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3 Ways You Can Use Setting & Culture to Develop Your Characters

June 20, 2022

When you think about the process of worldbuilding, what images form in your mind? Maybe you see a forest of exotic plants and mystical creatures. Or architecture that splices the sky and advanced technology that allows users to perform hundreds of tasks without lifting a finger. Or even a totalitarian regime that controls every citizen, from the rich to the poor. But have you focused on your characters yet?

 

Worldbuilding is often classified as a component of speculative fiction but not other genres. That’s a limiting misconception, because a character’s surroundings should influence her worldview and choices. If the faraway planet, magical spell, or graffitied wall serves no purpose beyond filling blank space, you might as well exchange it. However, the ability to rearrange your story’s backdrop at whim is not an advantage.

 

A few readers would be reluctant to admit that they care more about meaning than grandeur, but the truth is that they do. They want to learn, or at least sense, the why behind everything you include. Although the broader aspects of worldbuilding are thrilling to dream up, the small details are the illuminants that reveal who a character is and what she values.

 

1. Culture

A culture is any social group that has a distinct set of customs and beliefs, so it can be as far-reaching as a country or as tight-knit as a dog owner’s club that meets at the park on Saturday afternoons. The more a character identifies with a specific culture, the more it will shape her behavior, and as she shifts between environments, you can explore multiple facets of her personality. At her job, she’ll show how she treats coworkers who rank higher or lower than her. When she hangs out with friends, she’ll let her humorous, fun side loose. You can then pit the cultures against each other to draw out her fears and longings even further. 

 

In Nicola Yoon’s The Sun Is Also a Star, Natasha and Daniel experience a whirlwind romance in New York City that blends their diverse heritages and problems. Daniel, proudly of Korean descent, is preparing to attend Yale to please his parents, but his inner poet mourns the plan. Bumping into the cynical Natasha feels like fate, and he shares his artistic side to cheer her up. Natasha is an illegal immigrant from Jamaica who is striving to prevent her family’s deportation after her father failed to succeed as an actor. She doesn’t have time for nonsense, but when Daniel claims he can make her fall in love with him in a day, she can’t resist accepting the challenge. As the two teens explore the Big Apple and quiz each other with deep questions, their unique perspectives push each other toward change. 

 

Look at your protagonist’s family, job, and community. What similarities and differences exist? Which ideologies and traditions does your character agree or disagree with? Find tension between the spheres she navigates every day and leverage it to make her more dimensional.

 

2. Hobbies

The place your protagonist lives in or visits will determine the activities she engages in and how socially acceptable each one is. In a coastal city, she might go surfing every morning. On a rural farm, she might ride horses or ATVs. In an upscale neighborhood, she might own a yacht where she hosts parties—but only if she’s also reasonably close to a body of water. If her preferred form of recreation doesn’t jibe with the context, you’ll need to provide a reason for the eccentricity. But no matter where she is and what she’s doing, how she spends her spare time will add more layers to her arc.

 

The Sun Is Also a Star positions Natasha on a crowded street, which is typical of NYC and emphasizes Daniel’s attraction to her. Out of hundreds of passersby, he notices her! Later, the two characters cross paths on the subway, and during their attempt at high-speed dating, they sing karaoke, wander around Harlem, dine at a Korean restaurant, and tour museums. Although Daniel loves writing poetry, his parents deem it a waste of time, so being open with Natasha about it is refreshing. 

 

What activities are available to your protagonist? Which ones does she enjoy? When other characters understand and approve of her interests, she’ll garner trust and connection. And when they don’t, she’ll face division. Either scenario can significantly impact her actions and relationships. 

 

3. Assumptions

A combination of external stressors and past experiences inform a person’s perceptions of how they’re supposed to fit into their surroundings. For example, a fantasy character who’s the victim of a curse, a sci-fi character who’s traveling the multiverse, and a mystery character who’s trying to solve a crime will all have different opinions about free will. Two characters from the same town may not even coincide on how to stop a corrupt government official, which will generate growth-inducing friction between them. 

 

In The Sun Is Also a Star, Daniel’s father endorses a high education because he hopes to protect his son from the poverty he endured in Korea. Natasha belittles art because it ruined her father and disregards her own ethnicity because she sees herself as fully American. But Daniel’s thinking is the opposite. As she gets to know him, she realizes that art and her Jamaican roots both have worth.

 

What truths and lies do your characters believe about their world? How does society pressure or judge them? And, most importantly, how are you alluding to God? When you portray a variety of viewpoints, you have the opportunity to expose falsehoods and tease out the nuances of your theme.

 

The Smaller, the Better

Worldbuilding is about creating a bubble, not a universe. The individual molecules and moments matter as much as—if not more than—the large-scale elements, because everything your characters come in contact with will affect their attitudes, decisions, and quirks. As you brainstorm ideas for your setting, remember to put your characters at the center.

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