Episode 6: Learn How to World Figures
Listen as host Randy Ellefson talks about how to create world heroes, villains, martyrs, and more. This includes determining why they’re famous, what kinds of weapons, armors, ships, steeds, or other items they have, considerations for when they’re dead OR alive, what made them famous, their relationships with family, and how all of this can make them more memorable if done right.
In This Episode You’ll Learn:
- How the gadgets your character has can make them more memorable
- How relationships with family, friends, and species can make them richer and less one dimensional
- How to determine why they’re famous
- How to base the reasons for their fame on your story or character needs
- How to determine whether they are most useful alive or dead (or just thought to be)
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Episode 6 Transcript
Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number six. Today’s topic is how to create world figures like heroes, villains, and more. This includes talking about what made them famous, their relationships and history, and what kind of cool gadgets they might have and why. This material and more is discussed in Chapter 4 of Creating Life, volume 1 in The Art of World Building book series.
Do you want practical advice on how to build better worlds faster and have more fun doing it? The Art of World Building book series, website, blog, and podcast will make your worlds beat the competition. This is your host, Randy Ellefson, and I have 30 years of world building advice, tips, and tricks to share. Follow along now at artofworldbuilding.com.
How Will We Use Them?
The advice in this episode applies equally well to heroes, villains, martyrs, celebrities, or any other public figures we might want to mention. Whether we invent them or not, every world is going to have its famous people. It can make our world seem more realistic if we have some of them for our characters to refer to. For example, a knight might look up to a famous knight who exemplified the values of the knighthood. A priest will do the same with their religion. There will always be famous pilots in science fiction. If our story takes place on the water, there will be famous pirates and other captains.
And of course, without villains, what’s the point of writing a story? Some of our villains will be local to the story that we’re telling, but some of them will be a much larger figure, someone who dominated the world or even multiple planets in science fiction.
Whether our characters are good or bad. They usually have someone that they look up to. That said, we don’t usually need to go into a lot of detail about these characters. Just a line here or there can be used. In those moments where we do mention them, we usually want to mention why they are looked up to. For example, maybe there’s a famous knight who changed the tide of war, maybe by sacrificing himself. In so doing, he might have restored the honor of the knighthood, if there was something wrong with it. If you’re wondering where I’m getting this from, it’s from the Dragonlance series.
In fantasy, we might also have a wizard who is responsible for people fearing wizards in general. Of course, wizards are very powerful so we don’t necessarily need a reason for everyone to fear them, but sometimes we might want to have an especially bad person who had a big effect, where magic is now restricted in some way, for example.
We could also have an inspiring political or religious figure who is responsible for changing the way people think about various issues or even human rights. The person I’m thinking of right now is Martin Luther King. Of course, if we base someone on him, we are doing an analogue, which was discussed in an earlier episode. This is once again a very useful technique for inventing things for our planet.
We could have a famous explorer whose ship vanished, or it could be their plane, such as with Amelia Earhart. This example also gives us a lost plane, ship, or spacecraft, which can eventually be found by other characters. We might have a dictator who was responsible for trying to exterminate a race, and this is especially useful in fantasy when we have more than just different varieties of humans, but we might have different versions of elves or dwarves, and somebody somewhere wants to exterminate some of them.
Even goodhearted people might decide that ogres or goblins might need to be wiped out so that they are no longer a threat, but even with just humans, we can still do this as we have done here on Earth, where Adolf Hitler and of course Nazi Germany tried to exterminate Jewish people. Other versions of this are a little bit less extreme but have happened more recently.
We could also have a warrior who is known for his skills but who ends up dying peacefully from something relatively innocuous like the flu. Who am I thinking of? Bruce Lee, the martial artist.
If we want to create a martyr for religion, we can just look up any number of them that have occurred over the course of human civilization here on Earth. And of course, there’s the big one: Jesus Christ.
We might also want to include lowly figures like a bounty hunter or an assassin who killed an especially important person such as an emperor or a king. And of course, rulers or other famous people are good people to create, mostly because they are so well known and they often do things that have a huge impact on a large number of people. And even long after they are gone, their impact is often still felt. And if you’re looking for inspiration for famous rulers, you just have to go back into our own history. People like Julius Caesar come to mind.
Generally, if you look at these figures, they have done something that has had a lasting impact and this is why we still know who they are thousands of years later.
Why Are They Famous?
And that brings us to the very important subject of why these people are famous. There are a few questions we can ask ourselves to help us envision this person that we’re going to create. One of those is, what are we hoping to achieve? Do we want a character for people to admire or to fear?
Let’s use the example of a hero. Maybe we have a character called Kier and he is a knight. He most likely has another knight that he looks up to and we’ll call this knight Vallen. And the latter is a famous knight. We could decide that he is alive today and maybe Kier knows him. In this scenario, Kier is likely to mention him in his thoughts or even to others more than once. Vallen may even appear in the book. That makes Vallen a character we need to flesh out a little bit more.
On the other hand, if he is not going to be a character in the book, either because he lives on another continent or just far away, or he’s long dead, we don’t need to develop this character of Vallen that much. The reason is that we’re not going to have many opportunities to mention Vallen. In most scenarios, I would probably only have Kier mention him once or maybe twice in an entire story, even if it’s a novel.
I would probably have Kier mention him early on in the characterization of Kier, and then if there’s a critical point in the story where Kier feels that he is not living up to the virtues of Vallen or which he stood for, then I might mention Vallen again. Otherwise, we’re probably not going to have much use for this. If our use for Vallen is limited, then we only need a little bit of information about him, such as what he stands for. These virtues can be based on what we need for the character of Kier and for our story. Or if we are creating a historical figure for use in general on our world, then we can be a little bit more open-ended.
We can decide that Vallen has whatever character traits we think might be interesting and maybe the most useful for the most number of stories that we write on that world. If we can’t decide on one set of character traits that Vallen could have over another, then why don’t we just create two knights at different points in history? There’s no reason we can’t have this. What are the odds that there is only one famous knight? In fact, we might want to create more than one on purpose and have them represent different things so that some people tend to favor one versus the other, or maybe they think of one or the other in different circumstances. This exercise can be done whether we’re talking about knights, assassins, villains, or whatever else.
Regardless of who, what we’re talking about right now are the character traits that this person embodies. For a knight character, the morale is something that comes to mind. Morale is usually associated with a deed. For example, someone might have extraordinary morale, but unless they have the opportunity to demonstrate that, no one’s ever going to know. We would probably want to have a situation where that character was facing overwhelming odds, for example, and they overcame them anyway, and they did so partly by standing their ground despite the low odds of victory.
And on that note, they don’t even have to have been victorious. Maybe they died for this. But, as a result of standing up like that, maybe they caused a delay in the opposing forces, or something else positive happened as a result of their sacrifice. And sacrifice also makes it clear that they are humble, in the sense that they are willing to lay down their life, but it also shows that they are willing to champion an idea to the point of sacrificing their life for that.
What we end up here is with a character who is moral and is therefore a moral compass for other characters to look up to, and this can be true whether that character is a knight or not. The result might be that Vallen is not a knight, but Kier looks up to him anyway because of what he stood for. This is a good way to create variety because it can seem a little bit too planned to have a knight worshiping a knight, and to have an assassin worshiping a famous assassin, and always having this sort of one-to-one relationship. Sometimes people might admire someone for some of the traits but not others.
A famous person might also be famous for their characteristics, such as their morality, but then at the end of their life, something unusual happens that seems to betray that, so there’s a conflict for our other character who wants to look up to them. The point I’m making here is that we sometimes idealize a hero, and at the same time vilify a villain, to the point that we say that there exclusively one way or another way.
This touches back to something that I spoke about in the previous episode, about simplifying things to good versus evil. There’s a tendency for most of us to do this. If that sort of simplicity works for your story, then go right ahead and do it, but if you’re looking for something that’s a little bit more varied, then try to give your hero some warts, and try to give your villain some positive things that they may have done.
For example, a villain might have sacrificed themselves at the end of their life for some noble cause, and this could’ve been a change of heart or something else. It’s something that makes them a little bit more realistic. The only potential problem with doing such a thing is that we have to make up a reason for this. You have to decide if it’s really worth it for the character. Again, if our story is only going to have us mentioning that person once or twice, then maybe we don’t want to do something more complex like that. On the other hand, if we’re writing a longer story like a trilogy or more, and we’re going to use the world longer, then we might want to go ahead and create these more complex characters.
Now I do think that all characters actually are more complex. The question is whether we want to portray them that way or not.
Let’s take a quick break here and talk about where you can get more useful world building resources. Artofworldbuilding.com has most of what you need. This includes links to more podcasts like this one. You can also find more information on all three volumes of The Art of World Building series. Much of the content of those books is available on the website for free.
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More Reasons to be Famous
Our world figure could be famous for their character, but they could also be famous for their deeds. When we do this, we are also creating history, which is a subject that we will touch upon repeatedly throughout this podcast. This can work either way. We can try to create a world figure, which results in history, or we can be trying to create history, which results in a world figure. What I would recommend is that you have a dedicated history file on your computer, and that you also have a dedicated file for each one of your world figures, or have all of them in one file.
What you will end up doing here is working in both files, so let’s say that we’re working on your world figure, and are trying to think of an event that made that person famous. What we want to write down for that world figure in their file is their role in that event, but when it comes to the larger event and what was going on, like let’s say it was a war and this person was involved in the end of it, that should probably be described a little bit more in the history file.
What we’re trying to do is minimize the redundancy a little bit. By having both files open at the same time, it’s relatively easy to just keep going back and forth between them and writing information in one or the other based on what we’re writing. I frequently do this and find myself writing too much about that war when I’m in the world figure’s file, but then I can move it into the history file. One reason we might want to do this is that when we are creating this history, we might want to create more than one world figure.
Let’s take a moment and talk about how I would write an entry in that world history file. In the history file, the only thing I would say about the character is something very brief, such as, “Lord Vallen did so-and-so at the final battle and the result was the end of the war and. As a result, this, that, or the other thing happened.” I wouldn’t describe this character in the history file. I may or may not want to leave a note to myself to look into the world figure’s file, but most likely I will already know that I’ve got one of these and there are various people who are fleshed out a little bit more in the file.
As for what goes into the world figure’s file, let’s talk about that. We’re going to talk about the reason they’re famous and the facts surrounding that. One point to make there is that there could be facts and then there could be rumors. They might be famous for something that didn’t even actually happen, or which didn’t happen in the way that people think it happened. If we’re going to create that kind of detail, it’s something that we should only do if we are intending to reveal that to our characters in particular, and have our characters become disillusioned when they find out that something is very different. This can shake someone’s faith in a cherished world figure.
We’re also going to write down this characters traits or status, such as whether they are dead or alive, what kind of possessions they have, their family members, and their relationships with other species. We’re also going to want to talk about their history, which includes their origins and their demise if they are dead. And then of course some of what happened in between.
We might also want to talk about their training and skills, because that might also have made them famous, and then of course their deeds. You don’t have to remember everything I just said because there is a handy appendix. It’s number three from the Creating Life book, and you can just download this by joining the newsletter. It’s a handy fill in the blanks form that will help you to think about all of these things, and it provides not only the space for you to write down these things, but it provides some commentary on the things you might want to think about, including what is being mentioned in this episode. And all of the things I just mentioned are the other topics we’re going to talk about today.
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What Is Their Status?
We touched on this earlier, but we should decide whether our character is dead or alive. Let’s say that they died. Are they really dead or just presumed so? How did they die, and was that a satisfying conclusion for their life for either the audience or the characters involved in the stories? They might just be missing and incorrectly identified as dead. They might’ve even faked their death.
All of these options add some interesting depth to what we’ve done, but that’s exactly why a lot of people have already done this kind of thing, especially in TV and film. My advice would be to do this sort of thing sparingly.
If the character really is dead, decide how they died. Was it in battle, or something else extraordinary, or was it a peaceful and? They might’ve gone on to become a ruler and end up in a famous tomb somewhere. That can be true whether they became a ruler or not.
That brings up another question: where are they buried? Are they buried somewhere out of the way where no one can get to that grave for some reason? Maybe because they’re very dangerous still, even in death? Maybe because they have a valuable item that was buried with them. Or they might be buried in a public cemetery where people can come and pay their respects. This might even result in a kind of pilgrimage that a knight character might do, for example, to pay homage to that knight. It might even be expected or required of them. This could result in a pilgrimage for our character Kier, who went to visit the grave of Lord Vallen at some point in his mid-20s, and maybe even met one of the characters who is also in the current storyline we’re telling, while he’s on that pilgrimage. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the other character was also on that pilgrimage, because we meet all kinds of people when we travel, regardless of the reason. This is one way to work this into narration or dialogue.
What about if the character is still alive? Are they at the height of the powers? That would be true if the thing that made them famous was recent, as in the last 5 or 10 years. Maybe they are still around and doing good or bad things to people. Or maybe this was 50 years ago and now they are retired somewhere in old age, and comfortably living by the sea or something.
This brings up another question and that is whether this character is okay with their fame or if they are hiding from it? Imagine today where we have these paparazzi who never leave anybody alone and the tabloids, where they keep following people long after their fame has ended. We get these “where are they now?” kind of stories. This is the sort of thing that’s probably going to happen in a more futuristic society like ours or even in sci-fi, but in a fantasy setting, it’s more likely that the character’s going to be able to retire to a quiet life without people pestering them all the time. But there might be some people who still seek them out. Are they okay with this or do they just want to be left alone?
What if it’s only been 20 years since they did the famous deeds? If they’re a warrior, then some people would probably say that they’re past their prime. Does this person like hearing that or do they get offended?
Yet another option for us is for this character to be imprisoned. Obviously, this is more likely if they are a villain, but there’s no reason that a hero can’t also be in be imprisoned in a place that is not kind to the values for which he stood. One question for all of our characters is whether their imprisonment is known or not. Even if we decide that the average person has no idea, it’s always best if there are few people who know the truth, and those people want to do something about it, such as rescuing that character.
There’s a lot of fun to be had in saying that most people don’t know a certain thing, or most people know something and are basically wrong, and a select group of characters, obviously the ones that we’re writing with, are the ones who know the truth. And they’re going to do something about it. What this allows us to do in a world we’re going to use repeatedly and for a long time is to say things are one way many times, and then in a subsequent story, we talk about the truth. We just have to be careful about this and not contradict ourselves too much.
There is a trick for this and it’s one that I use myself. I always have a character be the one who says something when that thing is not really true. They believe it’s true when they say it, but that means that me as an author, I am not lying. I did not say it in narration. If I say “Vallen is dead” in narration, and then I later decide he’s not, I’m the one who lied. If a character says it, and then they turn out to be wrong, well, that happens to us all the time in real life anyway. You could say that this is a cheat on my part, but it’s perfectly valid.
If we don’t want to do that, we can say narration that “everyone thinks Lord Vallen is dead,” but the problem is if we say “everyone thinks,” we’re basically dropping a hint that maybe everyone’s wrong and therefore it won’t come as a surprise if Lord Vallen turns out to not be dead. We may want to do that on purpose to create ambiguity, but we might not want to.
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What Gadgets Do They Have?
Everyone likes cool stuff, so let’s talk about the possessions that our world figure might have. This is a subject not to go overboard with and what I mean is that we should only give our character one or maybe two items that are especially cool. Otherwise, the law of diminishing returns kicks in. What I mean by that is that the coolness of each of the items goes down the more items we give them. Besides, we arguably want them to have one especially cool item. This is the one that might be associated with them, like Thor’s hammer. I would say the name of that hammer but it’s impossible to pronounce, and some of you are probably going to laugh about that.
But that does bring up another point that sometimes we might want to name these items. There’s a long tradition of the sort of thing, such as the name Stormbringer being the blade that Elric of Melnibone wielded. And as a side for those of you who are following my fiction and got my free book, The Ever Fiend, by joining my fiction newsletter, yes I did steal the name Stormbringer for my character Talon Stormbringer.
We’re trying to decide on is what item to give our character. The obvious way to get going with this is to think of something that has something to do with what they are famous for. For example, knights are famous for their armor and swords. We might want to give them a famous sword or armor. They might also have a horse that was particularly large, fearsome, or followed their commands or was particularly loyal to them, or which simply survived through a great number of adventures that they went on. A famous horse or steed is certainly one of the options we can do if we are looking for more than one thing. In this case, you can have the famous horse and sword.
In science fiction it might be a spaceship like the Millennium Falcon in Star Wars. Or it might be a laser gun. It depends what kind of gun you’re going to use in your world.
The trick to these weapons is to make them distinctive in some way. And the best bet there is to make it capable of doing something that most similar weapons are not capable of doing. For example, let’s say you got a laser gun that eventually runs out of charge or does so relatively quickly. Your character could have one that never does so. However, as cool features go, this one is not that exciting. Well, what if this one shoots around corners? Well, that’s a little bit ridiculous, but you get the idea. You want to do something unique with this item.
The example of Thor’s hammer is a weapon that can be thrown and returned to its owner. It is also so heavy that no one else can lift it. That brings to mind Excalibur, the sword that no one could pull out of the rock. This brings up another point that these items can be famous because of how they were acquired. That could be one of the reasons anyway. Some of you may remember that in the Star Wars universe, the Millennium Falcon was given to Han Solo during a bet that he won. However, that is just an interesting tidbit about the ship. It’s not the reason that it’s famous. It’s mostly that it’s associated with Harrison Ford’s character.
This brings up another point that this particular ship is one that’s known for its ricketiness. It has its issues. They have to kick it. They’ve got a do things to it to make it work the way it’s supposed to. It’s a beloved ship but it’s got its problems and this is one way to make it famous for our characters because it acquires personality through these flaws.
This leads to an important distinction however. This particular ship is not really famous in the Star Wars universe so much as it is famous here on Earth. This is a subtle difference. The ship also brings up the idea of a broken item. One thing I’m thinking of here is of a sword that has been broken. In The Lord of the Rings, there’s a famous sword that has been broken and eventually becomes whole again. This is a momentous event.
In science fiction, we could have a weapon that is no longer powered for whatever reason, and the power source is something that’s rare for is assumed gone, and we might have a storyline where someone tries to recover this weapon and make it work again.
Earlier we talked about a character still being alive or possibly being imprisoned, or even being dead. In all cases, the question remains: what happens to their famous items? If they are buried with it, that could explain why they are buried in an out-of-the-way place. Do people seek them out in an effort to take that item and use it for their own purposes? Did the famous character know that this was a possibility and have they taken steps to safeguard this item? Did they give it to a younger person who is now the one going out and doing things? Do they spread a rumor that it is broken or lost? We have lots of options for creating an interesting item for our character.
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Our final subject for today will be about the world figure’s relationships. This is another way to make them much more interesting. However, it is once again something to do only if we think we will use the setting more often and have the opportunity to mention these details. The kinds of relationship that we can create are the typical ones for everyone: parents, siblings, lovers, and children. There’s also the entire extended family. But we really don’t want to go into that kind of detail in most cases.
Something to consider is whether the world figure and the family are basically of the same disposition about things. Using the oversimplification of good versus evil, if we’re creating a villain, well, is the whole family evil, or is this person the black sheep? By contrast, if the character is a hero, is the rest of the family okay with that or do they have problems with the status this person has acquired? Do they have more traditional resentments that family might have out of jealousy? Is the entire family prone to heroism?
In most cases, we’re not going to want to go with yes. In other words, we’re not going to want to have a hero character who has a heroic family, and a villain character who comes from an evil family. It’s just too simple. And it doesn’t really matter what kind of family we’re talking about, whether those are the parents or the children, the question is still going to come up: what do the family members think of this character?
What we’re really after here is whether family is proud of them or ashamed of them. If there ashamed, and they’re all sharing the last name, and that last name is distinctive like Skywalker, for example, then do they change their name? Do they try to live anonymously? Do they try to disavow this person and just not be associated with them? Are they mad that this person brings shame on their name or that they are experiencing guilt by association?
By contrast, if the character was a hero and went around destroying all sorts of bad guys, well then are those bad guys or their relatives or henchmen trying to get back at that hero? And if they can’t find the hero, do they decide to go after family members instead? This is especially attractive if that hero is no longer around but revenge is still desired. If you can’t take it out on the hero because they are dead and desecrating the corpses isn’t enough, for example, then maybe you go after the family members.
This might result in a family going into hiding. The family might also have powerful friends if that hero had powerful friends who are now taking care of the family as a result of this. This could cause another heroic character who was friends with that hero to feel an obligation to protect his fallen friend’s family.
We were talking earlier about having a main character like our knight Kier referencing a long dead character like Lord Vallen. Well, what if Lord Vallen was actually a relative who is now long gone? It could have been several generations earlier. Kier might be expected to live up to that example and not appreciate this. He might feel pressure. He might not even want to be a knight but is forced into this.
Another thing we should keep in mind is what this character’s relationship was like with different species. He might’ve been a hero to the elves but a villain to the dwarves. This will go back to the events that made this character famous. Or at least, that’s one way of going about creating this sort of dynamic. Did this character save the elves but in doing so, doomed the dwarves? Traditionally, we see elves and dwarves as mostly being on the same side of conflicts, so it might be that the elves and dwarves thinks he’s a hero, and many humans do, but that the goblins and ogres of the world do not. This is a little bit more obvious and is probably even expected, which is why we might want to do something a little more interesting.
We’ve already talked about their demise, so let’s talk a little bit about their origins. It can sometimes help to have decided that the character is from another continent, or on other planets in science fiction. This might give them a set of characteristics or behaviors that are markedly different from the place where they became famous. This might even be part of why they’re famous. This can also apply to their appearance. For example, if everyone is raven-haired and has brown eyes, but this character is from a place where people were blonde and blue-eyed, then this appearance might be one of the reasons they are famous.
If we have decided that they are from somewhere far away, we should try to figure out why they came to where they became famous. We don’t need an elaborate reason because in science fiction and fantasy, we often have characters who are traveling for adventure or something a little more intelligent than just saying they wanted some big adventure. They may have been driven out, or they may be seeking a better life for themselves.
Something that I talk about in the book but that I’m not going to cover in this podcast is the training this person might have received, and the skills that they could’ve picked up either in that training or along the way. This is one way to justify the abilities they have and which are on display in our work. In the book, I also give guidance on where to start. Creating world figures can add an interesting element to our world and is something that you can do at any time.
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