SF World Building – Internal Method

This is a continuation from last week’s post.  We talked about external world building with a speculative fiction example.  Today we’ll dig into the internal method.

Internal world building springs from character and story. The world is determined after the writer establishes their primary characters and main conflicts.  This is not how I usually work.  Even though I primarily write character driven stories, I find it easier to have worlds with ready-made conflicts to hang interesting characters from. It will be an experiment.

Because I’m a visual person, when I get a character stuck in my head, it’s usually because I’ve seen someone or something and can’t help but imagine the backstory.  Recently, I found a bent Saint Christopher medal buried in the dirt at the base of a sheer rock-face.  It’s one of those items I just can’t get out of my mind. Let’s see what we can make of it.

The Experiment

What kind of person owed this busted up old Saint Christoper medal and what happened in their life that it ended up at the base of this cliff?

Well, they were obviously Catholic.

Obviously. But they weren’t when they lost the medal. They were wearing it out of habit or … maybe they found it again after a long time.

Saint Christopher is the patron saint of athletes, travelers, bookbinders and surfers.

Thanks, un-bold Mike.  Patron Saints have some really wacky patrons.  Bookbinders? For real? 

Well, this character- is it a man or a woman? Did they get the medal when they were a kid?

Nice. Way to be a cis-gendered douche un-bold Mike. Just for that, we’re going gender neutral on this character and, yes, they did get the medal when they were young. Let’s say at their first holy communion.

I’m not a douche, jackwagon. I’m chill with gender neutral. Is this something they’ve known from childhood? Maybe we should think about childhood.

Nice. Chill? Good use of the kids lingo ya werido. It’s creepy when old guys do that so just stop. Where was I? Oh yeah. Childhood. Let’s say biologically female but never identified strongly with one or the other for as long as they remember. Their mother is a very proper woman though. Dad was indulgent. He was their pal.

So this is in a time and place where gender neutral is acceptable?

Hold your pickles there bold-less. We’re not doing time and place yet, remember? Character creation first.  Let’s flesh out childhood first. What are Summer’s three defining moments?

Defining moments?

Every character has them in their childhood. These milepost moments that set up their misbelief. And before you ask, every protagonist has a misbelief in my stories. It’s the thing they believe is true but they’re totally wrong.  It’s the electricity that powers the emotional plot and the reason why they make bad, bad decisions. 

Let’s go with the obvious first. Their dad dies.  The dad always dies.

What does he die from? Knowing you, it’ll likely be gruesome.

Not this time. He dies of something natural. Disease, heart attack. I’ll figure it out later. It’s sudden though and not expected and Summer is ten-years-old at the time.  They’re old enough to remember him but not old enough to take any control of their own life. The next defining moment is Summer’s mother takes a lover.

The protagonist’s name is Summer?

Yes. It’s a placeholder. Work with me. I’m trying to put some flesh on the bones here. Summer’s mother in too trusting and she falls for a con man. When the Dad dies, he left them pretty well off. The family is not aristocratic or anything, just well off-maybe a skilled tradesman or artisan. 

How about a bookbinder?

Maybe. It’s better than a surfer. Yeah. Let’s work with that. The last defining moment in Summer’s childhood is than the con man takes them for everything and racks up lots of debt in the mother’s name. Then mom dies and on her deathbed she makes Summer promise to take revenge on the man. Our story will start after Summer is an adult. They have spent time in whatever government system (or not) exists in the time and place-orphanage, foster care, workhouse and have been hardened to the low life. Summer has worked in the performing arts and can move back and forth between genders easily. Maybe disguise is their superpower. 

Okay. So we’ve got a classic revenge story. You’ve created Summer’s backstory and added a bunch of childhood trauma. What about the misbelief?

The obvious one would be that Summer believe that they can’t move on with life until they take revenge on Mister Bad Guy.  They don’t make friends or put down roots in their single-minded search for Mr. BG.  Let’s stick with that for the sake of time.

Okay, but we still haven’t done any worldbuilding. What kind of place and time has the Catholic Church and  bookbinding as a lucrative trade?

If I were doing this for real, I’d probably continue on with character creation and flesh out Mr. BG as the antagonist. I’d also keep going with Summer and do a full character interview to get a feel for voice and personality. But since boldless Mike is running out of steam we’ll fast forward. 

We’re getting there.  The first thing that pops into my head is 15th century Italy-the renaissance, spice trade and Medici politics. But that seems like a lot of research. I don’t know anything about that period.


Hey! Shut it. Since it’s me, I’m also thinking about an ultra-Gothic future. It’s all grim-dark and filled with a similar political situation as 15th century Italy. Maybe that society could represent the inevitable end point of the rising income inequality today. Business owners are the new aristocrats and they’ve modeled their world on dark ages Europe. Summer’s father employed scribes because all of the new lords and ladies want paper books that have been hand-written.  Bookbinding becomes a viable trade for an artisan again due to the excesses of the ultra rich. 

I’d still have to do some research on the pre-Renaissance Dark Ages and nail down the vibe I’m looking fir, but I could also do a lot of hand-waving because – future!

The nice addition with for this method of creation is that we’ve got a good feel for the external plot. Going back to the bent Saint Christoper medal, we know that one of the major beats of our story will be a physical confrontation at the top of a cliff when Summer loses the necklace.

Wrap Up

All and all, the Mike’s didn’t do too bad. This story feels like it’s been done before so if I were going to explore this more I’d go back and not select the most obvious defining moments. The rule I’ve heard is use your third thought and discard your first two because they’re the obvious ones. That should make it feel fresh to you (and others) and keep your interest as you write the first draft.

The internal worldbuilding exercise highlights that I haven’t dug deeply enough into character creation. Thankfully, that’s fuel for another post.


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