Every character has their own unique psychology — that’s why it’s so fun to dive into their heads! But no one’s worldview is created in a vacuum: the world around us directly affects our personalities, traits, and current mental state.
So imagine something totally far-fetched: A country teetering on the edge of dictatorship. Small accidents lead to bankruptcy; small children are put in cages. Reality TV has subsumed reality. How might this world affect the way characters see the world?
They might be more anxious. They might be more depressed and miserable, all across the land. Perhaps they’re gripped by nostalgia, longing for a time when the world felt less bleak. Welcome to your world’s general psychology: the average of all its citizens. These traits infiltrate your book’s mood and affect the tone — but are not, necessarily, your characters’ traits, too.
Even when, psychologically, something is generally true, there’s always a bell curve. Let’s look at a few examples. First: Trees make people happy. (It’s true!) By extension, every child that grows up in the woods must be a delightful, well-adjusted human. (Or woodsy alien — whatever your world demands.) Right? Except, no: gloomy people live in the woods, too. And some people are born in a forested hut, but spend their lives dreaming of the concrete jungle of the nearest big city. So seeing a thick oak with sap dripping down its bark probably just pisses them off. Yes, generally, trees make people happy — but that’s not a universal truth.
Or, think about the winter blues. Short days and dark skies contribute to seasonal affective disorder. In other words? Winter can make people gloomy and moody. Surprise! Yet many people excitedly move to Canada, and four out of the top five happiest countries in the world are Nordic. Clearly, “darkness = sadness” isn’t true for everyone.
To create a fully-fleshed-out character, roleplay a game of table tennis between your character and the world. Everyone has their own, unique character traits, which clash with the world you’ve established. The end result? A character singularly affected by your world.
Your characters start with an initial set of traits — and those traits play off the world around them, creating new traits. Score one to your world. Those new traits flesh out your character and cement their perspective on life: the way they think and behave. And, of course, your character’s perspective will continue to be affected by the world around them. Character reacts to world, develops new traits, those traits change how the character reacts to the world, and on and on and on, in an endless ouroboros.
Let’s take Harry Potter’s Statute of Secrecy as an example. J.K. Rowling plopped her super-secretive magical society right in the middle of the muggle world — and then established a government that demanded its citizens stay silent. Psychologically, secret-keeping tends to be stressful and make people feel less authentic. But thinking you’re part of the “in-group” makes you believe you’re better than those less lucky. That’s a tough intersection of traits!
Once you’ve established your characters’ basic traits, you can pit them against the parameters you’ve set to learn even more about your book’s cast. Two people in the same family might approach the same thing in entirely different ways. Arthur Weasley is a creative, curious dude — so it makes sense he’d be intrigued by the muggle world and desperate to replicate their technology. But his son, Percy, is uptight and a teensy bit power-hungry. That Statute of Secrecy? He thinks it’s a blessing.
Consider also how your characters’ psychological traits are affected by their interactions with other characters, who are in turn reacting to the same worldbuilding constraints. Imagine poor, uptight, anxious young Percy, growing up with a father who glibly ignores all established magical boundaries. He probably spent a lot of nights tossing and turning, worried his careless father might blow himself up — or end up arrested. No wonder he pushes so far toward the other end of the spectrum, and runs straight into the open arms of Cornelius Fudge. (Still a jerk, though. Sorry, Perce.)
Your characters may not even realize they’re reacting to something. We start absorbing stress in the womb, so if your fictional country was undergoing a civil war while your main character was hanging out unborn, they may see psychological effects later in life. Or, if they’re rather resilient, they may not — but you bet they’ll be dealing with the aftereffects of said civil war in some way or another.
Now, let’s imagine a family that’s spent the last fifteen years hurtling across space on a tiny ship. Port stops are rare and blessed occasions. Think about how close quarters might affect their day-to-day living: generally, they’re probably more willing to share food and personal items, and their concept of “personal space” is likely smaller than if they’d grown up in a castle. Dad scoots by in a tight hallway, and then proceeds to hold an extensive conversation with his face mere inches from your main character’s.
Maybe that’s normal for them. Or maybe your main character has a fierce independent streak and a strong sense of boundaries, and having their personal bubble stepped on again and again makes them so angry they can hardly speak. But where can they go? They live in a tiny spaceship with four annoying family members. Now that’s a head we’d love to step inside.
- Think about your main character’s defining personality traits. Are they optimistic? Patient? Petty? Selfish? Select one or two essential traits.
- Write down all of the main aspects of your worldbuilding. If you’re writing a contemporary, maybe you’ll write down details about your character’s family structure or the restrictive administration of their school. For a fantasy or sci-fi, think about the politics, geography, and history of your world.
- Think about the overall worldview of the characters who live in your world. If the government is authoritarian, perhaps they feel powerless. Or maybe harsh geography leads to a pervasive feeling of isolation. Look for real-world examples to help you understand how the world affects people’s mood and outlook.
- How does your character’s unique personality collide with the world? If they’re optimistic in a pessimistic world, they may fixate more on hope. Think about how the constraints of the world you’ve established affect their outlook — and make sure to consider how they interact with other people living in your world, too.
- Continue this exercise for each of your character’s main traits, and each of your world’s main building blocks.
A world feels more realistic when it affects your characters directly. Taking the time to consider how your gorgeous newly-built world affects your characters’ psychology creates a rich, immersive tapestry — one your readers won’t ever want to leave.
Elisabeth Funk is a fantasy writer who lives in Denver, Colorado, with her husband, two cats, one dog, and large collection of succulents. When she’s not writing stories about witches, magic, complicated friendships, and ghosts, you can find her on Twitter @e__funk.