A lot of this column comes from my experiences in worldbuilding – playing and writing RPGs, a shared-universe project, and my past and current writing, quite a few years of it. I still recall my first universe – a bizare mix of mary-sueism, genetic engineering, weird religious stuff, and an interest in UFOs. I was about 11 when I created it.
However, I’m always learning new things. Art in a strange way isn’t about success – it’s about experience. I’m going to share one of my more recent experiences.
Recently, in working on one of my own Xai stories, I had an odd plot twist that made sense, but also made me think about how I design and write characters. It was one of those moments of “and why didn’t I see this coming?”
So, of course, I turned it into a column. If you’re going to learn from your mistakes, you might as well see if anyone else can.
KNOWING WHAT CHARACTERS KNOW:
We’re used to knowing what our characters are knowledgeable about: skills and experiences, languages and trivia. In a way, people (be they human or not) are the sum of their knowledge and experiences. Keeping track of these things is vital with complex characters and a complex cast.
Some of us even used RPG-like character sheets to keep track of characters, which I find to be very helpful. After all, it helps you know what your characters know, and a good list of skills is a great quick reference.
But the thing that came up in my recent writing – the significance of what characters do not know. Spending all our time focusing on what characters can do and are aware of ignores the much larger world of what they can’t do and aren’t aware of.
IGNORANCE IS PLOT:
In my Xai storyline, one of the characters didn’t know how to drive despite living in an urban setting (he had been raised in a religious order that was no larger than a town). This was a minor plot point in a story that just sort of came out of the blue. One of those things I realized, included, and then went on in my writing.
Of course things that you ignore tend to come back to haunt you, and it’s very easy not to think a lack of something is significant.
Soon I realized this wasn’t throwaway, this wasn’t trivial. This was important. A character who couldn’t drive despite living in a large city. It was something his friends were likely to comment on, his girlfriend even moreso. Eventually, it was going to become an issue in the story.
Soon this lack of knowledge became the launching point of another story, and even mentioned in a second. A lack of something within a character had turned out to be more important that what the character had known, and that lack of knowledge had allowed me to launch a story and explore character relationships.
Then I realized – what your characters do not know is just as important as what they do know, especially in how they relate to a setting.
After working this into the story, I began chewing over the concept more – what your characters don’t know can matter a lot. I remembered the Warhammer RPG, where reading and writing was not something every character in the fantasy setting knew – like medieval times on our world, literacy was not common. I recalled how a friend had complained about fantasy novels which, despite their supposed seriousness, seemed to know things that didn’t appear to fit a medieval world.
So, I’ve thrown together a list of places where I think understanding knowledge and ignorance go hand in hand. This is based more on recent analysis than experience, but then again this idea is new to me as well.
In building our worlds, it’s important to understand what knowledge is common, what people are likely to know. This will let you determine how characters knowledge and lack will let them interact in your setting.
It’s important to know different cultures in your world and what they know – and what they don’t. This will help you understand and write culture clashes and interactions easily.
Understand your characters educational background – be it school, apprenticeship, ritual training, general experience. Look for any gaps in their knowledge as well as their strength.
Track any significant lacks of knowledge. You’ll be glad you did.
These little exercises should help you keep your ignorances straight, as it were. A group of hunter-gatherers may not understand an airplane, but an airplane pilot may not know how to survive in the wild. A nobleman may know quite a bit about his kingdom, but not actually understand the traumas farmers face, even though they feed him.
And, of course, a man trained for years in a religious order may have learned alchemy and theology, but never took the time to learn to drive a car.
In defining characters, a lack of knowledge is just as important as what a character knows, especially in context of your world.
Oh, and writing is an experience you never stop learning from.
Copyright© 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002 Steven Savage, sffworld.com. All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the author.