Map, Elaborate, Question: From Characters to World (and Plot!)

Yesterday, I talked about building a world around characters, rather than building enough of a world to mold characters into and moving outward from there. I’ve been toying with this recently, and I’ve found a pretty good sequence for trying to grow outward from one or two characters to a plot and a world.

I start with a blank piece of paper and my one or two characters, and whatever other story elements I may have come up with. First, I put their names down, mind-mapping style. Then I start branching out things I definitely want from them. This personality trait. That set of abilities (mundane or magical). This point of status in society. That opinion of the world around them. This event in backstory. That overall story arc. This character relationship. That plot.

For each of those, I come up with a potential reason—sometimes for multiple ones at the same time. This character’s looked down on by her peers because one of her parents was a shapeshifter. That one who’s supposed to be the etiquette queen is also a master snarker because the society values a well-put-together insult. This character decided to work with that one because the latter didn’t trigger half of her trust issues. That sort of thing. If I can’t come up with a reason, I put it down as a question.

For each of the ones I could come up with a reason for, I branch off at least one question—sometimes questions off of questions as well, if my mind’s active enough. Why, exactly, is it such a social stigma to have a shapeshifter in the family? Where does this societal appreciation for a good insult come from? Okay, these characters work together, how is this socially acceptable on the part of the one who doesn’t already have her parentage working against her? What does it mean to be directly descended from the shapeshifter?

Around the time I run out of questions (or out of paper), I try a new tack. Instead of more mind-mapping, I go into a stream-of-consciousness, freewriting approach. Pick a question. Start musing about it. When I do it, this is pretty much direct brain-to-paper, so I do occasionally get things like “…which would lead to… no, wait a minute, this is a bad idea, let’s go back to that bit where the ants are replenishing the light in the moon and the bird’s tail feathers are the Northern Lights and run from there” in my freewriting sessions. A more auditory person might try to talk it out—with a friend (who may or may not actually have any ideas but is patient enough to listen), with a stuffed animal, with a blank wall—whatever works. I do find, though, that getting the ideas expressed in some way works better than keeping it all mental—there’s something about getting the eyes and ears involved, or attempting to come up with a coherent explanation even if there’s nothing sapient around to hear, that helps to kick ideas loose.

At some point, I’ll stop answering things. It can be for various reasons. I might be out of questions, though unless it’s a really late round, probably not. Out of questions I can answer, maybe: there is no shame in saving a difficult question for another round. Bored with writing in longform. Hit the end of the page and figure it’d be good to work in a different direction. Had to stop for unrelated reasons and just couldn’t get up the juice to freewrite when I got back. If I can’t keep freewriting, I’ll gather up my notes, take note of my conclusions, compile whatever new ideas, characters, plotlines and/or concepts have been added to the list, and start another mind-map.

Rinse. Repeat. Keep track of everything, particularly things that have been added or removed in a given round. Note contradictions. Watch world and plot grow.


  1. Tom Coenen says:

    In the D&D campaign I’m currently running, I started with building the world and letting characters grow into their role.
    In a new campaign which is starting shortly, I’m going to use the characters as a starting point.
    So thanks for the post.

  2. Ravyn says:

    You’re welcome! I hope it works out!

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