worldviews on romance between these two girls provides a lot of the humor and angst in this particular scene-- and many scenes to come between them. Let's look at the elements of worldview here. First, backstory. Because of her parents' divorce, Nissa no longer believes in the concept of true love. In Mary's case, she idolizes her older sister April who has a literal string of promise rings-- well, actually they're strung on a necklace she left with Mary after she got married herself. Mary has an idealized view of marriage based on her sister and her parents who have been married for over a quarter of a century.

Next, we come to voice-- "Who's going to give an owl's hoot" is a distinctly Nissa saying.  I know because I made it up just for her.  Using unique turns of phrase that sound natural to the person, time period, and place is a great way to evoke dialect, era, and establish character voice simultaneously.  Likewise, Mary's more formal work choice and use of diction (until she's angry enough to tell Nissa to stop trashtalking Gary) shows a difference in her voice and within it becuase very few people use just one voice throughout their lives--we all code switch when moving from one sphere of our life to another or from one emotion to the other.

An additional aspect of voice to consider is the use of descriptive and figurative language--Nissa says Mary "kept smiling like she’d just won a cake walk and claimed a triple decker chocolate cake with coconut frosting for her prize" and Mary says she doesn't wan to look like some "crop picking boy" which distinguishes their voices and builds their world at the same time becuase we know they live in an agrarian society that still has cake walks (think musical chairs with cakes as a prize).  

Speaking of revealing things-- when characters share their worldview they also unveil something of their psychological motivation.  Mary never comes straight out and says she is wearing a dress because she wants to attract the romantic attentions of one Gary Journiette, but we know this because of what she says and does, so we infer it from the slant of her dialogue and behavior. We also know a lot about Nissa's psychological reaction to Mary's courting tendencies because of how she views romance as "an insanity you never recover from." 

Knowing the worldviews of each character in a given scene, story, or novel allows you to add layers of tension, irony, and meaning within the text.  It also provides you with a way to add complexity and depth to your secondary and tertiary characters to up the ante in terms of the realism of your worldbuilding whether you're writing a mystery, fantasy, or historical story. 

Overall, worldview not only allows readers to see the world in a new light, but it allows them to emerse themsleves in the lives of other people without being accused of eavesdropping.  Please let me know if you have any questions-- I love questions, especially if they cause me to learn new things becuase the more we know, the more we can imagine, the more we can imagine, the more we can create!

Please share your own insights on worldview.  I'd love to hear them!

*Recently, I learned that one way to get an old fashioned metal slide to be really zinging fast, is to slide down on wax paper first. It's the land sharks version of waxing your board (a sliding board in this case). You never know when you might be able to use such info in building a character's. Thanks, Marty!