World-Building and Psychology

World-Building and Psychology
May 12, 2017 No Comments » Writing Advice Stacy Overby

Did you know there is quite a bit of psychology that goes into world-building? Or at least there should be. What often comes to mind first in world-building is the physical environment, right? Then things like clothes, food, some cultural elements, and different races/peoples. Hopefully, you’re nodding your head agreeing with all of this so far. Sometimes, though, we forget about a few psychological aspects of world-building. After all, people live in that beautiful world you’re creating. Therefore, psychology goes along with it. Here are a few ideas for you to consider as you are building your world.

Social Structure

To be fair, you may have already reflected on this aspect of world-building. But, did you take it far enough? This is one of those areas we tend to write what we know. Authors who come from strong matriarchal societies may tend to reflect that in their writing. Vice versa can also hold true for authors from strong patriarchal societies. What if you turned a typical social structure like this on its ear so that only children rule and parents obey? Or what if there are more than two distinct genders in your world, which changes this structure? We see examples of this in our world, like some Native American tribes believing in multiple genders, not just the two we tend to stick with here in the US. Challenge yourself with this, though. And, yes, this can even hold true in places like historical fiction, because the history books are not always going to tell us everything, especially when those who are writing the history books do not agree/support/like what the non-dominant groups are doing.

Social Norms and Values

Have you ever stopped to examine your values? How about how well they match up and support the social norms around you? Maybe you’re not even sure what these are. Values are the easier of the two to see here. They’re the things we have faith in. For example, family or love. If those are our values, then our actions should be consistent with supporting these values. There are great possibilities for conflict in a story when the characters’ values and actions do not mesh. Take a look at your story. Have you imposed your values on your characters, or did they developed them on their own?

The same goes for social norms. These are the unspoken rules existing in a particular society, even when that society is a group of five people. For example, here in the US, when someone gets on an elevator, the first thing the person does is turn around to face the door. Why do we do that? It’s not like we’ll get in trouble for standing facing the back of the elevator, but we still do it. Try getting on an elevator some time and deliberately not turning around. Watch the reactions of the people around you and you will see evidence of that social norm. Now, how you can incorporate things like this in your story. What are the social norms for your setting, be it a historical fiction piece or a hard-core science fiction piece? What happens if someone violates a social norm?

“Human” Development

Finally, contemplate how the characters in your story grow up into adult figures. I would guess many authors do not pay much attention to this aspect of world-building, at least not very much. Yet, by looking at the lifespan of your characters can help you create more realistic and engaging characters. This is because we are products of our entire lives. The things we did as children influence decisions we make as adults. Sometimes it is having a child young, or someone close died, or parents divorced, or many other things. All of it influences who we are in the present moment, which means these things continue to affect our decisions long after they are over. Again, genre does not matter as much as you would think here. Your characters had lives prior to the start of your story, which means the choices and actions they take in your story are affected by that life. Let that influence show.

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The more we can think of our characters as people living in a world we constructed for them, the clearer and more engaging the world becomes for the reader. I have seen, and have been guilty of, using social structures, norms, and developmental patterns that mirror present day society. I challenge you to take the questions and ideas here and turn your world-building on its ear. Just as Slartibartfast did in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, throw all the “rules” out when you’re building your worlds and create characters and societies that fit that world, not the one we live in here.

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Stacy Overby Stacy Overby works as a substance abuse counselor for teenage boys by day and a writer by night. Her day job provides inspiration for many of her stories including her short stories "The Trial of Summer," "Karma Incarnate," and "Only Emma" released in 2016. She also has several pieces featured in OWS Inked, an up and coming literary journal. Her favorite writing genres range from high fantasy to dark urban fantasy, and an occasional speculative fiction or science fiction piece thrown in. When not at work or writing, she is playing with her son, hiking, camping, or involved in other outdoor activities – as long as it is not too cold.

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