Questions for Your Cast

a brief guide to character creation without prior worldbuilding

Thu, 2 Dec 2021

I see so many writers complain that they’ve built a fantasy world in minute detail but still don’t have a story. Perhaps worldbuilding for its own sake is a mistake? Perhaps one should start with one’s characters and build the setting around them? How would one go about it?

I’ve found that the best way is to sic the Spanish Inquisition on the cast (because nobody expects it) and give each of them a turn in the comfy chair while I ask them a few simple questions.

This inquisition is not — or at least should not be — a one-time affair. While I have a good idea of who my major characters are, what they want, and why my characters’ motivations and aims may have changed based on my own learning and experience. If that’s the case, then the story that arises from my characters’ interactions and conflicts may also have changed.

I get some worldbuilding for free every time I ask these questions, since they expose details of the historical, social, economic, and environmental context around the character. I find this sort of incidental worldbuilding preferable to the approach M. John Harrison decried in 2007 with posts like “very afraid”.

Every moment of a science fiction story must represent the triumph of writing over worldbuilding.

Worldbuilding is dull. Worldbuilding literalises the urge to invent. Worldbuilding gives an unneccessary permission for acts of writing (indeed, for acts of reading). Worldbuilding numbs the reader’s ability to fulfil their part of the bargain, because it believes that it has to do everything around here if anything is going to get done.

Above all, worldbuilding is not technically neccessary. It is the great clomping foot of nerdism. It is the attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isn’t there. A good writer would never try to do that, even with a place that is there. It isn’t possible, & if it was the results wouldn’t be readable: they would constitute not a book but the biggest library ever built, a hallowed place of dedication & lifelong study. This gives us a clue to the psychological type of the worldbuilder & the worldbuilder’s victim, & makes us very afraid.

Harrison has more to say, but I don’t expect you to agree with any of it.