Creative Intersections: Point of View and Worldbuilding


Let me start by wishing all of you a happy 2013 filled with challenges, successes, and new creative endeavors.  I also want to comment on something Misty said last week — the whole “whatever you do on New Year’s Day is what you’ll do throughout the year” thing.  I spent New Year’s Day dealing with a mild case of food poisoning, so I’m really hoping that Misty’s got that one wrong.  Nothing personal, Darlin’; I just have other plans for 2013.

I usually use my first post of the year to write about goals for the coming months — things I want to accomplish, improve upon, etc.  But it seems to me that my last several of these New Year’s posts have been pretty much the same.  So let me just say for the record that I plan to work hard this year; that I plan to promote the second Thieftaker book, Thieves’ Quarry (to be released by Tor in July) with every ounce of energy I can muster; that I will do my best to make the next installment in the series, City of Shades, which I am just about to start writing, as good as it can be; and that I will also be devoting time to a few other projects and maybe even making my first forays into self-publishing.

Finally, I plan to try a few new things here at MW, beginning with today’s post.  I’ve been thinking that it might be interesting to try a new series of posts throughout the year — “Creative Intersections” — that will combine seemingly disparate concepts we’ve worked on previously, hopefully in innovative ways that will get us all thinking fresh about old issues.  And I thought I would start with a piece that builds on the series of Worldbuilding posts with which I closed out 2012 (first, second, third).  

In discussing worldbuilding and data dumps in the final post, I mentioned that when we present worldbuilding information it is crucial that we remain true to character voice and point of view.  And so that’s the intersection I’d like to focus on now:  Worldbuilding and Point of View.

One of the questions that comes up again and again in dealing with worldbuilding is how do we present necessary information — background, history, religions, politics, myths, etc. — in ways that not only avoid data dumps but also feel natural, unforced, free of contrivance.  And part of the answer lies in remaining true to character point of view.  I’m not going to go back over the rudiments of POV; you can find those in some of the previous POV posts.  But just as a reminder, point of view is the character perspective from which we relate our narratives, the voice with which we establish plot, setting, and everything else of importance to our readers.

So, in what way does point of view help us decide when and how to mete out worldbuilding information?  Well, we’re not just telling a story through the eyes of a character (or several characters); we are, in effect, inside the minds of our point of view characters.  We are relating their thoughts, their emotions, their priorities.  And if we find ourselves giving out information about the world that has no direct bearing on our POV character’s needs or emotions or thoughts in that precise moment, we are no longer being true to the character.

For instance, say our female warrior POV character has just been attacked by hordes of machete wielding giant hamsters, and she pulls out her sword to defend herself.  This is probably not the time to tell readers that her sword once belonged to her Grandpa Yipyap and is a curved Frlk’blechen blade, forged in the fires of the Frlk’blechen Lava Swamps out of special purple-hued metal mined in the high mountains of WhizzyDoodleLand.  The sword might be all of those things and more.  But she wouldn’t be thinking about that just now.  Later, when she’s polishing the blade, wiping away the giant hamster blood and noticing a new notch near the hilt, we can tell our readers all we want about the sword, about the Lava Swamps, about the crazed gerbil tribes that inhabit the high mountains, and about beloved Grandpa Yipyap (assuming that the information is going to be vital to readers’ understanding of the novel at some point in the later chapters).  But in that moment, all she cares about — and, thus, all our readers should care about — is how she is going to carve up the oversized rodents.

On the other hand, when our POV character is traveling on horseback (or giant-hamsterback) crossing a part of the landscape that plays an important part in the history of our land, that might be a very good time to reflect on some crucial background.  In other words, context is key.  As we are writing from the point of view of our lead character or characters, we should put ourselves in their shoes.  We should consider what might be going through their minds.  Not what is convenient for them to ponder from our perspective as the author, but what is likely to be occupying their thoughts.  POV is an exercise in empathy, in feeling what our characters are feeling, thinking what they are thinking.  And that sense of empathy should dictate what elements of our world they are conveying to our readers at any given time.

In the same way, if our POV character and her best friend are talking about the political situation in Frlk’blechen, they should do so in terms that assume basic knowledge of that situation.  They would not remind each other of things that they ought to know as sentient members of society.  If our POV character’s name is, say, Faith, and her best friend is, say, Misty, we would not want Faith saying, “Boy, Misty, I sure am relieved to know that the two predominant political parties in our bicameral national legislature managed to reach a budgetary agreement to avoid the automatic cuts and tax hikes set to take effect just a few days ago.”  Rather, we would have her say, “Well, thank God Congressional Democrats and Republicans got their crap together long enough to avoid the fiscal cliff.”

Will our readers know exactly what that means?  Probably not immediately.  But as the conversation continues in this vein, they will pick up the salient facts, and we will not have to sacrifice verisimilitude, or narrative flow, or good dialog to get the information across.  

When we think about things in our daily lives, we rarely pause to explain them to ourselves.  When we have conversations, we don’t usually give our companions civics lessons (or if we do, we wind up spending a lot of time wondering why we’re always alone . . .).  Our characters shouldn’t do these things either.  Yes, it is important that our readers understand our worlds.  But the truth is that our characters are our windows to those worlds.  Without explaining things — just by living in the world, interacting with it, experiencing its sights, sounds, smells, etc. — they communicate lots about the setting to our readers.  And they do so naturally, without the awkward moments that come from telling readers too much.

So there it is:  the first of my “Creative Intersections” posts.  What questions do you have about POV and worldbuilding?  And what future “Intersections” would you like to read about?

David B. Coe

25 comments to Creative Intersections: Point of View and Worldbuilding

  • I realized on a re-read back when someone told me there was too much exposition in the beginning of my story that I had fallen into that trap. It was all relevant info that the character would possibly think about, but not in the middle of a fight. I ended up reworking it to push much of that into later parts where it made more sense, leaving just the minimum I needed to give to the reader, and it improved the flow tremendously. Now I make a conscious effort to look for those places where I accidentally stray into neutral narration.

    Here’s a question, do you, or others, find it easier to keep closer to the relevant info in a character’s mind in first person, or does it matter? I find first person more conversational and it seems a little easier to keep within POV and “keep their thoughts as pure as the water.” (sorry, watched The Golden Child recently 😉 ).

  • One of the most helpful comments I’ve received was “don’t let your world-building show.” Think of world-building as your underpants. You know it’s there, everyone knows it’s there, but it’s best that it’s never seen. Whenever I’m reading back through a piece I try to ask myself if I’m putting my boxers in the breeze, so to speak, and letting my world-building be apparent. If so, then I try to hide it in dialogue and break it up through small chunks of exposition. Nice series, David, looking forward to more of it!

  • Rhonda

    Another part that I try to keep in mind is: what does the POV character actually have a reason to know? Either by educational background or simple interest, there are some things they simply won’t know or won’t have reason to go find out that may need to be conveyed to the reader.

  • Daniel, it’s an easy trap to fall into, and one that I’ve had to correct on many, many occasions. I do find that the conversational tone of first person can help with this. But Thieftaker is close third, and I’ve managed to get deep enough into Ethan’s head that it feels much life first person. In a way, multiple third is easiest for me in this regard, because there is always SOMEONE who knows all the stuff the readers need to be told. Narrowing the POV characters to one definitely makes it much harder to convey all the necessary information.

    John, I love the underwear metaphor — works perfectly. Thanks for the comment, and happy New Year, my friend.

    Rhonda, yes, that’s the other side of this. It’s not just what would the POV character think about, it’s also a matter of access to knowledge and information. Great point, thanks.

  • sagablessed

    What about splitting POV? My current WIP is split between three POV’s. I think it works, save getting into the teen-girl character’s head.
    Any suggestions on how to get in a character’s head, other than the visual?

  • I love the idea of “intersections” regarding craft. I also love your statement about POV being an exercise in empathy – that one phrase sums up just about everything I know about character development, POV, worldbuilding, and infodumps. I spent a lot of the week between Christmas and New Year’s watching THE TUDORS, which is fun in a silly way, but which has some huge, glaring storytelling problems (along with huge, even more glaring historical accuracy problems.) One of the most annoying repeated problems is Henry VIII saying things like, “Greetings, Lord So-and-So. I present to you my daughter Mary, who was the daughter of Catherine of Aragon, my first wife.” Um. Yeah. Anyone at court would know *all* of that, and Henry wouldn’t be dwelling on any of it! Thanks for a great new year’s post!

  • David, I started laughing in your *for instance* para, and by the time I got to WhizzyDoodleLand, I was crying with laughter. I’ll pay to read that story! (wiping eyes) Still laughing.

    Excellent post. I agree with Mindy — that empathy line was lovely and at the heart of what we try to teach and share at MW. I am totally stealing it, Dude.

    And I am so sorry about the food poisoning. Yeah. None of that for the next 12 months.

  • Ken

    This is a great post David. It’s something that I’ll now have to go back and check for. I may have avoided that trap, thinking back on the stuff I’ve written today (scant moments before lunch and sitting down to MW…2013= A BIC year :))

    I’m really digging the “Intersecting” idea. We’ve all got out strengths and weaknesses and it’s easy to lose sight of the idea that its all connected. Looking forward to the next post.

    Sorry about the food poisoning. That sucks. I’m going into day 4 in my fight against Captain Tripps myself. Here’s to a speedy recovery.

    Heh…riding hamsterback.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    First, I’d just like to agree with your sentiment concerning Misty’s post. As happy and positive a post it was, *I* injured my back that day and spent half of it lying on the floor with an ice-pack, so…yeah.

    On to POV & worldbuilding: So, this is primarily a POV question (sorry), but what are your thoughts on the amount of latitude allowed with POV during character introductions? When we introduce a character, we want to give a clear, if incomplete, picture to our readers that may often include information that is *way* below thought level for the character. At the same time, if the world is substantially different from our own, some of that non-thinking info may be some of the most crucial stuff for our reader to know early.

    For example: the last snippet I posted, you commented that saying “the girl” broke POV because the character would not think of herself that way. And it was a great comment, because there was definitely something awkward going on in the paragraph and you pinned down for me what it was. And I was able to implement your suggestion easily because shortly thereafter she looks around at the other girls in the room with her and that context makes it clear where things stand. But if I had not had the presence of those other girls to rely on, things would have been tricky. Because in this world *of course* only girls go through this ceremony, but it’s kind of a hard-core ceremony and for the reader it makes a big difference whether we’re talking about a girl or a woman. (though I would note that in this case the character no longer thinks of herself as a child, but only just…)

    Sorry to babble. Any comments helpful, and thanks for the interesting post!

    Oh, and any intersections involving Plot on the one axis would be totally awesome for me. 😀

  • Donald, everything that I say in this post applies to split POV as well as single POV. We always want to be true to the character from whose perspective we’re writing, whether we have 1 POV character or 21. As to how we get inside our characters’ thoughts, that comes with getting to know our characters, figuring out their pasts, their hopes and dreams, their faults and strengths. The things that matter to that teenage girl will be different from what matters to her grandfather. And while I don’t model characters after people I know, I certainly learn from my interactions with the people in my life, figuring out what makes them tick, so that I can use the same skills to figure out what makes my characters tick.

    Mindy, thanks. Glad the empathy statement worked for you. I’ve often said that the same skills I use as a friend, I also use as a writer, and I think it’s probably the key to everything I do with my characters. And yes, that story about Henry is exactly what I’m talking about. Convenient for the author, but out of character.

    Faith, glad you liked that paragraph. I was thinking of you and Misty as I wrote it (hence the next graph, where I used your names).

    Ken, thank you. I like the idea of the intersections, too. Sometimes it’s hard to keep these posts fresh, for me as well as for those who read them. But I’m excited about this idea.

    Hep, I hope your back is better! I have a chronically bad back, and know how that pain can be. Thanks for the question. I think that even in character introductions, we have to be careful, although you’re right that there are certain things we simply have to tell our readers. In the Thieftaker books for instance, every time Ethan casts a spell, the ghost of an ancient ancestor appears to help him access his power. Most of the time, I can pass this off with a “Uncle Reg winked into view,” or some such. But the first time it happens I have to explain it. I can’t ignore it, because then part of the magic system is left out, and I can’t just say that suddenly there was a ghost standing there without making it clear why he has come and where he came from. So that sort of thing sometimes just has to be laid out in as efficient a way as possible. But by the same token, we use context to make the explanation a bit more natural. Sometimes Reg’s appearance adds levity to the situation, and so I play up the slightly adversarial nature of Ethan’s relationship with the ghost. Sometimes his appearance adds to the ambiance, making things creepier, more sinister, and so I concentrate on a physical description of the ghost. There are, in short, ways to make these necessary explanations a bit less intrusive than they might otherwise be. Does that help at all?

  • Nathan Elberg

    What if Misty & Faith were riding their hamsters after the battle and Faith says “Thank God they didn’t go over the cliff.” Misty looks at her and says “What are you talking about?”
    I find that in non-fictional life, people make statements out of context, omitting details, leaving others to fill in the blanks. The others, not wanting to look stupid, may simply nod their heads in agreement, because they suspect they should have known. When I’m reading fiction, I sometimes have to turn back pages to find the answer to “What are you talking about?” It’s not necessarily bad when I can’t find the answer because real life is confusing. It doesn’t have to make sense, like fiction does (I forget who I’m paraphrasing).
    Not only does a writer have to avoid info-dumps, but he has to emulate normal conversation and behavior when giving information.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Yes, thank you, my back is better (yay!). And your comment about linking extra info to the current ambiance is super helpful. I am *definitely* going to have to keep that in mind when I’m writing. Thank you very much!

  • Nathan, thanks for the comment. You’re paraphrasing Tom Clancy, and while I agree with you to a point, I think I would amend your last statement by saying that fictional conversations should emulate normal conversations as we would like them to be. Frankly, as a writer, I don’t want you having to go back several pages to check on what is being discussed. That means that the forward momentum of my storytelling has stalled, and in my view that means that I have failed in that particular passage. Conversations should sound natural, even colloquial if that’s appropriate, but they should be clear, easy to follow, and far more direct than normal conversations usually are. In my opinion, the corollary to Clancy’s statement — “The difference between fiction and real life is that fiction has to make sense.” — is this: the difference between fictional characters and real people is that fictional characters need to be clear and succinct.

    Hep, glad to hear it! And glad to help.

  • One of the worst examples of this I’ve ever encountered is a particular (nameless) author who sets their novels in Australia, and regardless of the characters, always takes a moment to wax poetic about the particular part of Australia the novel is set in. It feels like they have a desperate need to pause and switch from being a story to a travel guide. Yes, it’s pretty, but I don’t need it for the story, and it feels like filler in *place* of the story.

    I really like the idea of bringing concepts together. I think it deepens the learning experience, so I’m very interested in the connections you make, David.

  • Sorry for the bad tummy, David! Glad to hear it wasn’t anything worse!

    A science fiction writer once said, “I don’t know how phones or cars work, so why should my space-faring swash-buckler know how his ray-gun or communicator works?” That comment applies to world building of any kind, and how the writer conveys information to the reader.
    I, as the author and creator of a world, magic system, political/religious/social structure, need to know all the ooey-gooey innard stuff. My characters, and hence, my readers, don’t.

  • But Nathan, I always charge into battle on a couple of armadillos strapped to my feet. 😀

    David, I think you’re allowed a little freedom with the whole what-you-do-on-New-Year’s superstition. Otherwise I’d be spending 2013 in jammies and slippers without a stitch of makeup on my face. Yeah, not happening.

  • Razziecat

    This is a great post, and something I really find hard to keep in mind. When I’m writing I tend to picture everything as one big scene, kind of like a camera panning over the room or the landscape. Even though the POV I’m using is not intended to be omniscient, it probably is, more often than I’d like to admit. So I’m setting myself a new rule: Before I begin to write a scene, I’ll sit back and ask myself what my POV character would be most likely to notice, most likely to react to, and most likely to be thinking about. And I’ll re-read this post, too. 🙂

  • quillet

    I like saying “Frlk’blechen blade” out loud. Sounds kinda naughty. 😀 And on a similar note: from now on, when I see clumsy world-building, I’ll be tempted to chant, “I see London, I see France…”

    Aaaaaanyway. Like other commenters before me, I love your line about POV and empathy. I never thought of it that way before, but it’s so true — and a far more beautiful way to put it ~and~ think of it than “getting into a character’s head,” which sounds dry by comparison. I think this reinforces what Faith has been showing us about info-dumps, that it’s always better when filtered through a character’s thoughts and feelings.

    So I’d love any more intersections with character and/or POV. Pacing and POV? Description and POV? Oh, and I second Hepseba’s vote for any intersections involving Plot, too!

  • Echoing Faith and Mindy here. And I can totally picture that scene of Hamster destruction. I think you’ve got a story you need to write.

  • Thanks, Laura. Don’t know the author you’re referring to, but it does sound like that could be annoying. Glad you like the Intersections concept. Hope you enjoy the future posts.

    Lyn, thank you. I think the point you raise is a good one, to a point. Readers in our genre like to know how things work. They like to understand the tech or the magic, and so I do like to give as much info as I can, without creating narrative problems.

    Misty, that’s so funny, ‘cuz I didn’t wear any makeup that day either . . . [Ducks, runs away.]

    Razz, thank you. Glad you liked the post. And that is something all of us should think about as we begin new scenes. My editor needs to remind me about this stuff all the time.

    Quillet, it was hell to spell; I didn’t even try to pronounce it. The empathy thing is totally in keeping with Faith’s info-dump posts. Great point. Thanks for making that connection. And I’ll consider all of those future post ideas.

    Thanks, Di. I’m sure that Lucienne will be very excited to sell it . . .

  • wrybread

    “Frlk’blechen blade” sounds kinda like Yosemite Sam swearing at a sword, which is all kinds of awesome.

    Anyways, I’m liking this concept so far because linking World-Building, which I’ve always thought of as something exotic and limited to Epic Fantasy, with something as mundane as POV has made me realize that World-Building is something every writer has to do, regardless of where their work is set. My current WIP, a sort of dark Urban Fantasy/Sci-Fi, is set largely in a Public HIgh School in the 1990s, pretty much the most realistic and mundane setting imaginable. That being said, I still have World-Building to do. I need to establish my characters, their standing in the High School social structure, their relationships with each other, and what makes each of them tick, in one case what’s going to lead one of them down a very dark and violent path. Their world is utterly familiar, yet that very familiarity means that if I’m lazy in building up that world, it’ll show all the more glaringly. Staying true to a realistic POV for my main viewpoint characters and making sure that every interaction they have with their world doesn’t seem forced or out of place will help me build the familiar yet nostalgic world in which my characters live. I’m also going to have to try not to drop too many info-dumps and rely on snappy dialogue for my exposition, something which I’m very very gradually learning to do.

    And, to get back to the New Years’ topic, that’s what I’ll be doing for the first month or three of 2013.

  • Thanks for the comment, Wry. Your point is spot on: worldbuilding is something that every writer does whether s/he is creating an alternate fantasy world or setting a story in something as real as a 1990s high school or 1760s Boston. The point, as you say, is to create a place where our characters can grow fully into the people we want them to be, and where our readers can immerse themselves in all elements of our narrative without distraction.

  • I’d like to second everything everyone has said! And also add in one more request for intersections–conflict and worldbuilding. I’m finding more and more in my WIP that the conflicts between characters have roots in the history of the world in which they live, and finding the balance between showing conflict and explaining the cause of the conflict is tricky.

  • Thanks for the comment, SiSi, and also for the suggestion. Conflict and Worldbuilding. I’ll think about that one; I like the idea.

  • […] Misty Massey, Mindy Klasky, John Hartness, and Kalayna Price, among others. The post is called “Creative Intersections: Plot and Character Development,” and it continues my series of posts combining discussions of different aspects of writing. I hope […]