Learn Writing by Reading: Character & Worldbuilding
Missed the rest of the Learn Writing by Reading series?
Every week this September, I’m posting about how actively reading the kinds of books you already like can teach you to be a better writer. Here’s a list of links to the other posts in the series:
Character development and worldbuilding are actually quite similar.
Both character development and worldbuilding involve not only coming up with a bunch of information about characters and settings, but choosing which details to reveal to the reader, how these details are revealed, and when to reveal them. So while we often have no way of knowing exactly how much information the author has put together behind the scenes, we can take a look at exactly what they chose to reveal, how, and when to get a good idea of how to approach this in our own writing.
One question lots of newer writers have about their first novels is how to reveal character and setting details in a natural way, without info-dumping or leaving readers completely in the dark. Fortunately, there are thousands of fantastic teachers at your fingertips—as I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, it’s books. 😉
This exercise will help you learn how much character and setting details to reveal, how and when to reveal them, and how much is too much at once. You’re going to be taking a lot of notes for this one, so I highly recommend working with a digital copy or picking up a cheap used copy of the book of your choice, that way you can feel comfortable scribbling in the margins all you’d like. Of course, your regular note-taking method will work as well!
This exercise also works great for both new-to-you reads and rereads. I do advise, though, that you try this with a variety of different genres, not just the one you prefer to write in. The amount of detail included is often widely different depending on the genre, and it’s really helpful to piece together your own worldbuilding and character development strategies by combining aspects from various genres.
First, take notice.
I recommend that you start off by choosing whether you want to focus on character or setting during a certain read through a book. It’s really hard to track both at once!
Once you’ve picked your focus, grab a highlighter (or the highlighting tool in your e-reader/e-reading app) and start highlighting every single time setting or character details are revealed in the story. These could be sense-based descriptions such as a character’s hair color or the smells in the story’s setting, or they could be more told details, such as a quick sentence about a character’s favorite hobby or the layout of the book’s setting.
Here are a few examples from Robin Sloan’s science fiction/magical realism novel Sourdough (all examples taken from the first chapter—no spoilers!):
Clement Street was just a few blocks away. (told setting detail)
At the top, the restaurant’s name was written in humongous, exuberant letters. (sensory setting detail)
I came to San Francisco from Michigan. (told character detail)
My hair had gone flat and thin. My stomach hurt. (sensory character details)
When you’ve finished highlighting the character or setting details within a chapter, pause to flip back and take a look at all the highlights. It’s time to do some analysis.
Next, dig deeper.
I specifically recommended highlighting this time because it allows you to look at the book from a more physical or graphic point of view. As one part of your analysis, rather than looking at the words themselves, I want you to be looking at their placement and the amount of space they use up on the page. In fact, you may find it helpful to prop the book open and then take a couple of steps away, so you can’t read the words, but you can see the highlights.
(This, of course, is more difficult to achieve when reading on audio, but one solution may be to play the audiobook and use a separate recorder to record only the character or setting descriptions. This could give you a good idea of how much time is spent overall on description rather than action.)
Now, ask yourself: “How much of this chapter is made of setting or character details?” You’ll also want to compare chapters with each other. For example, earlier chapters (especially in fantasy and sci-fi) tend to have more description than, say, climax chapters where lots of action is happening.
Also consider the location of the details. Are they all clumped together in a certain part of the chapter? Spread out more evenly? What about over the course of the entire book?
Now that you’ve looked at the bigger picture of the overall amount of description and detail, it’s time to zoom in and get a bit more granular. Ask yourself, “How are these details revealed?” Do they come out in dialogue? Are they part of a character’s interior thoughts? Or is the narrator giving them to you? Note whether or not the delivery felt natural during your reading.
Next, ask: “What assumptions do I have based on these details?” What an author reveals about setting and character and the timing of these revelations can really work to shape readers’ opinions and expectations. If, for example, the author mentions technological advancements on the first page, you’re typically going to assume that tech is involved in the story somehow. So as you proceed chapter by chapter, keep track of how the details you find in the story shape your ideas about what will happen later.
Finally, involve your feelings.
The last step in this analysis is to actually get back in touch with your feelings. This isn’t only likes and dislikes, but actual, visceral feelings you might have had while reading the book. Did you at any point feel grossed out by a description, perhaps, or embarrassed on behalf of a character? What setting or character details added to that feeling? If you wanted to make your readers feel that way, what types of detail might you use in your own story?
Spend some time also thinking about whether you ever got bored. Where did that happen? Did there happen to be lots of description in that section, or not very much? If the book ever made you feel excited or anticipatory, like you couldn’t put it down, where did that happen? Were there any details that contributed to that feeling?
Your likes and dislikes factor in here, as well. Maybe you really didn’t like the amount of description you encountered, and you wish there had been less. Or maybe you wanted to know more about a certain character and you felt like you didn’t get to learn enough about them. This is important information to keep track of as well.
As you’ve hopefully been doing throughout this series, note down any conclusions or info you’d like to remember in your writing bank. You might have discovered through all this analysis, for example, that certain setting details can make a reader feel a sense of impending doom, and you want to do something similar in your own books. Or maybe you discovered that you prefer characters to be minimally described, rather than having a rundown of their head-to-toe appearance.
As I mentioned before, reading from several different genres is a great way to learn more about your preferences, but also what’s “normal” in your usual genre. Crime thrillers will focus a lot of their setting details on weaponry, for example, while high fantasy tends to focus more on vivid landscape descriptions. Romances may not include much setting details at all, and focus more on the character details. This is all excellent information to have, especially if you want to make your writing stand out while still fitting within your target genres. I highly, highly recommend branching out beyond your comfort zone, at least a little bit!
Next week is the last post of this series: Style & Mechanics. Looking forward to seeing you there!