by Alyson Schroll
As a child, I never played with Polly Pockets correctly. I spent hours putting together the houses, outfits, and sets that the dolls could interact with, but I stopped there. Without ever using the dolls, I packed up the toys. I had no idea that I was actually building a world and neglecting the lifestyles that come with the presence of characters. The Polly Pockets gave me all the tools to create a neat story, but all I did was build the world. I didn’t care about working with the dolls, having them actually interact with the setting and each other. They had a world, but no life.
Without active characters, you don’t have a story—we know that. But, how much time do you spend constructing your character’s lifestyles as a part of worldbuilding?
For example: Lucy lives in 2073 on a distant planet where the planet surface is too hot to sustain life. Therefore, Lucy lives in a colony on the ocean floor.
This above example isn’t a pitch for a story, there is no conflict or story goal, but the example is a simple starter for worldbuilding. Through a series of questions and examples, I’m going to take you deeper. How does your external and internal world promote your character’s’ lifestyle.
Geographical limitations: Where do your characters live? Is the geography deceiving? Meaning, are your characters under the impression that they are safer or in more danger than they actually are? How does the geography affect your character’s time? A character’s lifestyle would change if it took two days to go anywhere, or if there was only three hours of sunlight a day.
Star Trek Example: In the Star Trek world, geography poses a much different problem. Many individuals’ sole jobs were to protect the ship from harm from the outside, but sometimes the characters were wrong about danger and risks. The daylight and darkness on the ship mimicked earth’s, but that means that some commanders’ life included “night shifts.”
Lucy Example: Our character, Lucy, lives under the ocean. Let’s say that her people live in dome-like structures. Perhaps, the society placed certain people in charge of keeping the structure safe as in Star Trek. The ocean floor contains drastic terrain changes. Maybe there are designated people to explore and search for safer, better places to live. This society’s ability to function relies on their location.
Physical needs: How do your characters meet their basic physical needs? Air? Food? Water? Do your characters have to compromise to meet these needs? Is there a surplus in supplies? A deficit? If there is too little, how do your characters handle distribution? Is there a system of supply and demand or is every man for himself?
Star Trek Example: The writers put the crew of Star Trek in a sweet spot because they had food replicators, on ship farming, and emergency rations. They had many back up plans in case food was threatened. But, enemies would frequently threaten to take away life support. This was clearly vital to their existence and had to make uncomfortable and sometimes unorthodox decisions to save it.
Lucy Example: Perhaps, farmers worked to harvest plants off the sea floor. Underground hunting parties could seek out fish and other creatures to eat. But, not everyone’s lifestyles could be the same. Some would hunt, farm, cook. Different roles would be important for a group to survive with little space and oxygen.
Values: What is the one thing your character would die for? What is the first thing they do when they wake up? Do their values come from beliefs passed down to them from parents? Are their values from their own experiences? What decisions do they do today to make them a better person? Do they even care?
Star Trek Example: Data from The Next Generation was an android, but he still had a lifestyle that was largely
influenced by his values. He devoted much of his time to studying. A lifestyle is often dependent on how an individual spend their time. Also, by owning and caring for a cat, Data showed that he valued learning about other species.
Lucy Example: Let’s say that Lucy values her family. We can add a little history in there and say maybe she almost wasn’t able to get her parents to come with her. Because of that initial struggle, Lucy places a strong priority on eating together, making joint decisions, sharing with her family.
Personality: Would your characters rather sit and think alone or socialize and talk with others? Do they offer many solutions? Do they just go ahead and fix things? Do they get thrown off by change, or do they thrive on the unknown?
Star Trek Example: Every time Captain Picard called a meeting to decide a course of action, each person presented a different opinion. Each person came from a different job in the ship, but they were also different personalities. This affected how they acted and made decisions. Some were a sit back and watch person, while others were a jump and in and try person. Each character was acting from a different lifestyle, each driven by a different personality.
Lucy Example: Maybe Lucy is a curious person. She likes to explore things she’s not supposed to. Perhaps, going outside isn’t her job, but she wishes it was. Her lifestyle might morph into her doing more sneaking around and maybe even questioning the rules that says she’s not allowed to explore.
By the end, we started to develop a lifestyle for Lucy, and we even began to see a little conflict and plot emerge just by developing the way Lucy would live her life. Many great story conflicts come from the author challenging the main character’s normal everyday life, flipping things upside down, making everything go wrong. Without building lifestyles into your world, you don’t have an everyday, a right-side-up, or a everything alright.
Alyson Schroll is a hater of poetry turned poet and impatient brainstormer turned novelist. The first money she ever made writing she spent on a tea thermos for her “Earl Grey, hot,” and a new Bible. Splickety Havok was the first to acquire Alyson’s fiction, but her platform has also grown by speaking at the Greater Philadelphia Christian Writer’s Conference, visiting classrooms, and guest posting on Go Teen Writers. She also balances being an author and a student as she studies at Cedarville University.