Posted by: Kerry Gans | November 18, 2014

World-building and character: A litmus test

At my critique group this past week, fellow Chronicler J. Thomas Ross said that even though she had always thought she “knew” English grammar, she never really grasped it fully until she had to teach it to remedial students. In other words, even if you think you know something backward and forward, you really don’t until you can explain it clearly to someone else.

That’s a good litmus test for a lot of things in life, but I realized this is a great litmus test for world-building.

I likely had this epiphany because in critique group my story’s world-building came up short. Critiquers wanted to see, hear, and feel the world much more clearly than I had written it. As is often the case, I as the author had thought I described everything more than adequately. But, of course, I know what it’s supposed to look, feel, and sound like. This is why critique partners are so valuable—they tell you when you are skimping on things the reader needs to know.

They also had some questions about one of my two Point-of-View characters. They weren’t sure I had captured him as fully and completely as my other POV character. In parts he seemed forced or vague—like he was doing what I needed him to do, instead of what he as a real person would do. Again, valuable advice.

What it came down to was this comment: “I don’t think you know this world and this character as well as you think you do.”

And maybe I don’t. I need to revisit my notes and see what needs to be filled in.

But maybe some of it is simply a case of “lost in translation.” This world, these characters, have lived with me for close on 30 years. Perhaps I know them too well at times, and make assumptions that the reader cannot possibly make.

Ultimately, whatever the reason, if I can’t explain it clearly to my reader, I have some work to do.

So I’d better delve back into my world and my character and find out what it is I don’t know.

How detailed do you get with your world and character notes before you “get it right” for the reader?


  1. It’s all too easy to know your characters so well that you don’t even think to put what you know down on paper (or to think you must have because you know how they operate). It’s an old saw that you, the author, should know 20 times more about your characters than ever appears on the page, in the story. But what that doesn’t express is that what does appear on the page has to be key, has to both show us something and imply even more about the characters than it shows. That’s where the depth of your knowledge of them comes into play.

    Regarding world-building, another old saw of the fantasy & SF genres is that the world you’re creating should be treated as another character itself, with a rich “inner” life and a logical system of behavior (that is, whatever rules your world runs by on page one, those rules had better be the same on page 301.) People who don’t read science fiction or fantasy novels but then decide they’ll write one think you just throw any old thing you want in as you need it. They are wrong. World-building is its own craft, like embroidery.



    • Thanks for the advice, Greg! I am an avid reader of SF/F, so I know how world-building SHOULD work. Of course, it’s always harder when you try to do it yourself! I think I need to write down everything in a more organized fashion (and not keep so much in my head) and then see where I am lacking. While I have read in the genre my whole life, this is my first attempt at writing it, and there is much to learn!



  2. My problem is conceptual, viz., the space beetween giving too much information (“trust the reader”) vs. my expectation of their reasonable inference. How subtle is their thinking? Are they reading between the lines? do they pick up on hints? Those answers may be more clear with genre fiction, less clear with literary fiction where layers of meaning and resutlant challenge to the reader are part of what makes it literary. In the end, I have to trust my editor but often walk away from our discussions talking to myself (sometimes until 2 a.m.)


    • Lanny – I get caught in the same net. Earlier in my writing career I tended to hit people over the head with too much info. Now I seem to be giving too little. Someday maybe I’ll strike the happy medium!

      And, yes, editors are vital for helping find that middle ground!



  3. […] to happen and what the stakes are. So that part isn’t the problem. I think it comes back to my less-than-stellar world-building skills. Why? Because I know what has to happen, but am blanking on how it has to happen. I mean, we’ve […]


  4. […] to happen and what the stakes are. So that part isn’t the problem. I think it comes back to my less-than-stellar world-building skills. Why? Because I know what has to happen, but am blanking on how it has to happen. I mean, we’ve […]


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