developing plot through world-building

I had a minipiphany (mini-epiphany) today while doing some world-building for my current project. I discovered that world-building can lead to plot development. I have a habit of creating worlds and characters I love but being unable to figure out any interesting plots in which to use them. There was no objective for my character to work toward and no conflict in their way. Today I finally started jotting down the world-building ideas that had been rattling around in my head for days, and it lead to a eureka plot moment. I know the conflict! I know the goal! My character has something to DO.

How did this eureka moment happen? Here’s the scene. My current project is a Science Fiction children’s book, either elementary or high school target audience. The protagonist’s country is very regulated in a way that emphasizes health and social adjustment for all as well as social and federal pressure to be charitable. I open up Notepad, just a blank text file, and start a bullet list of ideas. Simple things like “there are set pay grades across all jobs with higher grades for skilled positions” and “if an individual reports income of $1 million or more, they are taxed at 50%.” Then I expand upon the idea:

  • How does the majority feel about it?
  • How does it help people?
  • How does it hurt people?
  • How do people get around it?
  • Who makes sure it even happens?
  • How does it affect my character or her family?

I just write down what comes quickly and try not to get stuck on one idea or question. Can’t think of anything else to support that idea? Causing too many problems? Move on to the next bullet point. As I expand on a point, it often generates new ideas. An example: The government wants to ensure well-adjusted adults. Their studies show this starts with well-developed children with stable family units. So the government regulates many aspects of raising and educating children, including incentivizing family time. Then I have to figure out how this is tracked, and I end up with children all receiving a Fitbit-like device that Child Services requires be worn at all times. It allows children to be located when lost (or kidnapped) and verifies their vitals remain within normal ranges. If vitals are excessively unusual, the child’s health (including possible abuse) is investigated. If the tracker is removed (no vitals reported) for more than three hours, a flag is raised as it’s possible that an adult has removed the device for nefarious purposes. So now I have a way in which my world affects my young protagonist. Thin bracelet on her wrist, may or may not become significant in this or another story. It provides background flavor for my world.

As for the actual conflict that drives my plot, one of these bullet points expanded into a coveted government-issued business license. Others might want to destroy the current license-holders so that they could take over (greed, power, common motivators for being a baddie). Perhaps a schoolmate’s family is the victim in this situation. The protagonist helps to identify the problem and [hopefully] solve it. Determine there are baddies. Find baddies. Deliver baddies to justice. This fits my vision for my story, which is Nancy Drew meets Isaac Asimov meets Sweet Valley High (with less drama). And yes, there’s a robot sidekick.

This experience made me realize that I can dream up all of the worlds and characters I want, but until I know how the two interact, it’s difficult to develop a plot for them. Since world-building is what I treasure in stories, it seems natural for me to start there. I love to see how a world develops the characters into what they are. In Peter F. Hamilton’s Commonwealth Series, Paulo Myo is born in a society in which people are genetically engineered to be most compatible with the role society wants them to play. Unfortunately, she’s so good at her role that it destroys her family. She leaves that planet, but her genetic engineering, her backstory, affects her strongly, both mentally and physically. The world-building turned her into who she is. Without Huxley’s Haven, there’s no Paula Myo.

I have had so many world-building + character – plot = ? situations over the years, including my first and only NaNoWriMo in which I became mired in the middle of my book and couldn’t figure out what my characters should be doing. They wandered around to various events that didn’t lead anywhere. I realize now that my NaNoWriMo plot kept changing and it caused my world to become unstable. The new ideas weren’t possible within the existing framework. How could my characters get from A to B if they existed in different worlds? I was stuck with wanting a certain plot to happen in a world in which it couldn’t logically exist. Not without the kind of character stupidity that I despise.

I need to flesh out at least one element of the equation, whether it be world or plot or character, and let that lead the development of the other elements. I could never really decide on the plot for that NaNoWriMo story, similar to today’s project. If my characters and plot are derived from my world, then they must change as my world changes. And vice versa. Not an easy task, but I feel like I’ve made progress today. I think my equation has changed to world-building = character + plot. Can it go the other way for me? Maybe. That’s a project for another day.

What do you think your writing equation is? Do you usually flesh out your character, plot, or world first? And how does it create or change the other elements of your story?


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